If you plan to attend an institution of higher education, it’s hard to escape standardized testing. Whether you’re applying for college, law school or grad school, you are most likely going to have to spend a morning sitting in front of a computer or a Scantron sheet and letting some outside agency reduce your potential as a student to a single numerical value. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?
Even though the idea of standardized testing is somewhat terrifying, taking a test doesn’t have to be. Familiarizing yourself with the different kinds of standardized tests can transform your testing experience from one of anxiety and stress to something tolerable, or possibly even enjoyable. After all, there’s nothing like the feeling that you’ve done really well on something important.
What three letters can inspire fear and loathing in the hearts of high school juniors and seniors nationwide? Depending on the region you live in, the answer is either SAT or ACT. These two standardized tests are required parts of the college application process for new freshmen by most colleges and universities.
They both claim to gauge a student’s preparedness for college and likelihood to succeed in higher education, but they do so in fairly different ways. Not surprisingly, each test considers itself the better tool for college admissions, but practically, the region of the country where a college is located has more to do with which test they prefer than the perceived quality of either test does. Schools on the east and west coasts tend to prefer the SAT, while schools in the Midwest and South lean more towards the ACT. However, most colleges will accept scores from either for all purposes, and score conversion calculations are widely available.
Some colleges and universities have gone “test-optional,” meaning that students technically do not have to submit scores from the ACT or SAT to apply for admission. However, many of these schools still require SAT or ACT scores for university scholarships, and a number of scholarship providers from outside the school may also still want to see some sort of standardized test score. So, regardless of rhetoric, it still is wise to plan on taking the ACT or SAT and to put a serious effort into doing well on it, especially if you want the best chance at getting into your dream college or winning scholarships.
Other tests with even more esoteric acronyms may be required for admission into graduate programs in certain fields, or even to graduate or be certified to work in others. The most common standardized tests students are likely to encounter for graduate or professional study are the LSAT and the GRE.
The LSAT is the official test for applying to law school, while the GRE is required for graduate school admission by most programs. Each purports to predict a student’s likelihood of success in the next level of education. Each test can also be maddening to take, but doing well on them is important.
As with undergraduate testing, the degree to which your GRE scores matter depend on the program to which you’re applying. Some programs pride themselves on high-scoring graduate students, while others care only that students demonstrate a basic level of proficiency and judge applicants on other elements of their portfolios, such as undergraduate grades, personal statements, samples of previous work, and letters of recommendation. Based on the program you’re applying to, different aspects of the GRE may be more important than others. An applicant to an English program can squeak by with a lackluster math score, while an engineering student will be judged more heavily on mathematical than verbal proficiency.
Contrary to GRE scores, the importance of LSAT scores is much more standardized, especially since law schools in the United States and Canada use admission formulas focusing heavily on a combination of undergraduate GPA and LSAT scores, more so than on supplemental materials like letters of recommendation. Scoring well on the LSAT can help to make up for lackluster grades in college, or can supplement an impressive application package to propel you into your top-choice schools. Doing well on the LSAT can help pave the way for success in your legal career.
Regardless of the test you’re taking, preparation is a good idea. Because of the unique format of each test, knowing what you’re getting into going in is vital to success. Familiarizing yourself with the nature of each section of the test, the testing environment and the scoring procedures can boost your score. The best way to prepare is by practicing, though. Free practice tests and sample questions abound online. To get you started, we’ve created brief study guides for each standardized test.