Putting yourself to the test

So many acronyms.
Want to make it to grad school? Better get started studying for these tests.

So, you’ve gotten into university, you’ve chosen your major, and you’re knocking off those W, Q, B requirements one by one. Maybe you haven’t chosen your major, and have no idea what it’s going to be, but are still checking off those bachelor degree requirements. Whatever your situation, you know that you want to further pursue education after your bachelor’s degree.

Congratulations, you’ve held onto that eccentric ambition that most sane people have advised you to ignore: you’re gonna stay in school.

You’ve probably heard from peers, educators, parents, and professionals that graduate school, medical school, law school, and any professional school you want to pursue after post-secondary not only requires a bachelor’s degree, an outrageous curriculum vitae, reference letters, and a steroid-injected cumulative grade point average, but also that you perform well on an admission test.

Although there are many professional schools that require their own admission test, there are  three big ones you’ve probably heard of: the MCAT, LSAT, and GRE.

But what’s on these exams? What do they test, how are they scored, and are they really that important for professional school admission? We take a closer look at the big three tests — and what to expect from each.

MCAT

The Medical College Admissions Test, better known as the MCAT, is designed and administered by the American Association of Medical colleges. If you’re applying to medical school in Canada or the United States, you must write this test.

While the number of tests administered from year to year varies, it is being offered 33 times between January 2014 and January 2015. In this one-year period, a person is allowed to take the MCAT three times. Of course, taking the test three times is unnecessary, but if you’re unhappy with your score on your first attempt, you’re allowed to take the test twice more.

When you write the MCAT, it won’t be with a pencil or an exam booklet. Instead, you’ll sit at a desk, answering questions on a computer. Each question is multiple choice: there are 52 questions in the biological sciences section, 52 in the physical sciences section, and 40 in the critical analysis and reasoning section. You’re allowed 70 minutes for the first two sections, and 60 for the third.

Until recently, these were followed by a written response section, but that has since been replaced by a trial section, which is comprised of 32 questions over a 40-minute period. The trial section doesn’t actually count towards your score — it’s used to test out questions for future MCATs.

So what sorts of questions can test-takers expect? The MCAT contains questions on physics, chemistry, biochemistry, biology, and critical analysis and reasoning. The questions on physics, chemistry, and biology are said to be of introductory level difficulty, so if you’ve taken the prerequisites for medical school, these questions should be pretty straightforward. That isn’t to say that they’ll be easy, so study up!

The critical analysis and reasoning section of the test, on the other hand, is designed to evaluate medical school applicants’ ability to comprehend complex information and arguments. From the sample questions I’ve seen, the critical analysis and reasoning section includes a short passage — usually about a page — which is followed by questions about that passage.

For those of you looking to take the test during or after 2015, you can also expect a new section covering the psychological, sociological, and biological aspects of behaviour.

Raw scores from the different sections of the MCAT are each converted to a scale ranging from 1–15. Each score from the different sections is added for a total of 45 possible points. For example, a score of 13 on physical sciences, 14 on biological sciences, and 11 on critical analysis and reasoning will give you a sum of 38. Your raw score is then converted into a scaled score which compensates for variability between sets of questions used on the test — you’ll also be given info on what percentile of test-takers you fall into.

I recently spoke with a current SFU student who is a prospective med-school applicant; Matias Raski is finishing up a BSc in behavioral neuroscience and says he has already begun studying for the MCAT. “I’m not nervous,” Raski says. “I’ve done very well in all of my introductory science classes, and the MCAT will be just that: material that I’ve already learned and mastered.”

I asked the future doctor whether he thinks the exam reflects his readiness for medical school. “It does, to a limited extent,” he reflected. “It measures certain abilities like rote memorization of well-established scientific observations, but it doesn’t assess the full scope of skills required for success in medicine; perhaps the weight given to students’ MCAT scores in admission decisions should be adjusted accordingly.”

LSAT

Another daunting admission test is the Law School Admission Test, commonly known as the LSAT. If you want to practice law in Canada or the United states, you’ll have to take this one. Unlike the MCAT, the LSAT is only offered four times a year — every February, June, September, and December.

If you happen to flunk the first time you take the test, it’s not the end of the world. You’re allowed to retake the test, but there is a restriction on how many times you can write it — according to the Law School Admission Council, a test-taker can only take the LSAT a maximum of three times within a two-year period. As always, rule changes with these tests do occur; make sure to do your research.

The LSAT is made up of five components: three multiple choice sections, a written section, and an unscored variable section used to pre-test new questions. The multiple choice sections have between 24–27 questions each; its three multiple choice sections are what count toward your LSAT score. The written component is not graded and does not count towards your admission score; as in the MCAT, it’s there to help create new questions for future LSATs.

