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Cornell University

Preparing for Tests

Test preparation for the GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, and MAT is available at the Cornell Career Services, in local bookstores, and on the web. Taking released or sample tests produced by the test makers is probably the best way to prepare for these tests.

Work through the examples and explanations carefully, and then take the sample tests under simulated test conditions by observing time limits. If you find you have trouble with some kinds of questions, don't despair! There are several opportunities to do more of the same kind of preparation at low cost.

You can get copies of previously administered tests. The Cornell Career Services Library has a number of these tests.  The Campus Store usually has good materials in small amounts along with the other commercial test preparation guides. The official ETS test preparation software, POWERPREP, which has computer-adaptive GRE General tests, is available for purchase.

Commercial test preparation books abound, and local bookstores carry some of them. Few of them have any clear-cut exposition of problem-solving strategy. Since they cannot legally use copyrighted test materials, their questions tend to be of inferior quality at best and sometimes are quite misleading in emphasis. This is particularly true of the numerical questions, which usually put far too much emphasis on computation and too little on reasoning.

An excellent book that is considered a classic is How To Take Tests, by Jason Millman and Walter Pauk. This book covers principles of answering special types of test items as well as principles of taking tests measuring selected abilities (i.e., vocabulary, reading comprehension, numerical problem solving, etc.) and can be purchased at local Ithaca bookstores.

Commercial Test Preparation

Commercial test preparation courses are a growing business. Many are franchises and courses may cost up to $1,500 or more. The cost of commercial courses doesn't necessarily correlate with quality; courses may be taught by graduate students or professionals in the community, and there may be little training and no quality control of teaching. It will be important to investigate courses carefully and to learn who will be teaching the courses and what materials will be used. Feedback from Cornell students suggests that commercial courses can help build confidence and help to structure a program of study.

While it is essential to prepare for graduate admission tests, the method(s) you select to prepare will depend on your individual needs. Talk with people who have taken the test previously to find out how they prepared and what test preparation methods they thought were beneficial. Whatever way you decide to prepare, you will need to participate actively in the process. It is sometimes easy to assume a passive-receptive attitude when paying considerable money for prep courses. Skills improve with practice; listening and looking alone will not help you to perform well on the test.

Taking Graduate Admissions Tests

There are certain general guidelines and approaches that pertain to nearly all standardized tests. Test-wise people often describe admission tests as games; working from there, they try to discover the rules and strategies. These people recognize that standardized tests are altogether different from most course exams and should be approached with a different attitude. Clearly, there are specific skills involved which are different from other academic skills. Useful analogies for these tests are work or lab experience, rather than papers or quizzes. Standardized tests are not exercises in creative speculation, but rather jobs to be done with the tools and materials at hand. Keep that point of view in mind during the test.

Strategies for Building Confidence

People who believe they cannot do well on such tests are often unnecessarily intimidated by the very idea of the exam. They ask how they can be expected to think of an admission test as a game when their future rides on the result. Attitude is probably a factor in performance; the anxious test taker may not do as well as the confident one. In any case, it is clear that anxious people suffer more both before and during the exam. One solution to this problem is to make sure that you do not have all your eggs in one basket, that is, develop more than one career plan so that no one exam feels as though your whole career depends on it. Students who would like some help or advice with the problem of developing an alternative career should contact college career offices, faculty advisors, academic advising offices, or Cornell Career Services.