Earning high scores on standardized tests has never been more important than it is now. With college tuition soaring into six digits for an upper tier private undergraduate degree, a failing economy and the increased competition for fewer jobs that comes with it, and the number of highly educated foreigners vying for spots in America’s top colleges and universities, one cannot do without very high scores on the GRE (Graduate Record Exam).
There are more and more test preparation programs being offered. I have been trained in more than one of them, and have studied others. The basic strategies are the same, and children are now learning those strategies in school at younger and younger ages. The increased reliance on standardized test scores for evaluation of public schools has resulted in students receiving test taking strategies in classes in middle school and sometimes, even earlier.
As for myself, after a lackluster college career and eight years out of school, when I took the GREs I managed to score in the upper 90th percentile (96, 98, and 97) in all three categories tested (English, Math, and Analytic Skills). I never took an advanced math course in high school let alone college. I never studied Debate, or took advanced science classes either. So how could someone like me, whose most advanced math courses were taken more than fifteen years earlier, whose scientific education was limited to a few basic college level courses, and who had been out of an academic environment for nearly a decade score so well?
It would be easy to say that I took one of the private test preparation courses and they taught me all I needed to know. While it is true that I took one of the courses, it was not the work with the course instructor that helped me so much as what I did on my own time while in the program.
When choosing a test preparation course such as Kaplan or The Princeton Review, one should focus not only on the instruction that you will receive in the classroom, but the extras that are offered with the program. It is these extras that will give you the edge.
Make sure when you buy into one of these courses, they offer a way to practice taking released tests. Make sure that they also offer you a chance to review your scores and see where you made your mistakes. This is the most important part of the process.
It is not enough to practice released test questions. You must simulate the test as closely as possible to the actual experience that awaits you. If you are taking a three-hour test, practice taking ten three-hour tests. Spend three hours at a time taking them. If you are looking at a six-hour test, practice sitting for six hours of testing, if possible. Then review your answers. Look only at those answers that you missed. Work the problems, or study how to do those problems to target your area of need. Do this ten times. Do not waste time learning something you already know. The ability to target your areas of weakness, as discovered in simulated testing situations, is key to your success. You must follow up on what you learn on each practice by placing yourself in another simulated testing situation to see how well you learned your lessons. A new test will provide you with new opportunities to focus your learning as well as the ability to assess how well you improved in your area of weakness.
Whichever test preparation program you choose must allow you to do this with the complete test, as many times as you can. Ten is a good target number. These hours are extremely well spent, and they are really where you get your money’s worth.
In the classroom, you can ask the instructor to help you to learn how to do some of the problems with which you struggle. But the fact is that these instructors are experts in test taking strategies, not the on the content of the test. Many of them will give you scripted answers to your questions that redirect your focus to test taking techniques. In fact, at least one these programs does not allow their instructors to teach you how to do the content, for fear that they will misteach you.
If, when you study your incorrect answers, you discover that you are weak in logical sequencing, for example, you will need to refresh yourself on that academic skill. Any public library will offer you materials to help you. It is this process, improving your content area skills based on targeted self-assessment (using the program’s released tests in accurate simulations of the real testing environment) that will raise you above the rest.
Your competition is already doing this. To recap:
1. Find a test preparation program that offers you the ability to take complete practice tests and analyze your results.
2. Take practice tests (ten) and discover your areas of weakness by noting down the types of questions you missed.
3. Target your study time on the content areas where you are weakest.
4. Retest, reassess, retarget.
By the time you finish the tenth test you will be sick of this process. You will also be ready to achieve high scores on the test. You will be completely at ease in the testing environment (and conditions) and you will have developed your test taking stamina so that you will not tire during the test.
Keep in mind that these are high stakes tests. The stakes are your future. This investment of time and money will give you the best opportunity to achieve the future you envision for yourself.
Good luck. It won’t be fun, but it will pay off for you.