Admissions officers always stress that the entire application is important. While everything is important, it is often said that GPA and standardized test score are the most heavily weighed factors in an application. Besides an applicant’s GPA, the only quantitative measure of an applicant’s past performance is their standardized test score (SAT, ACT, GMAT, GRE, LSAT, etc…).

The Importance of the Test

Some schools place a lot of emphasis on standardized test scores, such as state schools and highly ranked private schools. However, schools at the very highest and lowest ends probably place slightly less emphasis on one’s test scores. Schools at the higher end are less concerned about test scores because they have so many applicants with high marks that they can accept several with lower scores and still be able to report to ranking agencies that entrants to their schools have high marks. Also, high ranking schools often are not competing with other schools for applicants simply because of their prestige. On the lower end of the spectrum, some for profit institutions actually do not require test scores. Many advertise this in order to appeal to applicants who are either frustrated by standardized tests or who feel that preparing for such tests is a fruitless undertaking.

At the end of the day however practically 95% of all schools require applicants to report their scores and all of these schools place a great amount of weight on the applicant’s score. This may seem unfair given that the test score is only reflective of performance over several hours. However, many schools place great weight on test scores because: a) they believe that hard work, preparation, and repeated practice on the test is indicative of traits they want in their incoming class; b) it is a quantitative ability to differentiate applicants; c) it allows schools to better gauge the academic abilities of an applicant who has not had a good GPA or who has been out of school for a long time. This last reason is why test scores can be really important for transitioning veterans. Transitioning servicemen often have not attended schooling for several years. Hence, it is crucial for veterans to ensure that their test score represents their true abilities.

How to beat the test

1) Test Prep Company or Not

Test Prep Companies like Princeton Review and Kaplan offer structured environments that are often ideal for military applicants who have been out of school for several years. Test prep companies are thorough as they cover over every aspect of the test. Some companies like Princeton Review are known for covering the basics, while other test companies like Manhattan GMAT are known for their detailed instruction on even the most arcane and rarely tested material. More than just test coverage and analysis, the test prep companies can aid military applicants because they provide a structured setting. Hence, we often recommend that veterans take these courses. While the majority of the classes offered are in a structured classroom setting, some test prep companies offer online instruction that is self-paced. Additionally, practically all test prep companies offer a military discount.

The downside to preparing with a test prep company is that some test prep companies provide material that is too basic or they move too slowly over topics which an applicant already understands. Moreover, some transitioning veterans who are still reporting to duty simply do not have the time to take these classes. For those who are busy with work, two good options are online classes or self-study.

The benefits of self-study is that one can move at one’s own pace, focus on one’s weaknesses in a certain area, and not pay the cost of taking a test prep class. However, we are generally skeptical of self-study because it is difficult to keep one disciplined for several months at end in order to prepare for a test. Also, because many test prep companies now offer score improvement guaranties or the option to take the course again for free, we highly suggest that applicants go through a test prep company. Even if one decides to take the individual study path, one still should rely on the test prep material which the test prep companies provide.

2) Simulate test conditions and eliminate areas of weakness

Regardless of whether you decide to self-study or enroll in a test prep company, it is very important that one balance studying with test taking. Taking numerous tests without working on one’s weaknesses is a waste of time as one is not improving. However, practicing on sample problems to hone one’s overall ability can lead to a false sense of security as one is not under the “time stress/crunch” of test taking under simulated test conditions. The military stresses rehearsals and battle drills. Battle drills are analogous to simulated test taking and sample problems. A transitioning veteran needs to do both in order to succeed on the test. Because it is so important to simulate actual test conditions, it is also imperative that one finds and studies questions that have actually been used in previous exams. While test prep companies often provide their own question types, the best question types are those which the standardized test prep companies have officially released.

Save yourself money by not repeatedly taking the test if you have not simulated test conditions or worked through multiple problem sets. One’s test score will not improve just because you have taken the actual test multiple times. However, one’s score will improve if one is diligently studying and preparing prior to taking the test.

3) Prepare as early as possible via backwards planning

Ideally one has at least 3 months to prepare for the standardized test. Even better would be to begin preparing a year prior to when the application is due. A three month timeline means that an applicant has to undergo an intense study period that makes it difficult to cover all the material which is tested. If one has a year to prepare, it lets one gradually hone one’s abilities. The brain is a muscle, and like every muscle, after the initial exercise it quickly gains strength in that area. Then the muscle will fatigue and plateau. At that point, the muscle will incrementally build up its ability to resistance. If one does not give oneself enough time for test preparation, then one’s test score is likely not reflective of  true abilities.

The best possible scenario is that one has prepared for six months and takes the real test. Hopefully, the test taker is satisfied with the score but realizes that one can do even better. The applicant continues to study and six months after taking the first test, one gets the score of one’s dreams. Although one and done would be ideal, it is often not practical. Hence, one should not wait to take the test just days prior to an application is due. Oftentimes this is not feasible because many tests do not report official scores until weeks after the test has been administered.

4) Set Goals

With everything in life, setting goals helps one focus on the mission. Create a list of the schools you want to gain admittance into, and see what they report as their median test score for their latest incoming class. That is the score you should aim to get. Applying to schools is a numbers game. Schools want applicants who have a proven track record and who can handle the rigorous curriculum which students will encounter while they are attending the school. Aim to score either above or at the median test score which the schools report. Ideally, one’s test score is not handicapping one’s ability to gain admittance into a certain school.

5) Take time to rest and refit.

One can only take time to rest if one has planned accordingly. That’s why it is really important that one allots plenty of time for test preparation. If one has several months to prepare, one can take breaks in order to avoid test fatigue. Plus, the brain needs to recover after a hard workout (test preparation). When taking a test, bring along a healthy snack that will help sustain your body through several hours of test taking. Taking a four hour test can be a mentally and physically draining exercise. Bring whatever snacks you prefer, however, make sure you also use these snacks during your mock tests. You don’t want to bring a snack you’ve never had before and then have an unexpected physical reaction. Taking a break can also help avoid straining relationship. Test preparation can be stressful to one’s immediate family, as often it can feel like one test will determine one’s fate. Taking breaks and adding fun activities between intense study sessions will help one break away from the gravitas of test preparation.

6) Leverage online content

There are many great websites that provide strategy and helpful hints on how to “defeat” a test. These sites also are great places to share “war stories” about how one did or how one is feeling. However, don’t waste too much time on these websites. Some advice which is given at these websites should be taken with a grain of salt. While websites geared towards a test or graduate school can be fun and entertaining, they can also include misleading statements.