Testing, Testing, 1-2-3: What’s the Right Test Prep For You? [Episode 443]

Testing, Testing, 1-2-3: What’s the Right Test Prep For You?
Testing, Testing, 1-2-3: What’s the Right Test Prep For You?

Are you thinking about taking a standardized test for undergraduate or graduate admissions? Read on for must-know test-prep information! [Show summary]

We’re calling in test prep leaders and co-hosts of the Tests and the Rest podcast, Mike Bergin and Amy Seeley to discuss tips and strategies for choosing the right test prep for you as well as the best approach to test taking all the way from SATs and ACTs to GMATs and LSATs.

Test-prep pros Mike Bergin and Amy Seeley share their expertise and advise [Show notes]

Welcome to the 443rd episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for joining me. 

Today’s show is all about test prep, and I’d like to start with a one question quiz for you. What is the paradox at the heart of graduate school admissions? You have five seconds, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. I’ll tell you. You have to show that you belong at your target programs and that you stand out in this applicant pool. Doing so is a paradox, and it’s a challenge. Accepted’s free download, Fitting In & Standing Out: The Paradox At The Heart of Admissions will show you how to do both simultaneously. Master this paradox and you are well on your way to acceptance. Download your guide at accepted.com/fiso as in fitting in, standing out. 

I want to thank Alex Levenger for leaving a review on our July 20th episode. I’m going to quote excerpts from it. He wrote, “I gained some excellent bits from the July 20th episode. Number one, there really are two disparate attitudes that can make the GMAT tough: thinking you’re better than the exam and freezing into paralysis.” And his second point was, “The GMAT is a metaphor for a study or general work tasks. My main quibble is with the initial assessment test. I think it’s faulty to gain any useful granular info into a student by using this test.” Lots of people agree with you, Alex. 

Our guests today are test prep experts and fellow podcasters, Mike Bergin and Amy Seeley. A word about each of them. 

With over 27 years of intensive experience in every aspect of standardized test preparation, Mike Bergin knows what works in test prep and what doesn’t. A nationally recognized leader in test prep, Mike founded Chariot Learning in 2009 to deliver on the promise of what truly transformative individualized education can and should be. Mike is also the founding president of the board of directors of the National Test Prep Association, a non-profit dedicated to promoting the highest ethical standards and best practices in the test prep industry, while advocating for the appropriate administration and use of standardized tests for admissions and assessment purposes. Lastly, Mike is also the co-host of Tests and the Rest, the college admissions industry podcast and creator of the Facebook industry group for test prep professionals, Test Prep Tribe. He and his podcast co-host Amy Seeley even run the nation’s leading test prep conferences and online summits. 

Turning to Amy. Amy Seeley began her career in test preparation over 28 years ago, working for Princeton Review after gaining valuable knowledge and experience as a part-time tutor, she turned that passion into a career with Townsend Learning Centers. She quickly assumed the role of director of test preparation services, creating, managing, and administering all aspects of Townsend’s test preparation programs. After leaving Townsend in 2006, Amy began Seeley Test Preparation services, meeting the test preparation needs of several hundred students annually in the greater Cleveland area. As demand grew for Amy’s assistance in improving test scores, Seeley Test Pros was born in 2012 with the addition of tutors trained and successful methods and strategies of Amy’s experience. Amy’s knowledge of standardized tests is unsurpassed. Amy is the founder and co-host with Mike Bergin of Tests and the Rest, college admissions industry podcast, which discusses the latest issues in testing, admissions, learning and education with experts. She is a co-founder of the National Test Preparation Association and a leader of its inaugural board of directors. She has presented at national test preparation conferences and is a contributor to the Test Prep Tribe, a national collaboration of test prep professionals on Facebook. 

Mike and Amy, welcome to Admissions Straight Talk.

