Taking Graduate Entrance Exams

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First, consider the following factors, which affect exam performance:

  • Intelligence--native reasoning ability.
  • Development of basic skills, vocabulary, comprehension, numerical reasoning, etc.
  • Achievement levels in specific content areas relative to test--science, grammar, etc.
  • General test taking skills and sophistication--"test wiseness" in using your current verbal and math abilities to greatest advantage in a test situation.
  • Emotional attitudes and responses toward test taking.

Then consider these general observations:

If you have previously performed well (or poorly) on a standardized aptitude test such as the SAT for undergraduate admission, you will probably rank about the same on graduate entrance exams. That is the case unless your rate of educational development in the interim has been drastically different from your peers, or you have been away from academia for a while.

There are courses which prepare you for graduate entrance exams. However, research shows that your scores are not likely to change substantially. Some students show a small increase and some will show a decrease in the total score.

It is probably more productive to review and brush up for specific content and achievement sub-tests than for the general verbal aptitude tests--i.e., you will get more reward for time invested in reviewing math, grammar, and science (if they are relative to your test) than in sharpening the abstract reasoning skill involved in vocabulary and reading comprehension.

General vocabulary and reading comprehension skills can be developed but it takes a fairly long-term, highly motivated effort to see significant change in those skills.

Familiarity with the format of your test, knowledge of effective test taking techniques, and a little practice with sample items in various sub-tests cannot hurt and might make some people feel more confident and "test wise."

A heightened level of anxiety is normal, and can even be helpful during test taking; however, extreme anxiety reactions to test situations can adversely affect test performance. Exam scores of students with significant test anxiety may not reflect the true ability of the student, but you can learn to control test anxiety.

Now decide what you want to do about it:

How many of these factors are relevant to your situation? How much time can you really afford to invest in test preparation? How do you weigh the time investment versus the possible outcomes? How much is it worth to you in light of your other priorities and values at the moment? Choose from these suggestions for preparing:

  • Thoroughly review the information pamphlet, which accompanies your test application. Learn everything you can about the nature and format of your test.
  • Work through the sample test in one of the commercially prepared workbooks/manuals for extensive review and practice.
  • Check with the offices on your campus which offer study skills services.
  • Keep current with the GRE. The GRE is now available only in a computerized format. There will be more changes in the near future.

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