However, unlike the MCAT, the written portion of the LSAT is sent to the school you’re applying to — some schools will even use it to choose between applicants, so again, make sure to do your research.

You’re given 35 minutes per section, for a total of about three hours. There are three types of multiple choice questions that you will encounter on the LSAT: reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, and logical reasoning.

The reading comprehension section consists of a medium to large passage, varying in topic. This section requires careful observation in order to answer correctly. The analytical reasoning section, generally considered the toughest part of the test, consists of what some refer to as ‘logic games.’ You’re given a set of facts, a set of rules, and then asked which conclusions follow.

The logical reasoning section presents short to medium passages, and proceeds to ask questions about those passages. The questions might ask what can or cannot follow from what has been discussed in the passage; alternatively, they might ask which answers support or don’t support the argument presented in the passage. Finally, the writing section gives you a position and asks you to write in its defense.

The order of all these sections varies from test to test — therefore, it’s possible to begin the test with the writing sample, which is unfortunate, as this section doesn’t count towards your admission score, but costs valuable energy that could be used on sections that do count towards your score.

LSAT scoring is fairly simple. Your test score is converted to a scale ranging from 120–180. The law school admission council admits that, although the LSAT doesn’t completely predict the readiness and success of a student in law school, it does accurately measure characteristics that a law student must have, such as critical thinking, the ability to draw inferences from arguments, and the ability to organize information.

After looking through a few practice LSATs, it’s clear that the analytical reasoning section, or logic games, constitutes the most difficult portion of the exam. The facts and rules provided are fairly simple, but the time frame in which you must complete this section limits the ability to draw the right conclusions.

This is a general feature of the LSAT. It’s not that the questions on this test are extremely difficult; it’s that you only have about a minute and a half to spend on each question.

After reading long passages or attempting to diagram logical problems, you may have to re-read portions of text or rules. This can waste valuable time and affect your ability to answer questions later in the test. Having taken a few of the practice tests, I find myself taking an hour to an hour and a half to complete just one multiple choice section. Fair warning.

GRE

If you’re applying to graduate schools in Canada and the United States, you’ll most likely have to take the Graduate Record Examination test, or one of the many similar exams out there. Designed and administered by Education Testing Services, the GRE is usually administered on a computer, though some still do it the old fashion way: with a pencil and an exam booklet.

The computerized test is offered every 21 days, while the pencil and paper test can only be taken during certain times of the year. You can write the computerized GRE a maximum of five times per 12-month period. Since the pencil and paper exam is offered significantly less often, it can be rewritten as often as it is administered.

There are six sections on both the written and computerized GRE; each section ranges from 20–30 multiple choice questions, or contains written questions requiring long answers. The test is made up of three components: analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning.

The time limit and number of questions per section will vary depending on whether you take the computerized version or the written. For example, on the verbal reasoning section in the computerized version, examinees are given 20 questions per section, and 30 minutes to complete them; alternately, in the pencil and paper test, you must complete 25 questions in 35 minutes.

Despite the difference between the computerized and the handwritten versions, the analytical writing section always comes first on the test. The order of the other components will vary from test to test, but at least you’ll know what to expect when you begin.

Since the test is given to a variety of students across many fields, the components of the GRE are said to measure skills that are independent of any specific discipline. Each section presents its own challenges.

The first section aims to test examinees’ ability to articulate complex ideas coherently and concisely. In the verbal reasoning section, examinees are asked to draw inferences from passages, distinguish valuable points from irrelevant ones, and understand the meaning of words and the relationship between them. In the quantitative reasoning section, you’re required to solve problems by using mathematical models, and by applying basic algebra skills, geometry, and arithmetic to problems.

After a raw score is obtained, each of the two multiple choice sections — verbal and quantitative reasoning — get converted into a scaled score ranging between 130–170. The analytical writing section is marked on a 0–6 score scale.

Like the other admission tests, your score is scaled to account for slight differences between tests, but this does not mean that writing a test at one particular date gives you an advantage. Furthermore, your score will also be assigned a percentile ranking, so you know where you stand against other test-takers.

Mathew Gendron, a current SFU student who will soon apply to counseling programs at both SFU and UBC, wrote the GRE this past August. Sharing how he felt going into the exam, Gendron says, “I’d been calm, but a little nervous, throughout the whole process. The programs I applied for place less weight on the exam compared to other things like experience, and have a lower score requirement for the exam. So, I am grateful for that.”

How long did it take to prepare? “I’d say around 75 hours, mostly in the two weeks before the test,” Gendron says.

No matter what school you’re applying to, an admission test is usually weighted pretty heavily. Your score and cumulative grade point average can determine whether the rest of your application is even reviewed. So, if you’re planning on professional school after your bachelor’s, keep your grades up, learn all you can about what determines the acceptance to the school you would like to get into, and most of all, study hard.

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