Last Updated: May 19, 2020
A bachelor’s degree is a solid credential and the entry point for all kinds of careers. But in some fields, a four-year degree is just the beginning. Not only is advanced study a must in areas such as law and medicine, but it’s also required (or highly desirable) in much of the business world, the academic community, and more.
And just like with undergrad, the grad school application process includes sitting for a standardized test.
In the same way the SAT or ACT is a gateway to college in the first place, the GRE and similar exams give you the chance to show you’re prepared for graduate study.
Not surprisingly, many students would rather undergo a root canal than take a standardized test. But the experience doesn’t have to be that bad. With a solid understanding of what to expect and the right preparation, you can tackle your exams with confidence. Here are some key facts about the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, and MCAT, plus how to do well when you take them.
The GRE General Test is the best known exam of its type. According to Educational Testing Service (ETS), which administers the exam, the GRE is the most widely accepted graduate admission test in the world and is available at testing centers in more than 160 countries.
Most US students take the GRE on a computer, but a paper-based version is also offered in areas where the computerized version is not available. The commitment of taking the exam is nothing to be taken lightly. Total testing time for the computer version is about three hours and 45 minutes (plus short breaks), and the paper version takes almost as long.
The exam measures several areas considered central to successful graduate study. It covers Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, critical thinking, and Analytical Writing skills.
With the computer-based test, the portion on Verbal Reasoning has two sections posing 20 questions each. It’s section-level adaptive, meaning the second section is based on your performance on the first. The paper version, which obviously lacks such a feature, has 25 questions in each of the two sections.
The Quantitative part also consists of two sections. The computer-based version includes 20 questions in each section, with the second section, as with Verbal Reasoning, based on your responses to the first. With the paper version, each section has 25 questions.
Along with the General exam, the folks at ETS also offer “subject tests” in six disciplines. Want to show off all that knowledge you’ve gained in your major or a favorite subject area? These tests provide just that opportunity. The results can potentially enhance grad school or fellowship applications. Separate exams are offered in Biology, Chemistry, Literature in English, Mathematics, Physics, and Psychology. The exams are paper-based rather than computerized. The number of questions range from 66 in Mathematics to about 230 in Literature.
For the GRE General Test, you earn three scores. They range from 130–170 for Verbal Reasoning, 130–170 for Quantitative Reasoning, and 0–6 for Analytical Writing. For the latter, scoring is focused on Analytical Writing and critical-thinking skills rather than grammar and mechanics.
Scores are also reported in terms of percentile ranks, which show where your scores stack up with other test takers. For example, if your Verbal Reasoning score ranks in the 90th percentile, that gives you a lot to brag about (not that you would, right?). But even a score in the 50th percentile, which may not sound that great on the surface, means you’ve done better than half the students with whom your scores are being ranked.
For GRE subject tests, scores range from 200–900. For the Biology and Psychology tests, you also earn “subscores” from 20–99. As with the General Test, scores are also reported in terms of percentile rank.
Hoping to earn an MBA or other business-related graduate degree? If so, it doesn’t take a psychic from a late-night commercial to foresee the GMAT is in your future. According to the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), the GMAT exam is used by more than 2,100 institutions in 115 countries as part of their decision-making process in admitting students. Some nine out of 10 enrollments at the top 50 MBA programs in the US are made using GMAT scores.
The GMAT has four sections. Along with an Analytical Writing assessment, there are Integrated Reasoning, Quantitative, and Verbal sections. Total test time is three hours and 30 minutes.
The Reasoning section has 12 questions with 30 minutes allowed for completion, and the 75-minute Quantitative portion includes 37 questions. On the Verbal section, which also has 75 minutes allotted, there are 41 questions.
Total scores on the GMAT range from 200–800. Percentile rankings are also reported, providing a helpful way to see how your scores compare to those of other students.
A new GMAT feature allows you to customize the test-taking experience by selecting the order in which you take each section of the exam. Some students feel this brings an increased comfort level when sitting for the test.
The Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is, no surprise, targeted to prospective lawyers. According to the Law School Admission Council, which administers the exam, the LSAT is required by more than 98% of law schools. This includes nearly all those approved by the American Bar Association. About 100,000 tests are administered annually.
The exam consists of five sections, with 35 minutes allowed for completion of each section. One covers Reading Comprehension, another focuses on Analytical Reasoning, and two cover Logical Reasoning. A fifth section, which is unscored, is used by the exam’s developers for purposes such as pretesting new questions.