There are lots of test prep options out there. Regardless of whether you’re taking online or offline grad school, applicants need to choose between self-study, what I’d like to call online guided self study (online courses that you go at your own pace), formal courses and individual one-on-one tutoring. How can students choose the right approach for them? [4:38]

Mike: I’m glad that you phrased the question, assuming that everyone’s going to prepare for these really important tests, because that should be the foundation of the conversation. If you are taking a GRE or GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, any important test – you’re going to study. You’re going to prepare. Just like if you’re taking the final exam for your course. If you don’t, you know what happens. So, everybody should prepare, especially because selective admissions is highly competitive. Understanding that preparation is key is the first step. 

The second step is being brutally honest about who you are as a learner and that there are some individuals who are autodidacts. Anything that they’re interested in, they can learn themselves to a very high level. I have a friend who never played music before. One day he picked up a guitar and fast forward, 30 years later, he’s a rock and roll lawyer. He likes the rock and roll more than the law.

He taught himself to be a phenomenal musician, engineer, song writer, everything. But most people aren’t like that. I picked up a guitar lots of times. I put it back down when everybody asked me to stop, whatever it was that I was doing. Most of us need some kind of support, whether it’s a class or something more individualized. While many people begin with books and they begin with self-study programs, people often find that they just wasted time and put themselves off track, because they started that first, when they never really learned that way effectively in the past. Amy, do you agree?

Amy: I’m going to add something very practical and that would be, I think you’ve got to consider things like your timeline, your budget, your goals. Depending on when you plan to take a test or when you need those test scores, you’ve got to consider what amount of time that you have, because that may influence whether you have different options or you can start as a self prepper. Maybe you elevate that prep versus knowing you have to have a test score by a certain time. If you have a certain goal in mind, you may realize that trying to fiddle at this for a while, you don’t have the time to be able to achieve that goal.

Lastly and obviously, for some students, it’s going to be the budget. How much money is at stake here? In the world that Mike and I operate, often with college admissions, we see lots of students who are trying to leverage test scores for the financial benefit of scholarship. Oftentimes the conversation is about what’s going to be the return on investment. I can justify spending a certain amount of money knowing that at the end of the line, if I get a $10,000 year scholarship or more, putting in $500 or $700, you get a huge return on that. So, to me, those are some of the considerations about how you may look at what kind of preparation you might want to embark on.

Let’s say for a moment that all options are equally expensive (or inexpensive, depending upon your perspective) and a student has four months to prepare so they’re doing okay in terms of time. In that case, holding the other things constant, what are some of the criteria? Would distance away from target score be a factor? Would difficulty in one particular area or in both areas of an exam or multiple areas of exam, depending upon the exam, be a factor? What would you advise that client? [8:13]

Mike: I’ll just jump in and say that those factors definitely dictate because the more specific a person’s need, the more likely individual instruction is necessary.

Amy: 100%. I would also say that, and I do, when I talk to families where let’s say the student is really starting at a high level, there is no question that a few tips or tools or suggestions may be all that student needs. So, self prep is just a need for some guidance. Some guidance in launching. For lower starting test score, it’s often very difficult to self prep, because you don’t know what you don’t know. You are getting a low score because you don’t know or don’t understand material. Being able to sort of teach yourself is oftentimes not as much in the card. I would certainly use a benchmark of average to below average scoring on whatever test it is. I think it makes self prep a much more difficult and frustrating road. 

I often use  this analogy of short leash, long leash test prep. I’ll tell families or students if a student is starting at a high score, I’m probably going to keep them on a long leash, which means I’m going to let them loose with some guidance, suggestions, some ability to reach out and here’s what you should be doing independently. Versus that short lease with someone who’s got a lower score, I’m going to keep them tight because I want to make sure I’m monitoring that and giving suggestions at every little step to make sure that I can even help with frustration so that someone doesn’t get so frustrated that they want to give up.

