Illustration by Naeema Sageer.

Part II: Life after Saadiyat, Preventing Being Overwhelmed During the Graduate School Application Process

Standardized Testing: Choosing the right exam and how best to prepare, academically and emotionally

Mar 7, 2022

The end of the academic year draws closer and another cohort of students is preparing to become seniors come August. With capstone proposals to write and midterms to get through, it may be a bit difficult to start planning for graduate school applications. When starting to think about applying to grad school, one of the first steps you will take, after having decided to continue your education, will be choosing the kind of program you want to pursue.
Last week, we wrote about the process of deciding between applying to a master’s degree and a Ph.D.. Depending on your career plans, you might also be looking into a JD, M.D., or (especially if you have some work experience) an MBA program. Once you have an idea of what you want to do and, preferably also where you wish to study, it is useful to look into various standardized tests and think of several questions. Are you applying to programs which require any standardized tests? If so, which ones? Which test can be used for the broadest number of programs? This week’s contribution to the Academics Column seeks to help you think about these (and related) questions and better prepare for testing.
Graduate Record Examinations, also known as the GRE, is a standardized test often required by universities in the U.S. and U.K. for programs in various fields. It tests students’ abilities in three domains — verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning (mathematics) and analytical writing (two short essays). Certain programs may also require the Subject Test GRE, which is only available in four disciplines — chemistry, math, physics and psychology.
The Law School Admission Test, or the LSAT, is just what the name suggests — an exam for entry to JD study in the U.S. This exam consists of a multiple choice section and an essay section called LSAT Writing.
The Medical College Admission Test has a similarly intuitive name as its law school equivalent, and is a requirement for most medical programs in the U.S. In addition to these (and other similar) standardized tests, you may also need to provide proof of your English proficiency, if you are applying to a program in which the language of instruction is English.
After having checked which exam is required, it is time to start planning and preparing for test day. Some exams will take longer to study for than others, and some may not need you to go through much preparation at all. This is because some exams require familiarity with content which is already known to most university graduates, but what makes them challenging is their structure or the way that questions are phrased. Therefore, it is sometimes more about learning how to write this type of exam, rather than acquiring more specific knowledge. For other tests, however, such as the MCAT, students might need to buckle down and study, depending on their previous academic background. Creating a study plan can be very helpful. Consistency is key, and the number of hours per day and days per week that one should dedicate to preparing depends on previous practice, how much time is left until exam day and whether one is preparing during the academic year or over a break. Taking a practice test before starting to prepare can help assess one’s initial readiness for the exam and narrow down subjects of focus. Taking practice tests once in a while leading up to the exam can also help keep track of your progress over time and get you more used to the question format.
Finally, once the revision schedule is ready and the testing date has been selected, the final step is obtaining the appropriate study materials and guides. For some tests, such as the GRE or the LSAT, there are many available online resources, ranging from practice question sets or study books to short videos and online classes. Some materials are suitable for independent study, while others are guided, such as courses which span over several weeks, whether pre-recorded or live over Zoom. While some are paid, there are also official free and discounted resources available.
Overall, getting ready to take a standardized test is similar to studying for classes, in the way that different people have their own ways of preparing most successfully. Hopefully, however, some of the steps outlined in this piece can help. What is probably the most important thing to remember is not to be too harsh on oneself — retaking the exam is always an option, especially if you set the test date early enough. Finally, the test score is just one part of your entire application, not its defining feature.
Morgane Motlik is Senior Columns Editor. Email her at
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