Taking Standardized Admissions Tests

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For some people, the prospect of taking one of the standardized admissions tests is enough to make them put aside the idea of earning a degree indefinitely. You may be anxious about taking the SAT, Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), or one of the professional exams, but if you have chosen to apply to a program that requires an admissions test, there is no way of avoiding the experience. Many undergraduate programs require the SAT or American College Testing (ACT) Assessment. Graduate programs often require the GRE or a professional examination, and some require a subject area test and writing assessment as well. Finally, if you are not a native speaker of English, you may need to pass a test of English language proficiency. So unless you've chosen to apply to programs that do not require an examination, you are going to have to take at least one exam—and do well on it.

Note that community colleges and many programs designed specifically for adult learners, including some distance learning programs, do not require a standardized admissions test as part of the application process. Therefore, the first thing you should do is to determine which exam(s), if any, you are expected to take. This information should appear in the packet that accompanies the program's application form. If you do not yet have this material, you should simply call the admissions office or program and ask or check the program's Web site. Once you know which exam you must take, contact the testing service that gives the exam and request registration materials or register on line. Information on contacting the testing services appears in the Appendix.

Before we go into detail about the tests, it might be helpful to discuss how an admissions committee might use your score. The role played by the SAT or ACT Assessment on the undergraduate level is similar to the GRE or GMAT on the graduate level. These tests provide a benchmark. Essentially, your test score is one of the few objective bits of information in your application that can be used to gauge where you fall in the range of applicants. A few programs, especially the top professional programs that receive many more applicants than they can admit, may use the score as a means of reducing the applicant pool. If your score is below their cutoff, they will not even look at the rest of your application. But most programs are much more flexible in the way they evaluate scores. If your score is low, you may still be considered for admission, especially if your grade point average is high, your work experience is relevant, or your application is otherwise strong. Others will index your exam score and your grade point average to arrive at a more balanced number. Some programs offer a conditional admission when a standardized exam score is low. In order to earn an unconditional admission, you may have to retake the exam to boost your score or achieve a certain GPA in the first courses you take.

Basically, you should regard taking a standardized admissions test as an opportunity to improve your application. And that means you must take the test with plenty of time left to meet application deadlines (see "Taking Standardized Admissions Tests" and "Applying for Admission to Degree Programs" for more information on applying). That way, if you take the test early and are disappointed with the results, you will have time to retake it. Note that test registration deadlines precede test dates by about six weeks and that you must also allow a few weeks after the testing date for score reporting.

You must also prepare. Thorough preparation, including taking practice tests, can add points to your score by refreshing your memory and giving you experience with test taking. Preparation is especially important if you have been out of school for a long time. As one student who had been out of school for twenty years put it, "Logarithms?! Geometry rules?!" If this sounds like you, you may need to do a quick recap of high school mathematics to do well on the mathematics portion of the SAT, ACT Assessment, GRE, or GMAT. And you may have forgotten what test taking is like, but if you study and practice it will help you overcome any weaknesses you may have. We'll discuss ways to prepare for the exams later in this section after we describe the various tests.


Bachelor's degree programs that require a standardized admissions test will usually accept either the SAT or the ACT Assessment. Some programs will also require SAT Subject Tests in specific subjects.


The SAT, which is administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) for the College Board, tests your critical reading, writing, and math reasoning skills. These are analytical skills developed over time both in school and at work; the test does not assess your knowledge of specific content areas.

The SAT is a 3-hour-and-45-minute paper test divided into nine sections: three critical reading sections, three math sections, and three writing sections. The 25-minute essay will always be the first section of the test.

Critical Reading Section.

The critical reading sections of the SAT test your ability to understand and analyze what you read, see relationships between the parts of a sentence, and understand word meaning in context. In other words, it tests your language skills. The critical reading sections last 25 minutes, and there are three types of questions:

  • Reading comprehension questions measure your ability to read, understand, and think analytically about a single reading passage or a pair of passages. Reading passages range from 500 to 800 words.
  • Paragraph length critical reading questions are based on paragraphs of about 100 words, followed by questions that are similar to those accompanying the longer reading passages.
  • Sentence completion questions assess your ability to understand the meaning of words and to recognize correct grammatical patterns.