Mike: I would also say that this ties into how important it is that when a person has a sense of his or her timeline and budget that he or she seeks out the highest level of expertise possible, because what Amy just described is a realization that is earned over decades of working with students and understanding different types. So, assuming that the calculus is that higher test score on a graduate admissions exam opens up the opportunity to have a better chance of getting into the target school and knowing, and Linda you can attest to this, that the more prestigious, certain graduate programs are, especially on the business and the law side, the more money you’re likely to make when you graduate. 

Knowing all of that, you want to invest in expertise. You want to look at it, it could be an individual or an enterprise, but when you’re considering who you’re going to be personally working with, how much experience does that person have? How effective has that person been? If that person is part of an organization, what is the history of the organization, especially in terms of positive word of mouth, lots of referrals. Do they have a specific curriculum that’s proven? Do they use official practice tests? For all of the graduate exams, there’s abundant material available. There’s a lot of different questions you want to look at and not just seek someone out because that person impressed you in a phone call or comes in $10 per hour under others. Think about how successful that individual has been and how experienced that person has. Because test preparation is definitely the kind of trade that people get better at iteratively.

I didn’t mean to imply in any way, shape or form that the time factors or the budgetary factors aren’t important. They should definitely be considered. [12:43]

How can an applicant evaluate both the company and if they’re going for tutoring, the individual tutor? [13:26]

Amy: I would say to you that one of the things that I think is so amazing within our industry, and Mike and I with our work with the National Test Prop Association, is that it’s just full-time tutors. A lot of people take for granted that somebody who’s going to work with you is more like a gig worker. Some people do this work for a very short period of time. It fills a gap. They might not consider it their professional career, but certainly Mike and I look at it as a profession. The idea of “I do this full time.” It is all I do. It’s all I think about. I’m always, like Mike said, iterating. I’m always thinking about how I make something better. And that’s one of the beautiful things about why you want someone who does this full time. It means they’re constantly refining because as you get new students, I won’t say we churn them out, but we do. They’re in, they’re out so you have this capability to just get better and better because you’re constantly doing it. 

Another thing I’ll mention is just materials-wise. It is so critical in our industry that students are working on official practice test material to get as close to the test maker as one can. There are certain tests out there that I would say are a little harder to come by the official material. But the basic idea is while some people will create their own material, create their own tests for understandable reasons, you really want to be working at the source. That’s another criteria, what material do students work on as far as taking practice tests goes. 

And I’ll throw one extra thing in there. I’m highly suspicious of anyone who has a guarantee. In terms of guaranteeing someone’s success. There are so many variables at play and you’ve been mentioning them: how much time do you have, how much you’re trying to improve, etc. There are a lot of factors that we as test prep providers cannot control for. When someone says, I can guarantee you a certain score, very often they guarantee the fine print. When I see the fine print, I kind of laugh, because I know where it’s coming from. Often it might be from a good place. But I will never tell a parent that I would guarantee anything. Much like I wouldn’t say if I was going to a weight loss program and someone was going to guarantee the 50 pounds I would like to lose. 

Mike: Amy really covered all the points so well. I want to reiterate that point about full-time tutors because for a lot of people, that’s outside of the scope of their awareness. They’re used to the person who tutors math after school, they’re used to the grad student that’s trying to make a couple of extra dollars. But Amy and I are part of a tradition and a network of educators around the world that focus, not just on working with students individually as a career, but engaging in a lot of professional development. We think about all the jobs. Would you want to work with the tutor who has a full-time job and does professional development in that job and then sees you after work? Or do you want to work with a tutor for whom this is work? But also it’s not just work. Usually people who choose test preparation as a profession do so because they love their job. Everyone in our industry feels very fortunate because we really do love to deliver this kind of education. Then we talk about it a lot. So, if you’re working with a full-time test prep professional, chances are you’re talking to somebody who is actually excited to keep up on all the latest changes in the particular test you’re focusing on. Change is not just in content, but platform and implications. And that person becomes part of your support team to reach your goal.

If I took the SAT or the ACT and I did well on the exams, can I be confident of a good score on the relevant grad school exam? The professional exams? Let’s say the GMAT, the LSAT or the MCAT? [18:05]

Mike: Let’s say yes and no.

