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Everything You Need to Know About Standardized Testing

What this article covers:

Part 1: When and why the test matters

Before you panic (or read this whole article for no reason), be aware that not all graduate school applications require a standardized test. Your first step right now is to check if a standardized test is required by your target schools. If you’re looking at competitive schools, rest assured, standardized testing will be required. If your target school list spans several tiers, base your testing requirements on the highest standard.

If it appears that no test is required, feel free to read on and see what your less fortunate counterparts have to deal with! Where testing is required, we look next to which tests you might take. In some cases, you have a choice about which test to take (e.g., GMAT or GRE, IELTS or TOEFL). In other cases, as with the MCAT, you don’t. If you’re not sure which of two tests to take, and every target school on your list accepts both, we recommend taking the practice tests for each test to determine if you feel strongly either way.

How important is my score?

Tests are important. Intuitively, we know this. Standardized tests (e.g., GMAT, GRE, LSAT, MCAT, IELTS, and TOEFL) are critical evaluation tools used to screen candidates within the application process. But just how important are they? While standardized testing is just one element of the graduate school application, admissions committees have ample data on the correlation between standardized test scores and academic performance in graduate school, and they believe your score is relevant to the evaluation process. This means that you have to take it seriously if you want to be successful.

That said, one of the many ironies of life is that taking things too seriously can mess you up in a whole new way. Successful test-takers try to maintain perspective throughout the process so as not to become overwhelmed. Remember that the test is just one part of the graduate school application process, and that you will have many chances to influence the process’ outcome.

The standardized test will just help you get to the door of graduate school admissions, but the rest of the application will help you knock that door down! You shouldn’t be putting so much focus on the test that you don’t spend time researching schools, building a compelling story, and executing on your application. A median score is likely enough to get you where you need to go, so any additional time and energy invested in enhancing your test score will provide low returns. We will revisit the topic of what makes a good score and how well you need to perform towards the end of this article. For now, just remember: the test isn’t everything.

How does testing fit into the application process?

Most schools look at standardized test scores as a proxy for potential academic performance and general intellectual horsepower. Admissions committees will assess your main standardized test score, along with any specialized test scores and your college GPA, to determine your “academic acumen” as a candidate.

Once your academic acumen is established, it is then combined with two other factors (career history and demonstrated impact) to determine whether an offer of acceptance will be extended. How these three factors affect acceptance rates and where in the process they’re most relevant is outlined in The Graduate School Application Process. 

When does the test matters most?

Clearly, the standardized test is just a piece of a piece of the process. But there are some circumstances in which your score matters a lot more:

1. Your GPA is below average for your target school. GPA is based on a large body of work (four years’ worth), so it’s generally viewed by admissions committees as representative. That said, schools know that candidates are less mature in college, especially in the first few years, and that sometimes there are circumstances that result in a bad semester (like an illness or family emergency). At the very least, college is a bit of a culture shock for many students who are facing new challenges for the first time. There may be some leeway with respect to lower-than-average GPAs…if you have a good test score.

2. You went to a less well-known college. Maybe your GPA is solid, but the college you attended wasn’t an academic powerhouse or a brand-name school. In this case, a good test score will prove you’re up to snuff.

3. You have a non-traditional background. If you have a non-traditional undergraduate background relative to your intended graduate program (e.g., you majored in English and you’re applying for a Master’s in Public Health), schools may look more closely at your standardized test scores. Admissions committees use these scores, especially those from relevant sections or specialized tests (e.g., Quantitative Reasoning rather than Verbal Reasoning on the GMAT) to get a measure of your academic potential in this new field.

4. You’re a foreign student. If you went to an undergraduate institution outside of the country in which you are applying to graduate school, schools may be looking for demonstrated language proficiency. In English-speaking countries, schools often look for IELTS/TOEFL proficiency as an indicator of your ability to acclimate in an English-speaking academic environment.

5. You’re applying directly out of school. If you plan to move immediately from undergraduate school to graduate school, there isn’t much for an admissions committee to consider in your application outside of your academic performance and test scores. Compared to an MBA program, where applicants typically have several years of work experience under their belt already, any program that you apply to right out of school will place more emphasis on your test scores.