Math Sections.

The math sections of the SAT assess your ability to solve arithmetic, algebra I, algebra II, and geometry problems. The test does not include trigonometry or calculus. Each section lasts 20 or 25 minutes and has three main types of questions:

  • 44 multiple-choice questions with five choices test your ability to solve math problems.
  • 10 questions require a student-generated answer.

Writing Sections.

The writing sections include multiple-choice questions and a 25-minute essay. The multiple-choice questions assess your ability to improve sentences and paragraphs and to identify grammatical errors. The short essay assesses your ability to organize and express your ideas clearly. The multiple-choice sections last 35 minutes and has three main types of questions:

  • Improving sentences
  • Improving paragraphs
  • Identifying errors

Note that you are permitted to bring, in the College Board's words, "almost any four-function, scientific, or graphing calculator" to use on the math sections. According to the College Board, students who use a calculator do slightly better because they do not make computational errors.

Tips for Taking the SAT I.

It pays to familiarize yourself with the test directions and typical question format beforehand so you don't waste precious testing time trying to figure out what to do (see the section below on test preparation). Because the sections appear in a paper booklet, you can do the questions in a section in any order. For that reason, it makes sense to answer the easy questions first and place a check mark beside the hard questions. Later, if you have time, you can return to the hard questions.

The way the SAT I is scored should also influence your approach. First, you are awarded one point for each correct answer. But you lose a fraction of a point for each incorrect answer, except on the student-response questions in the math section. On those questions, you do not lose points for an incorrect answer. If you omit a question, you are not penalized. This means that guessing is only worth it if you can eliminate one or two choices as clearly wrong, improving your odds of picking the correct answer. So if a question and its choices are truly mysterious to you, skip it. The test booklet can be used for computations and notes. Don't make any extra marks on the answer sheet, because it's read by a machine that cannot tell the difference between an answer and a doodle.


The SAT Subject Tests are 1-hour subject area tests that assess your knowledge of a particular content area taught in high school. The questions are primarily multiple-choice. The subject areas include literature in English, U.S. history, world history, two mathematics tests, biology, chemistry, and physics. There are reading-only language tests in French, German, modern Hebrew, Italian, Latin, and Spanish. Finally, there are reading and listening language tests in Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, and English Language Proficiency.


The ACT Assessment, commonly known as the ACT, is an admissions exam consisting of four tests: English, reading, mathematics, and science reasoning. The examination takes about 3½ to 4 hours, and it includes 215 multiple-choice questions with either four or five answer choices, as well as an optional 30-minute essay. Since you are not penalized for an incorrect answer on the ACT, you should answer all the questions even if you have to guess.

Unlike the SAT, the ACT is not an aptitude test. Instead, it is based on the high school English, math, and science curriculum. The questions are directly related to what you learned in high school.


If you apply to graduate school, you may need to take one of the graduate admissions tests. There are three types of Graduate Record Examinations: the General Test, which is usually referred to as the GRE; the Subject Tests; and the Writing Assessment. Each of these tests has a different purpose, and you may need to take more than one of them. If so, try not to schedule two tests on the same day. The experience may be more arduous than you anticipate. Another general admissions test that is sometimes required instead of the GRE is the Miller Analogies Test. In addition, there are specialized exams required for admission to various professional programs.


According to ETS, the GRE "measures verbal, quantitative, and analytical reasoning skills that have been developed over a long period of time and are not necessarily related to any field of study." Like the SAT, the GRE is a test designed to assess whether or not you have the aptitude for higher-level study. Even though the GRE may not have subject area relevance, it can indicate that you are capable of doing the difficult reading, synthesizing, and writing demanded of most graduate students.