If you got a great score on your SAT or ACT, it shows that you have some attributes that will contribute to success on a graduate test. Mainly you are not intimidated by standardized exams. Whatever you did to do well on those tests, if you’re willing to replicate that process, then you should see similar success. But the content of the GMAT, the LSAT, and the MCAT test is markedly different. The GRE is actually most similar to the SAT. So, yes, it’s the same thing. If you didn’t do well on the SAT or ACT, are you guaranteed to fail the GMAT, LSAT, MCAT on that scale? The answer is no, you’re not guaranteed. But you should recognize that whatever was challenging for you with those tests will be a challenge until you learn to overcome that.

Amy: I’ll say the same thing. I think with the GRE, we definitely see that. Especially when I see students returning, who may have worked with me for the SAT or the ACT. Sometimes those challenges like math will rear their ugly heads. But sometimes with the grad level tests and in a way that at least with math, you think a student is just completing their third year, their fourth year of math in high school. So, math should be fresh. It is a little bit different at the college level, because for grad tests you can find students who have done no quantitative work at the college level. In some cases you may find that they might not even be as strong with math as they might have been in high school, given that they may have had no interaction with it.

I will say this. At the high school level students are in a good position. At least they have some options, as far as choosing between the SAT and ACT, given that all colleges will take either score. What has been very interesting, at least for me at the grad level, has been a similar development as far as students having the ability to choose between possibly a GRE, or a GMAT, or an LSAT. I do find now, what is interesting is that advising grad students on, “You came to me for the GMAT, but let’s talk GRE.” Or, “You came for the LSAT, let’s…” I actually try to, if I get them to the GRE because I find the preparation for GRE to be a little bit more straightforward. I will say the SAT and the GRE back in the 90s and early 2000s, the SAT and GRE weren’t any different. And it was a natural hopping point to be like, “Well, what should you do for SAT prep? You’re going to do the same thing for GRE.” That is not true today. So, given the GRE having quantitative comparisons that these students have never seen, there is a difference there. But I would say that, like Mike said, you figure out if you did preparation for your SAT or ACT you know what it may involve what it might take, and you’re going to start to reboot that. Some things possibly from why you did well earlier will help you. And then you may have to supplement or augment. Like in today’s world with GRE focuses on vocabulary, the SAT and the ACT don’t. That’s a big difference. Some students will have to reckon with what amount of work they want to put in towards improving their vocabulary when they’re taking the GRE.

Mike: I will say you have to hope that by the time a student gets to a graduate test, he or she did a lot more reading than was done in high school for the verbal sections of the test. I mean, again, if you’re applying to law school, you should be a really strong reader. And a weakness in that area, if it comes out and it impacts your ability to score well on the LSAT. That’s a deeper issue for how well you’re going to do in law school in general.

When I got my start with Kaplan, I took all the different tests. I would have to teach them. They’d say, “Okay, now it’s time for you to teach GMAT.” And I go, “I never took the GMAT before.” Well, you will. And your SAT and you’re going to do the GRE. There’s absolutely a continuity of skills and strategies that help on all different tests. If you can excel on one test, chances are, you can excel on similar tests. Sometimes you have to pick up some content. 

Amy: I had an interesting experience with tests in high school. My first time, it was very average. My second time was significantly above average. That was back in the day when you didn’t prep. Who can explain why the first one was so average and the second one was so much higher? It does speak to the idea of probably trying to test more than one time when possible if you think that you have the ability to raise the score.

I also say to students, I feel like I’ve really earned my stripes over the years in terms of really learning what are good practices, techniques, strategies, and where they need to review or study content. For me, I come from a place of, I didn’t consider myself a great tester but it can be learned. It can be taught with motivation and dedication. So that’s what I like to bring to my students. Yes, if this is important to you and you’re willing to put in the effort, then you can improve your score significantly.