6. Your program or school places greater emphasis on the test. It’s an unfortunate reality that for some graduate degrees, standardized testing simply matters more in the application process. Typically, test importance follows this continuum from most to least important for program admission: MCAT, LSAT, GMAT, and GRE. This is by no means a cut and dry rule, however, and the importance of standardized testing can also vary between individual schools.

Want to learn more about the importance of each test? Click a link below.

About the GRE

About the GMAT

Part 2: Types of test-takers and Strategies that work

Why plan ahead?

Applicants manage testing, and the admissions process in general, in a broad range of ways. While some candidates are scheduling interviews and signing up for test dates more than a year in advance, some are pushing important items to the bottom of their to-do lists out of fear of failure. Still more aren’t worried about the test, and are still planning on winging it.
Before we get into what type of test-taker you might be and what strategies you should employ, we need to talk a little about why this detailed planning is even necessary. Applicants’ success on standardized testing will depend on the quality of their planning and their ability to manage stress. Taking a thoughtful, structured approach to the test-taking process matters because obtaining the right test score (or not) has a profound effect on everything downstream in the application process. For example, you score will greatly impact the answers to these critical questions:
  • What schools should I research based on my score?
  • Which caliber of schools can I apply to?
  • Is it worth visiting schools that have out of reach median scores?
  • What scholarship opportunities are available based on my score?
  • How many schools can I apply to based on my score and remaining time?
  • Do I need to take additional courses to mitigate a low score?
  • Do I need to invest in more test preparation tools before I take the exam again?

Take the time to know your own mind and be thoughtful about your test-taking process. What are your strengths and weaknesses? Are you adept at juggling many projects at once or will you want to get the test over with before proceeding to other parts of the application? Consider how you work best as you read on.

Types of Test-Takers

Over the years, we’ve observed that graduate school candidates tend to fall into one of the following categories as it relates to test-taking:

Naturals: Let’s get this group out of the way. The standardized test is a point of strength for this group. They are natural test-takers who may or may not study. They will take the test one or two times to achieve their expected score before beginning the application process. Moving on.

Pretenders: Plain and simple, these candidates realize that they need to take the graduate school standardized tests, but they choose to ignore them and hope the test requirements will go away. That doesn’t stop them from talking about their desire to go to graduate school, but, eventually, their passion for moving forward in the graduate school process is trumped by their fear of taking another standardized test. The graduate school graveyard is littered with hopes and dreams of Pretenders. Please understand: schools aren’t changing their requirements because you don’t want to take the test. Take a deep breath and press on.

Procrastinators: These applicants are initially focused on the test and have the best of intentions to get ahead of the process, however, they let their time slip away. Procrastinators may start strong by taking a test preparation class or studying on their own, but as time passes their internal test date gets pushed further down the road until they are staring at application deadlines that are just weeks away. It usually doesn’t end well for Procrastinators. They will have to slog through many late nights cramming and may only have one or two chances to take the exam.

Doers: These candidates take control of the process. They may feel a little intimidated by the test initially, but they aren’t running from it. They will use all the resources they can to glean insights about the test and research different strategies. They will start as early as possible and keep a schedule that they stick to. They may not be the best test-takers, but they will optimize their process to produce the best score possible for them, and then move on.

Unless you’re a natural, you need to become a Doer. Not everyone is a great test-taker, and that’s okay. But you can’t let the tail wag the dog. If you want to go to a certain type of graduate school and it requires a standardized test, don’t avoid going through the application process just because testing is required. Avoiding a test should not be a strategy for school selection. That’s short-term thinking that will have significant, long-term ramifications for your career.

Test-Taking Strategies

There are multiple ways to approach the graduate school test-taking process and the one you choose will depend on your test-taking confidence, how much time you have before application deadlines hit, and your willingness to juggle multiple components at once. As you read, consider how each type of test-taker might adapt to these strategies.

Apply in Series

This is the classic approach to test-taking. Do everything one step at a time. Don’t focus on the actual application process (outside of maybe some school research or campus visits) until your graduate school standardized testing is complete. This is a great strategy if you are afforded the time, as it ensures complete focus on one step of the process at any given time. But, this strategy can lead to “calendar creep” if your testing process runs long or you have to take the test multiple times.

