About two months ago, I, an adult man in graduate school, sat down to take the hardest test of my life. No, the test wasn’t compliments of Maury and no, my elementary school principal didn’t make any surprise discoveries in my file. It was a standardized test, complete with timed writing sections and bubble sheets, and it was the single most important element of my graduate education. Last week, the State of Iowa toasted my score because (sorry haters, but) I passed.
Graduate school is, traditionally, an environment for original research, creative thought, and years-long exploration of enormously complex niche interests. In other words, it’s the antithesis of the board-defined curriculum and rote application of standardized testing; the life of the mind instead of the life of the #2 pencil. Or is it? Most graduate students in the U.S. reached that station following a satisfactory performance on the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, or another acronym. For many of us, board and bar examinations of some variety await at the end of the tunnel. Despite the proliferation of thinkpieces about the educational faux pas of “teaching to the test,” standardized testing remains an important part of graduate school entry and, in many cases, exit.
By the time you read this, I’ll be a state-certified standardized test success story. But it wasn’t easy: being a graduate student meant I was several years removed from my last sealed Scantron form.
Below are my tips for shaking off the standardized test rust you’ve developed since the tenth grade.
Don’t overestimate yourself. Graduate students are, by definition, high achievers. We’re a smart bunch and just self-aware enough of that intelligence to be dangerous: our past academic success has a tendency to encourage confidence in our future academic success. Confidence is fine, but don’t let it lull you into overlooking something as seemingly mundane as a standardized test. Sure, your thesis might be a brilliant, original work, but that won’t get you off the hook of navigating the black-and-white world of algebra or sentence correction questions. Don’t succumb to graduate school hubris: this isn’t the tenth grade and whatever inherent future-grad-student intelligence we used to dominate ITBS won’t cut it on your graduate school exam of choice.
Use your community. For all of their alleged drawbacks, one of the great things about standardized tests is that literally thousands of people are having the exact same experience that you are having. Need a study strategy? Many organized test preparation classes exist. Unsure about how many layers to wear on test day? Hundreds of people ask that question on message boards every year. Fed up with mnemonics and trick questions? Take a night off with your equally fed up peers and blow off some steam. Many graduate students report at least some social isolation, but I’ve never felt closer to my classmates than enduring the identical shared pain of standardized testing.
Drill. Graduate work in all disciplines tends to be a slow-moving affair involving long-term goals. Spending four, five, or six years on a PhD isn’t considered an anomaly. A standardized test, on the other hand, involves a predetermined schedule with no flexibility or extensions. Athletic readers are probably already familiar with the concept of race-pace training - eventually you have to practice running at the speed you need to run during the race - and your test preparation should be similar. Taking a standardized test is an unnatural exercise, but the right practice techniques combat that. Be very strict with your stopwatch on practice tests (yes, you should take practice tests) to help your race pace feel natural on test day.
Prioritize your comfort. Ultimately, your performance on the test is the only thing that matters. I don’t mean to state the obvious but, no matter which test you’re taking, there are no points for martyrdom. Where possible, you should be willing to splurge on yourself when it will put you in a position to deliver your best performance. The scoring panel doesn’t care that you commuted two hours each morning to the test site instead of staying in the hotel next door. The Scantron machine won’t know that you used your cruddy, chewed-up old pencils instead of buying new sharp ones. I’m a big fan of student-specific budgeting, but all that goes out the window when everything is riding on one big test. If you’re having a hard time justifying test-related expenses that aren’t per se necessary, ask yourself why, if you wouldn’t cut corners on your study routine, you’d be willing to shortchange yourself in other forms of test preparation.
Let yourself off the hook. One of the reasons some students find standardized tests so challenging is the pressure of myriad professional and academic goals depending on a single score. In my recent experience taking the Uniform Bar Examination, failure would have been professionally catastrophic. If I had failed, I would have been unable to work as a lawyer, forced to admit I had essentially squandered the last three years, and, as the results are publicly posted, outed in front of my classmates, professors, employers, and anyone else with an internet connection as a big stupid dummy. Despite the nightmare fuel of knowing I could, despite my best efforts, still blow it, I was remarkably relaxed. I knew I could trust in my months of preparation leading up to the test, but even more comforting was the fact that I had secretly given myself permission to fail. Lest the UI College of Law ABA Accreditation Committee experience heart palpitations upon reading this, I don’t mean to say I didn’t have a healthy fear of and respect for the test. I merely acknowledged privately that, even if I turned in the choke job of the century, the Earth would keep spinning, I would wake up the next morning, and Maury would still be on the air. In short, even my most epic failure wouldn’t be the end of the world - a comforting notion when you’re looking down the barrel of a bubble sheet.
Got any good test tips? Anything you wish you knew before you took a standardized test? Let us know in the comments what helped you crush the GRE, conquer the MCAT, and slay the bar!