Check out the average test scores at your target schools:

B-School Selectivity Index; Med School Selectivity Index; Law School Selectivity Index

Let’s say I’m going to take an exam and I have other responsibilities. I’m either in school or working full-time and I want to take the test in three months. Is that enough time? Would two months be enough time? How about one month? Should I take a weekend crash course? [25:42]

Mike: Let’s put aside the fact that this is clearly a multi-variable equation, which has to incorporate your baseline score, the amount of time you’re able to commit, the amount of pressure that’s distracting you from really making this meaningful and how you learn best. We’ll put all that aside. And we’ll just say, how long is enough to prep? 

I love, and Amy tell me if you agree with me, I love to look at preparation as a season. We work with so many high school students and even the students that play the same sport every season – they’re in a soccer club, they do club soccer, they do school soccer. They’re always doing soccer. Yet each season is three months long. It’s not one 12 month season. There’s an important reason why every sport is like that, every musical. I mean, unless you’re on Broadway and you’re in something that’s running for 18 months. But every performance begins from auditions and casting to get to the final rehearsal before the performance. It’s about three months.

So, you think about how long you can maintain your interest in working towards peak performance. That’s a good span of time to say that if I work diligently over a three month span, I may have room to spare, or I may really be crunched at the end. But if I go for six months, if I go for a year, I’m going to lose interest. I’m not going to maintain that peak performance.

Amy: The motivation tend to be either if there’s an indefinite term, like I don’t know when I’m going to take the test. You don’t tend to see the same sort of dedication and motivation. I’ll often say to students, especially my grad students: pick a date. Get a date because your perception will change when there’s a date on the calendar. We see that with a lot of our students. Their mentality changes as they get closer to game time so sometimes getting the date on the calendar matters. I will also say to kind of build in there, I think for grad level tests the motivation is to be one and done. There’s a different mentality at the grad level that students ideally want to do, want to be done. 

At the college admissions level, I would always tell my student to take more than one, usually to see what you can do the second time. But I would say at the grad level you do have to consider if you’d ever want to consider the possibility of retesting because I find the term of when they’re starting may not allow for a second test if they’re not careful. So, I think not everyone should prep with the idea of “I’m going to test twice,” but I do think you have to be careful when accounting for that. 

I find at the grad level, that means it’s in terms of these seasons that Mike is suggesting and that’s really important. The time that students in college have to prep for grad tests, they have to be very mindful of when they have those pockets of time and make sure that they have that season. Often it’s the summer. Maybe they’re trying to do it over the holidays or winter break, but usually it’s tricky to pair this with college studies if they are currently enrolled in college.

Mike: If you’re a professional, if you’re already working full time, then you have other logistical issues. The benefit of course, is that most of these grad tests have rolling testing processing.

Amy: Now that they’re on a computer.

Mike: You can pick your target based on not just the deadlines of the particular schools you’re focused on, but what fits your calendar.

What are your tips for the day before the exam and the day of the exam? [31:54]

Amy: I usually would say the day before the exam, I don’t really encourage students to be doing anything test oriented. A lot of times it’s at that point, whatever time you’ve invested, that’s what you’re going to coast into the test day with. I would say things like trying to get a good night’s sleep the few nights prior so that you’re on a regular schedule. Certainly you want a good night’s sleep the night before the test. But don’t go to bed too early. Like, there’s that idea of going to bed too early and then you wake up and you’re up and you’re wired. Maybe you’re looking at a few of your materials, a little bit of review. If somebody really feels like they want to do some review. I usually say don’t do more than an hour’s worth of review the day before the test. 

I will use myself as an example. I took the LSAT years ago and where it was offered was a site I wasn’t familiar with. So, for me, part of my ritual was the week before, I drove to where it was. So, I knew ahead of time, where am I going to park? How much time will it take to get there? Is there a parking garage where I need to allocate the time to get from there to the site? Those were all things I did to minimize any test day stress. Making sure that when you wake up on test day, you’re in your zone, it’s like this process of just easing into it.When you wake up in the morning, I say, give yourself plenty of time to get to where you need to go. And if it’s winter time, make sure you’re planning for the weather. Make sure you eat a good breakfast and plan time for that. Much like an athlete. The athletes who wear the headphones, it’s like I’m just in my own zone. Making sure that test morning leads in really smoothly. 

