Whether you're deciding to take the GMAT or the GRE, or you're merely weeks away from your test day, it is easy to get caught up in the tedious bits of advice that every blog, manual, and friend has to offer. These five key strategies will help ground your long-term testing goals:
1. Remember your goals and stay in touch with your motivation
Preparing for – and taking – standardized tests is difficult and stressful. Even “natural” test takers who may not spend as much time preparing still feel fatigued after taking a long test. With tests – just like any other endeavor – you’ll do better if you feel committed, and it can be hard to feel like all the hours and energy are worth a few points on a standardized test that you won’t think about again after you get accepted to your program of choice. Of course, you don’t take the test for the sake of the test – you take it to enable you to reach larger life goals (like academic programs). So, if your goal is to get into Harvard Business School and you’re aiming for a 750+ GMAT score, you should remember that every hour you spend studying, preparing, and working with a tutor isn’t just an hour you’re investing in the test, it’s an hour you’re investing in a key life goal.
2.Don’t be afraid to use logic and intuition.
Many are intimidated by math questions that use geometry and algebra that they haven’t seen for years or by the sometimes convoluted grammatical rules tested in verbal sections. Part of test preparation should be to help you identify when you should – or shouldn’t – use intuitive methods like ball-parking, estimation, or, for verbal, “listening to your ear.” Incidentally, don’t be afraid to change your answer – some test-takers fear (based on old conventional wisdom) that changing an answer is more likely to make it wrong than right, but studies have shown that test takers’ second answer is at least as likely to be right as the first one, and they are usually more likely to be right.
3. Prepare through mastery…
About those math questions… if your math foundations are rusty, spend some time at the beginning of your preparation to refresh them. If you can reliably and quickly do arithmetic and simple algebraic manipulations and you are comfortable with the general math principles your test uses – such as compound interest or probabilities – you will score much better in your quantitative section. It’s more effective to study that basic math directly before working on more holistic quantitative test prep, since proficiency in the former will also help you get more out of the latter. During this part of your preparation, don’t worry about speed or test-like conditions – just focus on understanding and mastering the basics.
4.… but also prepare in real-life conditions.
Once you have the basics, practice like you’re taking the test. Be mindful of all of the factors that impact you on the test – including that the test is computerized and timed. Different people find different things about Test Day challenging – identify what you find challenging, and then work to adapt to it before, not during, the test.
5. Adapt your approach to the test to your strengths and weaknesses – and adapt as you move through the test.
Throughout your test prep, you’ll identify your strengths and weaknesses. Early on, that can help you practice more effectively. As you near the test, it can inform your test day strategy. If, for example, you know that you tend to lose a lot of time on geometry questions, you might decide to use a quicker (but less reliable) approach to the first geometry questions you see. However, if you find yourself with plenty of time late in the test, you might switch back and take your time on later geometry problems. Put simply: build a plan around your strengths and weaknesses, but don’t be afraid to adapt it as those strengths and weaknesses evolve and as you make your way through Test Day. The best test plans are flexible and adaptable.
Benjamin attended the University of Minnesota (M.A. ’14) and Brandeis University (B.A. ’12) with degrees in industrial relations, politics, and history and Phi Alpha Theta membership. He has written on a variety of subjects, publishing in Brandeis’ Law Journal, International Politics Journal, and twice in the Ethics Center. He wrote separate theses in politics and history, one (on the Tariff Commission) won high honors in his department and the other (on the Haiti Occupation) was runner-up for the University’s Latin America essay prize.
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