True or false? You can learn to be a better test taker

All students planning to attend law school must take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), 80 percent of graduate business schools require the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), and 75 percent of all graduate departments require the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) for consideration for admissions. So, nearly everyone contemplating graduate study should plan on taking yet another standardized written, machine-scored test.

From years of counselling experience working with test-takers (passers and failers) I offer the following suggestions:

The old dictum that practice makes perfect applies very well to these tests. Test taking is a skill. In addition, the proposition that familiarity breeds contempt, or more importantly in this case, demystifies the tests, works for the test-taker.

Pre-test anxiety can be reduced and often eliminated.

Since I opened the article by saying that one must consider the tests important, one would be a fool not to have some apprehension. Hence, any process that is orderly and paced (as opposed to last-minute preparation) will contribute to a better mental attitude before the test. Much as one prepares for an important speech or presentation before giving it, you should not "wing it" with these tests if you do not want to have a great deal of last-minute anxiety. Considering the test's importance, it is not just another test and therefore requires a more complete method of preparation.

We learn by doing.

The more we work on a particular skill, the better able we are to execute it. For example, the simple logistics of taking the tests can be figured out and certain aspects can be turned to advantage for the taker. The deleterious factors can be recognized (such as the test's length) and partially alleviated. That is, practice longer drills and then the actual test will seem "short."

Explanation pays off.

Various hints on how to take a test are important. For example, no matter what the proctor says, normally it is valuable to guess on the LSAT and not the GMAT. Why?

The LSAT uses the total number of correct answers for the final score while the GMAT penalizes for wrong answers.

However, if you can reduce the test to a true-false test, then this does not hold. Actually, you can normally do this. Of the five choices, there are usually one or two answers that do not apply. So, your odds at guessing are better. Assuming you have also prepared (i.e., reviewed your math), you should be able to be down to three answers.

At this point, you are taking an "educated" guess. Finally, realize that the trade-off is not one-to-one on wrong answers. Usually, one correct answer makes up for four flops.

If only half of your guesses are correct, you have successfully matched the odds for true-false tests when you have no knowledge, and increased your absolute score substantially.

This is not a mandate to guess on all of the test but just an example of what explanation and understanding can do for test-taking strategy.

The test represents a territory you must travel through and the knowledge of a strategy gives you a map. Without a map, you may get lost.

Some preparation courses can help.

Do not take this as an endorsement for prep courses, but consider two very logical reasons for the statement.

First, a consicous effort on the part of the potential test-taker to think about the test in an orderly manner can have nothing but positive outcomes. If nothing else, the commitment to work at getting ready will add to the likelihood of a positive experience. I personally think it does more than that.

Second, the cost of the preparation course is minor compared with your four years of college or two of four years of post-graduate education. If taking a course contributes to relaxation, understanding, and so on, it is well worth the cost. Self-study should also help, but the actual taking of a preparatory course tends to enhance motivation and allows for detailed explanation by the instructor.

Take the tests early if possible.

Besides the obvious point that you can plan your school choice much earlier by taking the test in the late spring, summer, or fall (they are usually given at least four times a year) and knowing which schools you qualify for, other factors are important.

First, your scores will not increase with an additional semester of course work -- at least not substantially. So, why not take the tests at a time when there is little else to demand your attention and concentration?

Second, if you do not do well on the test, you can take it over. Usually, the new results are mostly discounted if the score variation on retaking is not at least 50 points, either way.

Third, you can walk out on the test or go to the test and say you cannot take it. I would not recommend this, but if an illness or other unforeseen circumstance occurs, you can still take the test again. The policy varies on how this is handled at the test site, but this "out" will do little good if you have waited until the last test date to take it.

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