I had accounted for all of that, prior to my LSAT day. And long story short, the funny story is I went for breakfast before, because I’m not even making my own breakfast. And when I get up to leave for breakfast, I realized I left my admission ticket at home. Which is why I tell students too, and this has happened with my own kids – print out your admission ticket the day before, make sure your printer works, your ink works. Put it in your purse, set it out ahead of time. All of these behaviors, what I’m suggesting are behaviors to make sure there’s no head space the day of being devoted to logistics. It’s all about getting to the test.

Mike: Amy shared indispensable wisdom regarding doing well on a test. Control every detail and aspect of your day that you can ahead of time so that you can focus on what you’re doing. I think it’s really helpful for people to look at events like these as pivotal moments that deserve their full focus. I would urge someone who was getting ready for the GMAT to prepare for the day itself as if they were actually giving a big presentation or making a huge sales presentation.

I would ask someone who’s applying to law school to think: what if this was going to be your first big case, how prepared would you want to be? How confident would you want to be? How comfortable would you want to be? What would you do in advance? Because these are moments we know that you can retake the test if you have to, but you don’t want to, if you can avoid it. These are snapshots of your potential and the more you can do to narrow the gap between your potential and your actual performance in the moment, the happier you’re going to be with your results. So, take it seriously. Just treat it like it’s a really important day and put everything off until after it. Hopefully if you do that, you won’t have to go through the process again, you’ll be really proud of your accomplishment.

Do you have any advice specific for graduate applicants who are retaking the test? Maybe for the second or third time? [36:25]

Mike: First, get back on the horse. Don’t allow yourself to perseverate over your failure to reach your goal and put it off until everything that you learned in preparation for the first test fades away and you’re basically starting over. Be honest about why you didn’t get your goal. If you didn’t reach your score goal for content reasons, fix it. If you didn’t reach it, because the form of preparation you used wasn’t aligned properly with the way you learned best, upgrade. If it was simply performance, you got anxious. That means you need more practice testing. There are different reasons why people don’t hit their goals, but iterate quickly. Whatever it is, identify what the problem is and address it. You don’t need another three months. You want to shorten that cycle there to leverage all the good things you did going into that first exam.

Amy: I would definitely concur with that. The idea of looking at the pieces or parts where you felt like you were more vulnerable or that resulted in the less desirable score. Like if it’s the GRE and you feel it was the vocabulary that sort of gave you a run, well, then you’re going to have to look back and see what amount of vocabulary prep did you do? Are you going to have to think differently about that prep going into the next one? If you found that in the math or quantitative, there was geometry and you weren’t as prepared for it, then you’re going to go back and you’re going to dig into that geometry. So, ideally, if you can kind of really figure out on a microscopic level, what are the pieces. That’s where you go back and you dig into those areas.

Secondly, you consider some things with the modality of what choices you made in your prep the first time. If you chose to self prep, maybe you need to have some intervention and somebody like Mike or I coming in to help out. If you didn’t practice as frequently as you should have, maybe you up the reps. So, you start, much like an athlete. You’re looking at why you didn’t get the performance at that game you wanted to, and you’re watching that game day tape and then you’re going to figure out what to do differently.

We talked about the fact that graduate students are frequently working full time. They’ve been out of school. They might have not been in school for five years or more. They’re non-traditional applicants in that sense and they probably haven’t prepared for a test in five years or more, however many years they’ve been out of school. Any advice for them? [40:54]

Amy: I do find that they want to shy away from actually taking a practice test. Oftentimes I’m like, “No, you need to take one to launch. You want to take a full practice test in the format that you’re going to be testing.” Meaning, adults right now have probably not ever taken a test in a computer based format which is what most of these grad tests are on. So, taking a test, seeing what the scores are and evaluating what things did or didn’t go well. I do find, at least in my experience, it’s usually intimidation by the quantitative components. When they’ve been out of school a long time, especially if they’ve been engaged in a career, that’s more reading and writing. The math seems to really intimidate.