The test, which is given only on computer, is divided into three separately timed parts, and all the questions are multiple choice: (1) a 30-minute verbal section with 30 questions, (2) a 45-minute quantitative section with 28 questions, and (3) a 60-minute analytical section with 35 questions. The parts may be presented in any order. In addition, an unidentified verbal, quantitative, or analytical section that doesn't count in your score may be included. You won't have any way to tell which of the duplicated sections is the "real" one, so you should complete both carefully. Finally, another section, on which ETS is still doing research, may also appear. This section will be identified as such and will not count toward your score. ETS tells test takers to plan to spend about 4½ hours at the testing site.

Verbal Section.

The thirty questions in the verbal section of the GRE test your ability to recognize relationships between words and concepts, analyze sentences, and analyze and evaluate written material. In other words, they test your vocabulary and your reading and thinking skills. There are four main types of questions in this section:

  • In sentence completion questions, sentences are presented with missing word(s). You are asked to select the words that best complete the sentences. Answering correctly involves figuring out the meanings of the missing words from their context in the sentence.
  • Analogy questions present a pair of words or phrases that are related to one another. Your task is to figure out the relationship between the two words or phrases. Then you must select the pair of words or phrases whose relationship is most similar to that of the given pair.
  • Reading comprehension questions test your ability to understand a reading passage and synthesize information on the basis of what you've read.

The words and reading material on which you are tested in this section come from a wide range of subjects, from daily life to the sciences and humanities.

Quantitative Section.

This section of the GRE tests your basic mathematical skills and your understanding of elementary mathematical concepts. You will be tested on your ability to reason quantitatively and solve quantitative problems. There are three main types of questions in this section:

  • Quantitative comparison questions require that you determine which of two quantities is the larger, if possible. If such a determination is not possible, then you must so indicate.
  • Data analysis questions provide you with a graph or a table on which to base your solution to a problem.
  • Problem-solving questions test a variety of mathematical concepts. They may be word problems or symbolic problems.

The quantitative questions test your knowledge of arithmetic and high school algebra, geometry, and data analysis. They do not cover trigonometry or calculus.

Analytical Section.

According to ETS, the analytical section of the GRE "tests your ability to understand structured sets of relationships, deduce new information from sets of relationships, analyze and evaluate arguments, identify central issues and hypotheses, draw sound inferences, and identify plausible causal relationships." In other words, can you reason analytically and logically? There are two main types of questions in this section:

  • Analytical reasoning questions appear in groups, and they are all based on the same set of conditions or rules. A situation is described and you are told how many people or things you will be manipulating. Then you are asked to manipulate the items according to the conditions. For example, you may be given information about a group of people and then asked to rank them in order of age.
  • Logical reasoning questions consist of arguments that you must analyze and evaluate. Each argument has assumptions, facts, and conclusions, and you must answer questions that test your ability to assess these.

The subject matter in the analytical section is drawn from all fields of study as well as everyday life.

Tips for Taking the GRE.

The GRE is now given only in computer format, and the test is somewhat different from the old paper-and-pencil test. At the start of each section, you are given questions of moderate difficulty. The computer uses your responses to each question and its knowledge of the test's structure to decide which question to give you next. If your responses continue to be correct, how does the computer reward you? It gives you a harder question. On the other hand, if you answer incorrectly, the next question will typically be easier. In short, the computer uses a cumulative assessment of your performance along with information about the test's design to decide which question you get next.

One result of this format is that you cannot skip a question. The computer needs your answer to a question before it can give you the next one. So you have no choice. You must answer or you get a "no score." In addition, this format means you cannot go back to a previous question to change your answer. The computer has already taken your answer and used it to give you subsequent questions. No backtracking is possible once you've entered and confirmed your answer. What this also means is that each person's test is different. Even if two people start with the same item set in the basic test section, once they differ on an answer, the subsequent portion of the test will branch differently.