At the end of the test, a 35-minute writing sample is also administered. While this is not scored, copies are sent to all law schools to which you apply.
Possible scores for the LSAT range from a low of 120 to a high of 180. Like the GRE, results also include percentile ranks, with your scores ranked with those for the previous three testing years.
A few law schools have recently changed requirements to accept either the LSAT or the GRE. They are in the great minority, however, and the American Bar Association has yet to give its stamp of approval to this option. So students interested in this possibility should take care in exploring just which test is acceptable for a given law school.
Good scores on the MCAT may not win you a guest-starring role on Grey’s Anatomy, but they can make the difference in getting accepted to medical school.
Administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the MCAT assesses knowledge of the natural, behavioral, and social sciences needed for the study of medicine. The test also covers problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.
According to AAMC, almost all medical schools in the US, and many in Canada, require MCAT scores for prospective students.
The exam has four sections. Questions cover Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems; Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems; Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior; and Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills.
There are 50+ questions in each section. The MCAT can challenge anyone’s test-taking capacity, with “content time” of six hours, 15 minutes and total seated time of more than 7.5 hours.
Scores range from 118–132 for each section, with total scores varying from 472–528.
Considering your options
While a standardized test is a common requirement for grad school admission, it isn’t a universal one. Some universities allow you to enroll as a part-time student and then take a standardized exam after you have completed a few courses. Others don’t require such a test at all. You’re more likely to find this practice at online schools, but some well-known, traditional institutions have also elected not to require scores from standardized tests. To find out if this is a possible option for you, go to the grad school website of any school in which you’re interested and check out the list of admission requirements. Of course, if you’re considering several schools and any of them list standardized test scores among their requirements, the smart move is to go ahead and sit for an exam just to be sure.
Another consideration is whether to take the same exam more than once. If your score the first time around is not as high as you would have liked, you might want to go for a retake. Although there is no guarantee that a second score will be higher than the first, many students find success with this approach. If nothing else, you will know exactly what to expect, and you may find a follow-up testing experience less stressful. Those factors, in turn, may well bring an improved score.
Preparing for the tests
The earlier you start preparing for the GRE or other grad school admission exam, the better.
“Preparing for a standardized test is the equivalent to preparing to run a marathon,” says Duane Tobias, Director of Admissions, Diversity & Inclusion at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security. “The more you practice, the better you become.”
In fact, it only makes sense that for any exam designed to assess the potential for succeeding at an advanced level, some serious prep is in order.
“To do well on a graduate school admission test, you need to study,” says Gina Moses, Director of Admissions at the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine. “Even if that means going to free online resources or visiting a library to borrow a test prep book, just knowing what types of questions to expect ultimately helps you calm your nerves and perform to the best of your innate abilities.”
Fortunately, there is no shortage of helpful info on preparing for the exams. The organizations that sponsor them are great sources of test prep information, and several publishers provide exam preparation books and other materials targeted to prospective graduate students.
For example, ETS offers free practice tests and other resources via its website (ets.org), as well as The Official Guide to the GRE General Test, mobile apps, and more.
The Law School Admission Council offers a free sample test on its website (lsac.org), including a printer-friendly PDF option and a complete version in Spanish. At this helpful site, you can also download sample questions with explanations and view videos offering test-taking tips.
Similarly, the Association of American Medical Colleges offers the Official Guide to the MCAT Exam, practice tests, flash cards, and more. The organization has also partnered with Khan Academy to offer tons of free videos and MCAT review questions, all available at khanacademy.org.
And just one of the resources for business students is GMAT Prep Guide 2017–2018: Test Prep Book & Practice Exam Questions for the Analytical Writing, Integrated Reasoning, Quantitative, and Verbal Sections on the GMAC Graduate Management Admission Test by the GMAT Advanced Review Strategy Team.
You can also find books, flash cards (both paper and electronic), apps, and more from online providers and brick-and-mortar bookstores.
“Take advantage of the preparation courses and practice exams if you can,” says Sue McCrory, coordinator of the testing center at Missouri State University. “They are the best way of both practicing the material and easing test anxiety surrounding the composition of the exam.”
At the same time, your overall experience as an undergrad should also serve you well. Thanks to all those final exams and other course tests, by the time you’re ready to consider grad school, you’re a testing veteran. So go for it! With an understanding of what to expect and a commitment to preparation, you can meet the challenges posed by graduate-level standardized tests.
Find more grad school test tips in our Graduate School section.