I think then they’ve got to determine what level of math review they need because you have to then quantify how much time it’s going to take to work your way back through arithmetic, algebra, and geometry. It’s hard. That is the one aspect that I’ll tell them. I can’t give you a number. I can just say get a baseline score from practice. Dig into those areas you are weaker in, and then start to realize, you’re going to have to say to yourself, how many hours a week do you want to devote to strictly working with the math. That’s what I find with those students, that’s a big consideration and what their timeline might look like that often would be different than a student who’s currently enrolled in college and is planning on going to grad school after college.

Mike: I agree that a lot of students that are coming back to testing have certain deficits that they have to be clear about and willing to overcome. I would urge them to not overlook the advantages they have over those individuals who test during college as part of just a process that they’re not exactly certain about, but they know these are the steps they have to take. The individuals who are returning, they left school, they’ve entered the workforce – now they have a career goal that aligns with attendance to some graduate program. They have advantages in terms of motivation and awareness and hopefully they’ve developed great executive function skills. They’re more organized perhaps than college students. They keep better, healthier hours. Those can be assets and it’s important for those non-traditional applicants to leverage the assets.

What advice do you have to stay calm on test day? [44:53]

Mike: Before we started recording, we were talking about how Amy and I are both proctoring practice tests. We’re not doing it for ourselves. We’re not doing it because we don’t have plans during the weekend. We’re doing it because nothing beats practice tests. The idea that a person would be nervous, wouldn’t manage their time properly, wouldn’t know how well they were going to do, felt flustered at any aspect of the test, often signals lack of adequate practice. You have your preparation and people think about what they’re learning from the book, what they’re hearing from a teacher but it’s like the athlete who thinks that a coach telling her what to do is going to translate directly to the field without actually doing it.

We know that doesn’t work. We know that for test preparation, the test piece is irreplaceable so students should take advantage of the fact that each of these pivotal graduate exams has lots of practice material behind it. There are a number of available GREs. There’s exponentially more LSATs available. LSAC has always been great about providing as many practice LSATs as a person could bear to take. That’s a lot of tests. Since we’re sharing aphorisms, I’ll share the one that says don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.

Amy: I do want to chime in because I think what Mike is saying is so important. Taking practice tests. However, I think there’s a misunderstanding, and I think this happens more with self preppers that just taking practice tests makes you better at the test. As we said earlier, if you don’t have some introspection about what you got on a practice test and you don’t go back and look at what you got wrong and evaluate, then the practice tests are probably going to keep telling you the same thing. Often I find a self prep mentality tends to be voraciously taking tests with that lack of introspection.  

Mike: That happens a lot with GRE students. They took all of the practice tests before they come to you. But they didn’t do anything between each test. And so they’re like, well now you can help me. 

Amy: To use my weight loss analogy. Just stepping on the scale every week doesn’t mean I’m going to lose the weight.

What do you see in your crystal ball for test prep and standardized testing on the graduate level? Do you see it going the way of undergraduate testing where fewer and fewer schools are requiring it, but students are still taking the test? [48:08]

Mike: It’s interesting that you phrase the question that way, Linda, with the presumption that standardized testing has gone away in college admissions. Because it’s kind of up and down. Like last year there were more students than ever who submitted applications without test scores. It was only later that we found out that a lot of them were accepted at a lower rate than the ones with test scores. So, there is a trend with a lot of grad schools, especially graduate school, specifically. Not so much law and business, but grad school. A lot of schools waived the testing requirement for a year or two. But we don’t know what they learned about who they accepted from that.

