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ISSUE 121 VOL 9 PUBLISHED 11/30/2007

How to Conquer Standardized Testing

By Lindsey Myers
Staff Writer


Friday, November 30, 2007

Several days a week, I drive up to Minneapolis to teach the Scholastic Aptitude Test (better known as the SAT) or the American College Test (ACT) prep courses to high schoolers. Most of the time, they demonstrate admirable enthusiasm; they take practice tests and learn strategies with a fervor that makes it hard to believe we're dealing with mathematic functions at 9 a.m. on a Saturday.

There are times, however, when the collective morale seems to drop, and I can see their eyes glaze over with the kind of dull misery that only teenagers can truly understand. Who can blame them? They're preparing for a lengthy, boring standardized test that has the unfair power to shape their future. At those times I need to say something to raise spirits. Usually, I default to saying something like, "Don't worry, guys. Once you get through this (SAT or ACT), you'll never have to take a standardized test again." If only that were the case.

Sure, many of my students will go on to be perfectly happy, functional adults who decide to stop their education after they complete their undergraduate degree. But odds are, at least some of them will be crazy enough to want to keep going, which will eventually require them to take yet another standardized test. And as many of us who have prepared for or taken a post-graduate standardized test can confirm, the bad boys waiting for undergrads make the SAT and ACT look like a day at Valley Fair. The good news if you are considering subjecting yourself to another standardized test in the next few years is that you're not alone, and getting a successful score is not beyond your reach.

The first step in embarking on your future standardized test journey is to pick your poison. Sure, you could gradually take every standardized test available and pursue a course of study in the area in which you tested best, but this would be expensive, time-consuming, and above all else, horribly and needlessly stressful.

It's important to do a little soul searching and decide where you picture yourself after you graduate; then invest the time and effort to prepare yourself for an appropriate test. When you are ready to take the plunge, the major tests are as follows: the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) for graduate school, the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) for medical school, Law School Admission Test (LSAT) for law school, Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT) for pharmacy school, Veterinary College Admission Test (VCAT) for veterinary school, and Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) for business school. There are also certification tests and foreign language proficiency tests that vary from state to state, but those six account for the most common post-graduate pursuits.

Once you've decided what test you intend to take, you need to decide when to take it. This decision should be based on two factors: the admissions timeline of your program of choice, and your personal timeline that can allow for adequate preparation.

The important thing to remember is that these tests, for better or worse, are a major component of admissions decisions for all schools. It will behoove you to choose the ideal conditions and time frame in which you will take the test so you can avoid ever having to take it again. Try to think ahead to determine which semesters or summers will be less stressful than others. It's also helpful to pick the date by which you hope to have all your applications turned in, and count backwards to determine when you should take the test to meet that date. Finally, pay close attention to when tests are offered; the LSAT is only offered in October, December, February and June, whereas the GRE can be scheduled in advance on almost any day of the year. These parameters, in conjunction with your own personal parameters, should help you pick an ideal time. Don't forget to register early; not only is it often more cost-effective (which makes a difference when some of these tests cost over 100 dollars) but you also have a better chance of getting a location that won't require you to drive an hour on test day!

Having decided what test you're going to take, and maybe having begun to narrow down when you hope to take it, you're left with your final, and in some ways, most important decision: how should you prepare? You want the score you get to open doors for you and make you a competitive applicant, since this will often affect financial aid as well as admissions. How do you do that, especially if you've long-since identified yourself as someone who is bad at taking tests?

The most expensive (but for many, the most effective) option is to invest in a professional preparatory course. You may have seen colorful posters for The Princeton Review or Kaplan scattered throughout campus; next time you see one, slow down and take a look.

I completely admit my own bias: as an instructor for a professional test prep company, I am a firm believer in the potential improvement that's possible through good strategies and accountability. I have watched high school scores nearly double throughout the duration of a course, and in the LSAT course I took over the summer through The Princeton Review, my peers and I celebrated together as our points gradually approached our goals. For your money, you get weeks and even months of guidance, practice tests, reading materials, and dynamic lesson plans geared toward your test-taking strengths and weaknesses.

Keely Macneill, a senior who took a professional MCAT prep course, says of her experience, "Classroom time was very interactive. The teacher was enthusiastic and made class engaging. The memory tricks he gave us were always easy to remember and funny -- they made me laugh even while taking the MCAT, which was great because it made me relax."

However, not all prep courses are created equal, and for many students, the large price tags can be a turn-off (for instance, Kaplan's GRE course starts at $1200). Before you sign up for a class, ask the company some serious questions: What is their guarantee for score improvement? Do they offer a course at St. Olaf that won't require you to drive long distances? Do they have cheaper, online-only options available? And finally, what are their standards for instructors? Some companies only train teachers if they have scored in the 99th percentile on the test in question, whereas others will hire from a more generic pool that may prove less helpful to you if you're a high-end scorer. Also, be ready for a big time commitment: most professional courses require many hours of homework and classroom time to be truly effective, so it's important to take a course when you have time to give it your undivided attention.

How can you know if such a huge financial and time investment is for you? The first thing I recommend is to take a free practice test. If you get a fantastic score with no preparation, or if you find the format to be something you're comfortable with, you may not see spending $1000 as a necessary investment. If you're blown away by how hard the practice test was, disappointed in your score or hoping to get into an extremely competitive school, you may be a good candidate for investing a little overhead in some solid preparation.

A final characteristic that may dictate whether a professional course is for you is your own motivation. If you're someone who procrastinates often and has a hard time learning out of a book alone, it may help you immensely to have the financial obligation urging you to attend a class that is already scheduled and formatted to keep you going. I know I would have never done as many logic games as I did last summer if I had not had the bi-weekly classes to keep me accountable, and Macneill confirms that you get a lot for your dollar.

"Along with the accountability and the schedule, Kaplan gave us flashcards, online quizzes, databanks and many more resources that each presented the information in a slightly different manner."

If you decide a professional course is not for you, however, that certainly doesn't mean you have to resign yourself to fate and just wing it on test day.

Pat Smith of the Center for Experiential Learning says, "Preparing for the tests is a must, however, each student needs to determine what method works best for him/her individually in terms of test preparation."

The CEL has a variety of books and literature that they can recommend, and a $50 investment in these materials can take a well-motivated individual pretty far in terms of getting familiarized with strategies and their own strengths and weaknesses.

Both The Princeton Review and Kaplan publish large varieties of practice test and strategy books that, with time and motivation, can revamp an average score into a competitive one, and forming a study group with other students preparing for the same test may help give you that structure and accountability you need. Whatever you do, give yourself plenty of time; since most of these tests are merely testing your ability to take tests, practice and consistency is key to success.

If you find yourself getting disheartened or overwhelmed, just remember: once you get through this, you really won't have to take any more standardized tests ever again.





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