+ Allows for dedicated focus on the test

+ Reduces stress levels (no need to balance multiple simultaneous tasks)

+ Ensures the requisite test score is obtained before investing in the application process

- Can lead to calendar creep and missed deadlines

- Requires more time


Apply in Parallel

This is an approach that’s best used when your application timing is tight or you’re confident in your ability to hit your target test score. It involves engaging in test preparation at the same time as you are preparing your applications for selected target schools, and it can save precious time. However, this strategy depends on your ability to hit the mark on the test. If you don’t, then you may have to defer until next year or apply with a much lower score than expected.

+ Requires less time

+ Allows an applicant to apply to more schools and/or meet tight deadlines

+ Imposes greater compliance with timeline (need to balance multiple simultaneous tasks)

- Increases stress levels

- Involves more risk (requires applicant to hit the mark or else lose the time and effort)


Apply Using a Hybrid Strategy

Whenever possible, we recommend using a hybrid of the two previous strategies. Begin with a period of acute test preparation (learning all of the test concepts), followed by a maintenance study phase (continuing to improve on those test concepts), and culminating with another acute studying phase a few weeks before the test. Ideally, you would have a practice exam score that puts you within striking distance of your target score before entering the maintenance study phase.

Once you are in the maintenance study phase, you can begin working on the rest of the application process while continuing to study as you approach test-taking time. Although this strategy doesn’t work for everyone, it does offer an improved timeline relative to the series approach and avoids the increased risk and stress of the parallel approach.

It’s important to note that while the series approach takes more time overall (because you aren’t multitasking on other portions of your application), it has the earliest initial test date. The application is delayed by the amount of time it takes an applicant to achieve their target score.

The parallel approach takes less time overall, because each component of the application is progressing at the same time, but the initial test date is the latest. This is what makes the parallel strategy so risky. The hybrid approach is a well-honed balance between the first two strategies in terms of overall time, initial test date, and risk management. This effect is illustrated in the graph below (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Test-taking strategies timeline.

Set up a schedule that will get you through the testing phase successfully and on time. Standardized testing isn’t going away, so embrace it. Treat it like a job or a class and work as hard as you can to stay disciplined in your studying, test-taking, and overall test preparation. Getting off to the right start with test preparation will keep your application on track and help you maximize your graduate school acceptances. 

Part 3: What score you need and how to get it

What’s a Good Score?

As a general rule, any score that’s at or above the average for accepted students (top 50%) will put you in strong consideration for a given school. If you score within 40% of the average for accepted students (middle 80% or above) you will be in consideration with respect to the applicant pool. However, if you are significantly outside of the average score for accepted students (bottom 10%), you are looking at an uphill battle to prove you belong; use the rest of your application to demonstrate your academic acumen.

Why and How to Pick a Target Score

Intuitively, a higher score improves your chances of admission. But, that doesn’t mean you should always aim to do your very best. The graduate school application process is full of trade-offs, and a perfect standardized test score might mean a subpar essay or inadequate interview preparation. This is why we advocate deciding on a target score in advance.

Resist the urge to optimize this portion of the application at the expense of all the others. Instead, choose a specific target score so that once you achieve it, you can refocus your efforts on the rest of the application. How exactly you decide on that number, the “stopping point” for the testing portion of your application, will depend on the average scores for your reach school, your tolerance for risk, and which test-taking strategy you employ.

As an example, let’s say you’ve taken the test already and you placed in the 35th percentile for your reach school and the 50th percentile for your match school. Do you take the test again? If you’re a naturally cautious person, you’re probably not happy with those odds of getting into your reach school, even though you’re right on target for your match school. In contrast, a less risk-averse applicant might take their chances with a 35th percentile score and focus on optimizing the rest of their application.

How To Improve Your Score

The graduate school tests can be challenging for some applicants, but if you attack the challenge head-on, like a Doer, and craft a clear plan with realistic expectations, you will optimize your chances of admissions success. Some tools may be more relevant to certain types of test-takers than others, or more useful in parallel or in series. Use your best judgement in selecting the tactics you believe will work best for you. Now, as promised, here are the concrete test preparation tools you’ve been waiting for!