[Read: Test-Optional MBA Programs: Everything You Need to Know in 2022]

I feel like as far as testing goes, as long as schools find the information they get from a specific graduate exam helpful in making great choices about students, they’ll continue to use them. LSAC claims that LSAC produces the LSAT and they claim that LSAT score is the single most predictive factor in success in law school. Even more so than undergraduate GPA. If that trend holds true, then law schools will continue to value the LSAT. If they can make those decisions without that criterion, they will. It has to do with the value of the tests to them. But as long as the tests are there, test prep will be essential.

Amy: I do feel like there is extreme grade inflation that we see not only at the high school level but also at the college level. I feel like as much as we’ve had some leeway given to people’s access to tests and becoming test optional, I do believe that we’re going to start to see trends where without those test scores, we know less about a student’s capabilities than we knew before. I’m afraid that in this wave of making it optional to accommodate conditions across the country, we’re going to lose the ability to measure grades in a meaningful way because there’s a lot of subjectivity to even grading at the high school and college level.

I think we are going to see more as time goes on that the scores serve a role. They serve a role, they serve a purpose and they won’t go away. I think in some instances they’re going to put some things in perspective. So, for some students they’re going to want those test scores to put their academic record in perspective.

Mike: The jockeying for relevance among some of the graduate exams is interesting in that in the past, the GRE was for graduate school exclusively, the GMAT was for business school, the LSAT was for law school. But now we’re seeing a little mixing and matching. And if anything, that’s an area to continue to watch, because what we’ve seen in undergraduate admissions where the SAT and ACT at one time were almost on separate pads. If you applied to certain schools, you had to submit an SAT. If you applied to certain schools, you had to submit an ACT.

Today, all colleges accept both tests equally and that means that for students, for whom the ACTs a better test, they only have to take the ACT. So if the GRE is a great test for you and you want to go to law school, well, you may not be out of luck. Or vice versa, maybe it’s the GMAT for you. I’ll be interested to see as we progress, if there’s more of an expansion of options. Or if schools snap back and say, “You know what, our brief dalliance with this particular test is over. We just prefer that one.

What would either one of you have liked me to ask that I didn’t ask? [52:39]

Amy: I’ll throw in a piece of advice I think is interesting. If a student is currently enrolled in college, I would really strongly encourage them to consider, even if they don’t have immediate plans to apply to grad school or grad program, I would really consider getting a GRE in the bag. Obviously there is a timeline to when scores expire, usually it’s about five years.

I do feel like while you’re in school and you’re approaching graduation, it’s not a bad idea. Especially the GRE because we’re really seeing this trend of the versatility of a GRE score. I am telling students, “You might want to consider taking one because you have a five year period of time where you can use that.” The potential is you can use it for a variety of programs that if you get in under five years, you’re like, “Oh, I may have a score and I don’t have to worry about being four years out.”  

Amy: Linda, you were so thorough and you guided this conversation perfectly. I’ll add one final point just about the value of the tests from an applicant’s perspective. For most people looking at graduate school, law school, business school, this is just another burden. Another hoop that they have to jump through. Especially if they’re not projecting this score as well as they’d like. I urge people to consider a shift in perspective, to see this as another way to train up, to be fully ready to excel in graduate school. There’s a reason why each graduate program finds the test valuable and picks out complimentary skills to what you’re doing in college. Not exactly the same, but complimentary. There’s a reason why high scores might correlate with high achievement and vice versa. So, take the note that your scores are giving you.

Where can listeners and test takers or future test takers learn more about you and both your work? [54:54]

Amy: You can reach me at amy@seeleytestpros.com

Mike: You can reach me at mike@chariotlearning.com

You can find both of us at testsandtherest.com. That’s the Tests and the Rest podcast. 

And if you happen to be in the test prep profession, seek out the National Test Prep Association.

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The post Testing, Testing, 1-2-3: What’s the Right Test Prep For You? [Episode 443] appeared first on Accepted Admissions Blog.

Testing, Testing, 1-2-3: What’s the Right Test Prep For You? [Episode 443]