Been there, done that.

After six years of grad school, there are a few things I've picked up from personal experience and a whole lot of time talking with other female grad students (AKA procrastinating). I've always wished there had been some kind of handbook about how to handle the whole world of graduate school, so I figured I'd start a friendly place to discuss what it's like to be female in grad school, and maybe pass on some wisdom too!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Test

I hope everyone is emerging from their Turkey-induced comas and are ready to head back to work tomorrow! (Okay, maybe not the work thing, but I do hope everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving!)

So, this week's topic to tackle: the Test. You know the one I'm talking about. It's either the GRE, the LSAT, MCAT, or some other acronym that can instill pain and suffering into the hearts of all aspiring graduate students. Yes, almost all programs in the US will require one or another, and doing well on these tests will obviously influence whether or not you get in, or at least where you decide to apply. So, how does one go about getting ready for these exams? Here are some of the common methods I've seen (and I'll even throw my opinion in there as an added bonus--for free! Lucky you!):

  • Kaplan (or other similar) courses. These evening/weekend classes are big among students applying for the MCAT in particular, though the centers offer courses for the other tests as well. I've seen many people go through these, and they are very intensive. In many cases, they will prepare you for the test itself, and they often have good deals on re-taking the course if you don't do as well as you'd like. They are also quite good at psyching you out in terms of the test--a side effect of pushing their students. If you are already one of those people who don't test well, these kinds of courses can help you improve, or totally leave you freaked out (I've seen both--the latter is not pretty...). Anyhow, the main drawback to these kinds of classes is the cost. Talk about $$$! Seriously, be prepared to fork over a lot of money. Of course, it may be worth it if it's going to get you into med school, but I wouldn't say it's worth it for the GRE.
  • By the book. There must be a hundred different prep books for each of the major grad school tests. They take up a whole section at my local Borders. Often, these are also quite good. They give good pointers, and will come with access to the online tests, too. (If you're picking one out--I'd steer toward the ones that are regularly updated and do have the option for electronic tests to practise on, as most of these exams are now given on a computer.) They're a much cheaper way to go in terms of studying, but they will obviously require a lot of personal discipline in terms of getting in study time. If you aren't one of those people who is good at forcing yourself to sit down and study for some amount each day, this may not be for you.
  • Wingin' it. Hey, it's been done. I'm not advocating it, but some people are already well versed in the field they're going into and don't need to spend the extra time studying. I hate these people. It is certainly the low-stress avenue to take :)
  • Mash-up. Many individuals take a variety of methods and mix them together. By the time people finish college they have a pretty good idea of the best way they study and can create a system that is going to work well for them. Personally, I like flashcards a lot, and ended up taking all of the GRE words and making myself a giant stack of them. I also found a book that helped me re-learn all the really basic math that the GRE tests on (because apparently grad students don't use calculators or excel--honestly, why do they test on eight-grade math?).
In the end, it comes down to how you study. What's the best way you're going to remember that physics course you took two years ago? Or all the amino acids? Taking a few minutes to really think about that before you set out to tackle one of these tests is going to help a lot.

Other things of note on this topic: in general, women aren't considered to be as good of test takers as men. This is one of those long-standing rumors that floats around, and I kind of wish I could figure out its origin. Personally, I've seen both men and women with serious test-phobias. They really can be crippling, and figuring out how to deal with them is going to be a serious necessity in order to not only get into grad school, but survive the process. Here's a few things I've heard/seen done/read about for dealing with test-related stress:
  • Wear green. I'm serious. It's supposed to relax you. I kind of wonder if this is actually ever been tested, but hey, if it helps, don't knock it!
  • Avoid daylight-savings time changes. This came out a couple of weeks ago pertaining to the SAT, but I think it applies here, too. The time change messes with your internal clock and can affect your score. I'm actually really not surprised by this.
  • Don't cram the day before. Yeah, we've all done it for tests before, but if you can take the day off before the test to let yourself relax, you're supposed to do better. It also forces you to be better prepared, which I think is one of the reasons it works.
  • The old standards: get a good night's sleep, eat a decent meal, don't drink too much water/coffee/stimulant-of-choice, get there early, avoid stress. These are the fall-backs for a reason. They help!
Okay, so what do you all think? What else can people do to prepare? What else can they do to avoid the test-taking woes? Anyone? Bueller?


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