Studying for the SAT or ACT isn't easy, but at least the test format is simple and straightforward: Just fill in the bubbles on your paper answer sheet with a No. 2 pencil, and make your mark heavy and dark. But as you prepare for grad school, the admissions tests you will encounter are computer-based instead of being offered on paper: namely the GRE, the GMAT, the MCAT and the LSAT. So what does this mean for your test-taking strategy? Let's first take a look at the format of each test so you can see what you're dealing with.
The GRE is a general entrance exam for admission to grad school and is a computer-adaptive test – but only at the section level. What this means is that the difficulty of the questions in the second section of Quantitative or Verbal adapt to how you did in the first section. While there are plenty of paper-based study materials for the GRE (study guides, workbooks), the only way to truly understand how this computer-adaptive test works is to take a practice version of the GRE online. You can find official GRE practice exams here.
The GMAT is the business school entrance exam, although the GRE is increasingly being accepted instead. The GMAT is also a computer-adaptive test, but unlike the GRE, this is a question-level adaptive test. However, out of the four sections, only the Quantitative and Verbal sections are adaptive. The other two sections, Integrated Reasoning and the Analytical Writing Assessment, are not. Within the two adaptive sections, the difficulty level of each question depends on your response to the previous question. The very first question will be of medium difficulty, so if you answer correctly, the next question you get will be just as difficult or slightly more difficult. If you answer the first question incorrectly, the next question will be the same difficulty level or easier. Because of this algorithm, you cannot skip any questions and return to them later. You can find the official GMAT practice exams here.
This rigorous, 7.5 hour-long medical school entrance exam is a computer-delivered test that is NOT computer-adaptive, so it's just like a paper-based test, where the questions are not based on your previous responses and you can move around within a section. Find the official MCAT practice exams here.
The LSAT is the standardized test taken for admission into law school, although a growing number of law schools are now accepting GRE scores instead. The creators of the LSAT recently decided to roll out a touch-screen, tablet-based version of the test. This digital version is NOT computer-adaptive. After September of this year, only the tablet-based version of the LSAT will be available, which means that the best way to practice taking the test is also on a tablet. On test day, you will be provided with a stylus for underlining and highlighting text on the tablet, as well as pen and paper for working out problems. Find official test prep materials for the digital LSAT here.
Before you dive into a practice exam to test your knowledge of the grad school content, it is very important to take the time to get a feel for the test interface and features to understand the way the test actually looks and functions. What and where do you click to answer a question? How do you change your answer to a question? How do you highlight or underline text while reading – or is that even possible? How do you move between screens? How does the “mark and review" feature work?
Each grad school exam is designed differently and has its own rules, so be sure to familiarize yourself with those rules until you feel totally comfortable. (For example, you can review the MCAT's specific features here.) Not understanding how to control and work with the test features will just cause extra anxiety during the test -- and that's the last thing you need.
Doing well on grad school admissions exams isn't just about knowing your stuff -- it's also very much about having a test-taking strategy so you can successfully navigate the structure of each exam section in the allotted time. Be sure to find out things like how many questions are in each section, how many answer choices there are per question, how much time is allowed for each section, whether you can skip questions or change your answer, and whether a penalty exists for unanswered questions or incorrect questions. When you take a practice test, you will quickly discover the sections where you need to increase your pace to complete the section on time.
Mike Spivey, founder and partner of law school admissions consulting firm The Spivey Consulting Group, says that with paper tests, “students can get some of the test day experience at home or in a prep class. Now, you'll be taking the test in a totally different format. That's bound to cause some anxiety, and slow you down a bit."
The only way to overcome this challenge? Make your practice test experience as close as possible to the official test-day experience. Practice the LSAT on a touch-screen tablet, which is what you'll get when you take the official LSAT. Taking the practice LSAT on your laptop or desktop, although possible, will not sufficiently prepare you for the official LSAT testing day experience.
Same goes for the other grad school tests: Try to take your practice test in a quiet room with other people (maybe a library or a calm cafe), and be sure to complete each test section in the allotted time, giving yourself the same timed breaks that you would get on test day. The MCAT testing experience will last over seven hours, so you should stick to working on a couple practice sections at a time, instead of the taking an entire practice exam in one sitting.
It also helps to know the setup at your grad school testing location. For example, your MCAT testing facility will typically provide noise-canceling headphones and ergonomic chairs to make your testing experience as comfortable and distraction-free as possible.
When taking your computer-based practice test, go ahead and have some scratch paper and a pencil or pen with you, as these items will be provided on your test day for working out problems. The only exception to this is with the GMAT, where you will be given a legal pad-sized, laminated, flip notebook with a small Sharpie-like marker. You can find a very similar style of notebook here if you want to use it when you take your practice GMAT.
As for calculators, you cannot bring your own calculator on test day for any of these exams. Don't panic just yet -- there is an on-screen calculator provided with the GRE and GMAT. On the GMAT, you will only be allowed to use the on-screen calculator during one of the four sections: Integrated Reasoning. This means you'll need to get comfortable with using the on-screen calculator provided with your test, and also learn to do certain calculations without the calculator when the on-screen calculator is not allowed. Most experts will tell you that it's best to learn to do the Math without the use of the on-screen calculator, as it might end up taking more time than simply doing the calculations on paper. For the MCAT, there is no on-screen calculator provided, but the calculations you'll need to complete do not require a calculator. The LSAT questions do not test math, so there is no on-screen calculator on that test.
Sitting for several hours during a paper-based test is definitely not the same as staring at a computer screen for an extended period of time. A computer-based test certainly takes some adjustment. But you might eventually find that you prefer using the computer to take a test, especially if you enjoy doing other work on the computer. The more you practice in test-day conditions, the more confident you will feel when your testing date rolls around.
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