According to ETS, even though people take different tests, their scores are comparable. This is because the characteristics of the questions answered correctly and incorrectly, including their difficulty levels, are taken into account in the calculation of the score. In addition, ETS claims that the computer-based test scores are also comparable to the old paper-and-pencil test scores.

One benefit of the computer-based format is that when you finish you can cancel the test results—before seeing them—if you feel you've done poorly. If you do decide to keep the test, then you can see your unofficial scores right away. In addition, official score reporting is relatively fast—ten to fifteen days.

A drawback of the format, besides the fact that you cannot skip around, is that some of the readings, graphs, and questions are too large to appear on the screen in their entirety. You have to scroll up and down to see the whole item. Likewise, referring back to a passage or graph while answering a question means that you must scroll up. In addition, you can't underline sentences in a passage or make marks in the margin as you could on the paper test. To make up for this, ETS provides scratch paper that you can use to make notes and do calculations.

To help test takers accustom themselves to the computerized format, ETS provides a tutorial that you complete before starting on the actual test. The tutorial familiarizes you with the use of a mouse, the conventions of pointing, clicking, and scrolling and the format of the test. If you are familiar with computers, the tutorial will take you less than half an hour. If you are not, you are permitted to spend more time on it. According to ETS, the system is easy to use, even for a person with no previous computer experience. However, if you are not accustomed to computers, you would be far better off if you practice your basic skills before you get to the testing site. Although in theory a mouse is easy to use, novices often have trouble getting the cursor to go where they want it to go. The last thing you want to deal with while taking the GRE is a wild mouse and accidental clicking on the wrong answers. If it's any consolation, no knowledge of the keyboard is required—everything is accomplished by pointing and clicking.


The subject area tests are achievement tests, and they test your content knowledge of a particular subject. There are eight subject area tests, and they are given in paper-and-pencil format only. The subjects include biochemistry, cell and molecular biology; biology; chemistry; computer science; literature in English; mathematics; physics; and psychology. The subject area tests assume a level of knowledge consistent with majoring in a subject or at least having an extensive background in it. ETS suggests allowing about 3½

hours at the testing site when taking a subject area test.

Unlike the General Test, which is given many times year round, the subject tests are given only three times a year. Keep in mind that because the tests are paper-based, it takes four to six weeks for your scores to be mailed to your designated institutions. Because the tests are given infrequently and score reporting is slow, be sure you plan ahead carefully so your test results will arrive before your deadlines.


Introduced in 1999 by ETS, the Writing Assessment is a performance-based assessment of critical reasoning skills and analytical writing. It can be taken in computer or paper formats and consists of two parts:

  • In the 45-minute "Present Your Perspective on an Issue" task, you must address an issue from any point of view and provide examples and reasons to explain and support your perspective. You are given a choice of two essay topics.
  • In the 30-minute "Analyze an Argument" task, you must critique an argument by telling how well reasoned it is. There is no choice of topics in this section.

Scoring of the Writing Assessment is done according to a seven-point scale (0 is the worst; 6 is the best) by college and university faculty members with experience in teaching writing or writing-intensive courses. Each essay is scored independently by two readers. If the two scores are not identical or adjacent, a third reader will be used. The reported score is the average of your two essay scores. If you think the score is unfair, you may request a rescoring.


The Miller Analogies Test (MAT), which is run by Harcourt Assessment, is accepted by over 2,300 graduate school programs. It is a test of mental ability given entirely in the form of analogies. For example, the analogies may tap your knowledge of fine arts, literature, mathematics, natural science, and social science.

On the MAT, you have 50 minutes to solve 100 problems. The test is given on an as-needed basis at more than 600 test centers in the United States.


Professional graduate programs are likely to require you to take the appropriate graduate admissions test. The major tests are the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT), for business school applicants; the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), for law school applicants; and the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), for medical school applicants. However, there are also specialized graduate admissions tests in the fields of dentistry, veterinary science, pharmacy, optometry, and education.

Graduate Management Admissions Test.

