The new normal for test preparation for studies abroad

Adarsh ​​Khandelwal

As of March 1 this year, students applied to 9 per cent more colleges, according to data from Common Application. That means increased competition for the coped Ivy League colleges and other top institutes as well. Despite many colleges going test-optional, a high standardized test score remains a differentiating factor for both undergraduate and postgraduate applications.

Test preparation for study abroad includes standardized tests such as GMAT or GRE for postgraduate programmes, and the ACT, SAT, and AP for undergraduate programmes. There is a significant pattern to the way successful candidates world over approach test preparation.

Test preparation 101: Clarity

Students from South Korea and Singapore first work through a dependable online diagnostic test followed by self-study and 2-3 weeks of self-driven problem solving. Only after this initial familiarization with the tests do they look for test preparation programmes. By this time they already have a nascent understanding of which test they want to go for (ACT or SAT? GRE or GMAT? Which AP tests?) and the work required for each test (Math or Verbal etc.).

On the other hand, for Indian students the approach is usually one size fits all. Students rarely explore test structure and options on their own before looking out for tutoring. In fact, once tutoring has started, the student tends to play no active role in the process. This is, however, a mistake. The student learns to depend on the tutor without developing the ability to analyze and monitor her own performance. This often spells trouble on test day.

The crucial 3 weeks leading up to the test

Amol has acceptances from Columbia, Wisconsin, Illinois, Waterloo, Georgia Tech, UCSD, Maryland, and Upenn. He believes his GRE score of 340 played a significant role in his acceptances. But how did he achieve a perfect score? “Take tests and review them. Study for 8 hours every day for at least 3 weeks leading up to the test. Be aware of your strengths and weaknesses at every point.”

The test and review schedule that worked for him need not work for every test taker. Some test takers need to gain more conceptual clarity on topics in Math and Verbal before embarking on a rigorous test and review cycle. What we need to focus on in Amol’s experience is his self-driven approach to test preparation.

Mock tests or diagnostic tests are just as crucial for tests such as the ACT and the SAT. Siddhant, who has recently received a Fulbright scholarship and will pursue computer science at NYU, explained his journey to an SAT Score of 1550 – “Mock tests are really important to benchmark your performance. But it’s crucial to analyze where you are going wrong.”

He credits his SAT success to structured practice, 15 mock tests, hours of test and practice review, helped along by the detailed analytics on his chosen preparation portal.

Here a few things that a student preparing for any of these tests for Study Abroad need to ensure in the 3 weeks leading up to the test. These pointers assume that the student has already developed significant clarity about improvement areas, test-taking challenges, areas of strength, etc.

  • Mock tests: There is no better way of preparing for a standardized test than to take mock tests. What is crucial is planning practice around the mock tests. The rule of thumb is 80% of your preparation in these crucial 3 weeks should revolve around the mock tests—taking mocks, reviewing errors, identifying improvement areas and practicing on these improvement areas.
  • Timed Practice: The remaining 20% ​​of your preparation should be practiced on all topics to ensure your strengths are not compromised while working on weaknesses. Ensure that everything you solve is timed at this stage.
  • Granular analysis: Computer adaptive test such as the GMAT requires careful attention to pacing and structured problem-solving. However, when it comes to a computer-based test like the GRE or a test like the ACT, time management is just as crucial. Test-takers often make the mistake of not going into painstaking detail on question types and time taken on an average and for a specific test on a question variant.

To sum up, competition for the top colleges in the US and other study abroad destinations is increasing fast. Making your profile stand out is easier when you have excellent standardized test scores since these demonstrate your competency in critical thinking and written communication skills to the college. Your test preparation needs to follow the path indicated in this article. Remember that 80 of your success will come from your own hard work. The remaining 20 per cent would comprise test preparation guidance and material.

The writer is Co Founder, Collegify

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