1. Build a schedule and stick to it. The most successful test-taking strategies always begin with a well thought out and realistic plan. Layout a timeline for your test preparation that includes a period for studying the material, a period for taking any test preparation courses, and an acute study period just before you take the test. Build in time for uncertainties at work or school and consider adding additional time to retake the test should you need it. Treat these deadlines as “real” and try to make-up missed deadlines rather than pushing back your entire schedule. With enforcing deadlines, it never hurts to recruit a friend. Speaking of…

2. Prepare with others. Paradoxically, though gaining admission to graduate school is a bit of an individual sport, many effective test-takers have a “test buddy” that accompanies them throughout the process. This person, usually another applicant, can help with maintaining motivation, sticking to a schedule, and understanding difficult practice problems. The added edge of friendly competition, and the opportunity to learn through teaching, makes this a superior tactic. It can be exceptionally useful to have a peer who can help you as you prepare to jump one of the largest hurdles of your graduate school application and eventual professional success.

3. Score points early. When playing a sport or joining a new workplace, you want to get involved as early as you can. This helps you get into the flow of things and helps you get settled. The same can be said for test-taking. Take an actual full-length test as soon as you are ready. With some exceptions, you should take your test as soon as you are ready, so you can move through your anxiety and realize that it’s really not so bad. Taking the test early demystifies the test and often leads to better results sooner in the process. If you’re worried about performing badly, keep in mind that in most cases, you can retake or even cancel a poor score.

4. Understand the test. You cannot perform well on any standardized exam if you don’t understand how your score is calculated. Great test-takers of the GMAT, for example, understand that if you do well on the first few blocks of questions, you will be subsequently served more difficult questions, thereby enabling you to score a much higher score. Conversely, if you perform poorly on the first few questions, you will be served easier questions later, thereby reducing your chances to score big and capping your performance. Great test-takers will know this type of information about their specific test, and make choices that maximize their score (in this example, spending more time on the first set of questions to push themselves into a higher scoring bracket.) Most exams have these types of “hacks,” and gaining that meta-knowledge in advance will help you optimize your performance.

5. Mimic testing conditions. If you know that you are taking your actual exam at 8am on a Saturday in a hot and crowded testing center, you actually have an advantage over your peers. Why? Because you’re already aware of the many challenges those conditions will pose (i.e., you’re not a morning person and you’d better be prepared to sweat). Great test-takers don’t just understand these conditions, they often find a way to train themselves to succeed in them. In this case, an effective test-taker might prepare by turning up the thermostat in their living room and doing early morning practice tests. Not only does this enable you to overcome distractions, it also leverages context-dependent memory. You’ll actually remember the problems you practiced better when you take the real test under similar circumstances.

6. Compartmentalize question types. Every exam has specific, repeated question types. Strong test-takers who aren’t naturals typically break down the exam into the kinds of questions that are asked and relentlessly drill on these question types in an isolated manner until they achieve mastery. They do this with each section until they believe they have mastered them all and then attack full-on practice exams. Effectively, this tests their ability to pull it all together.

7. Build mental muscle memory. Just as in physical movement, the more you perform a mental action the easier it becomes. Knowledge is more accessible, strategies are more ingrained, and habits are deeper the more you practice. For this reason, among others, simply doing as many problems as possible is a strategy in and of itself.

8. Reduce anxiety. This is much easier said than done, but it’s a tactic that cannot be left out. Standardized testing is often the most dreaded part of the application process, regardless of which exam a candidate plans to take. Great test-takers of all kinds make concerted efforts to manage anxiety. Procrastinators generally struggle with the most anxiety of any test-taker type, so if you are one, you may find this advice doubly applicable: Follow the plan. This advice is deceptively simple yet powerful. Anxiety occurs in the space between what you feel you should be doing and what you’re actually doing. This article gives you all the tools you need to manage your test preparation process. So when you make a plan, choose a target score, set a study schedule, take your practice tests, and just generally follow through, you will feel your anxiety dissipate.

A Great Score is Within Reach!

While there is no way to avoid hard work in preparing for your graduate school exam, there is clear proactive behavior you can engage in to ensure you are optimally prepared to ace it! With all of the tips, tactics, and strategies in this article, you should be able to get the highest score possible. If things don’t turn out as planned, no worries. You can always use one of the strategies you’ll see in our next video: How to Overcome a Poor Test Score. Click below to watch.

Watch the Video

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