The test most likely to be taken by prospective distance learning students is the GMAT. It is run by the Graduate Management Admissions Council and administered by ETS. Like the GRE, the GMAT is a computer-based test. It is designed to help schools of business assess applicants' aptitude for graduate level programs in business and management.

The GMAT tests verbal, quantitative, and analytic writing skills:

  • In the verbal section, you will be asked to understand and evaluate written English. There are 41 multiple-choice questions of three basic types: reading comprehension, critical reasoning, and sentence correction.
  • The quantitative section tests your basic math skills, understanding of elementary mathematical concepts, and ability to solve quantitative problems. There are 37 multiple-choice questions of two basic types: data sufficiency (is there enough information to answer the question?) and problem solving.
  • The analytical writing assessment measures your ability to think critically and communicate in writing. There are two essay topics, and you are allowed 30 minutes to respond to each. You must analyze an issue and an argument in this section of the test.


Regardless of whether you're applying to an undergraduate or graduate program, if your native language is not English, you may be required to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or Test of Spoken English (TSE) in order to determine your readiness to take courses in English. Both tests are administered by ETS.

The TOEFL is given in computer-based form throughout most of the world. Like the computer-based GRE, the TOEFL does not require previous computer experience. You are given the opportunity to practice on the computer before the test begins. The TOEFL has four sections—listening, reading, structure, and writing—and it lasts about 4 hours.

The TSE evaluates your ability to speak English. During the test, which takes about a half an hour, you answer questions that are presented in written and recorded form. Your responses are recorded; there is no writing required on this test. The TSE is not given in as many locations as the TOEFL, so you may have to travel a considerable distance to take it.


You can improve your scores and reduce your test anxiety by preparing for the exams you need to take. At the very least, preparation will mean that you are familiar with the test instructions and the types of questions you will be asked. If your computer skills need improvement, adequate preparation will mean that you focus on the questions rather than struggle with the mouse when you take the computer-based tests. For achievement tests such as the subject area tests, you will actually need to study content. There are many ways you can prepare for the tests, but whichever method you choose, start early.

  • Practice by taking old tests. You can check the Web sites of the various tests to download or request practice tests, or you can buy practice test books at a bookstore. You'll find free sample test questions on many other Web sites, including Peterson's (http://www.petersons.com).
  • Use test-preparation workbooks. These books give information and test taking strategies, as well as practice items. There are many workbooks on the market, some with CD-ROMs, that will help you prepare for an admissions test. You'll find a long list of titles to choose from in Peterson's online bookstore at http://www.petersons.com.
  • Use test-preparation software. Test preparation software is becoming more popular as more of the tests shift to computerized format. You can purchase the software in just about any computer software store. You can also take practice tests online at http://www.petersons.com/testprep.
  • Take a test-preparation course. If you don't trust yourself to stick with a self-study program using practice tests, workbooks, or software, sign up for a review course such as those given by Kaplan. Although the courses are much more expensive than the do-it-yourself approach, they may be worth it if they make you study.
  • If your math is rusty, study math content. According to the College Board, people who study math boost their scores more than people who focus only on test taking skills.

For a list of test preparation resources, see the Appendix.


The best way to reduce test anxiety is to be thoroughly prepared. If you are well-acquainted with the format, directions, and types of questions you will encounter, you will not need to waste precious testing time puzzling over these aspects of the exam. In addition to thorough preparation, here are some suggestions to reduce the stress of taking the exam.

  • Get a good night's rest and don't tank up on caffeinated beverages—they will only make you feel more stressed.
  • Make sure you've got all the things you will need, including your admission ticket and proper identification; pencils and erasers if you are taking a paper based test; and a calculator, if one is permitted.
  • Dress in layers so you will be prepared for a range of room temperatures.
  • Get to the testing site at least a half an hour early. Make sure you know the way and leave yourself plenty of time to get there.
  • Pace yourself during the exam. Know how the exam is scored so you can plan your approach.

Last, try to keep things in perspective. Remember, the exam score is just one item on your application. We'll discuss the remaining parts of an application in the next section.