Test Prep

Graduating in May? Find Out When You Should Take Grad School Exams


It seems like yesterday that you were fretting over your undergraduate applications, but the last four years have flown by, and college graduation is right around the corner. It's time to consider your next step – is grad school in your future?

If you are interested in pursuing an advanced degree, you're probably already aware that graduate school applications typically require an entrance exam: the GRE, MCAT, LSAT or GMAT. Some programs may also require or recommend that you take one or two SAT Subject Tests. But how soon do you need to decide about registering for one of these tests?

When's the Deadline?

The first step is to check out the application deadlines of the graduate programs that appeal to you most. If a school's deadline is in November, then usually the latest date you can take the entrance exam would also be in November. However, be aware that some schools will post exceptions on their website, like only accepting October test dates for November deadlines.

Jessica Brauser Austin, founder and head counselor at PrivateApplications, points out that the challenge of taking a test so close to a deadline “is that you might not be happy with your score, and you will be too short on time to retake. Taking a test so close to a deadline makes sense for some people, but not everyone. If you are one of the few who takes a November test for a November deadline, you will not know your score before it is submitted to the school. Most likely, you will have to rush report the score, which prevents you from seeing the score before the school sees your scores."

If you want to see your score report (and you really should!) before it gets submitted to your grad programs of choice, make sure you register for a test date at least one month in advance of the application deadline.

Decide on Schools Later

The good news is that you don't really have to figure out your final list of target grad schools before you decide to register. Once you take the test, your score will offer a good indication of the range and tiers of schools that are statistically in your reach, says Austin. “If your score comes in higher or lower than your target schools' averages, then you can make subsequent decisions about how to nudge your application towards an acceptance. Subtle strategies to compensate for lower test scores include strategic essay topics and extracurricular activities, as well as supportive letters of recommendation."

Build in Time for Test Prep, Retakes

First of all, you will need time to study – about eight weeks of regular study is generally sufficient to prepare and get into the testing mindset, says Austin. Also, all of the grad school entrance exams are computer-delivered, unlike the paper-based SAT and ACT, so give yourself time to practice with the digital testing format and understand how it works.

You also may not be happy with your initial test-taking attempt and will want to retake the test for a higher score. If that's the case, Austin recommends that you give yourself at least a six month window for testing. “Within that period you could reasonably sit for two to three test dates and still have time to make improvements between each test."

But Austin says that she has worked with students who are “fully confident with test-taking and only plan ahead for one test date. There are so many different learning styles these days, and everyone has a different perspective and confidence with testing. Therefore, not everyone needs to build in time."

Try to Plan Ahead

Ideally, you could sign up to take a grad school entrance exam for the first time as a junior. Not only does this allow you plenty of time to identify your weak spots, retake the test and improve your score, but Austin adds that “taking tests when you are ready gives you enough time to focus on other parts of your application. And most graduate schools accept tests taken within five years of applying to the program."