Disclaimer: much of the following content is adapted from US News and World Report and was originally intended for use with undergraduate admissions tests (e.g. SAT and ACT). Here I have to say what it means in the context of graduate admissions tests, and may well apply to the LSAT, MCAT, DAT/TAED, and to a lesser extent, the GMAT. These tests are available on various dates throughout the year, although the number of dates vary greatly from test to test: it ranges from 3 a year to dozens of dates.
Many people who take graduate admission tests are people who took them as undergraduates, but beware pitfall #9: taking it on an untimely test date may ultimately cost you your coveted fat envelope. But I wish all of you success in this endeavor, regardless of the field. If you are struggling to choose the right test dates, these four tips are quite helpful.
- Departmental application deadlines: First, determine your application deadlines. You might find yourself in a crunch if you realize that the latest test date your program is willing to consider is fast approaching. Typically deadlines for PhD programs come in late December or early January (I advise you against applying any later, as PhD applications submitted past these deadlines are often not considered for financial aid), while med schools have much earlier deadlines (November is typical of a med school, like UPenn Perelman, November 1) and law/business schools, much later (Columbia Business School accepts applications until April 1, while Cambridge Judge round-5 deadline is May 1, but students who apply this late to a MBA program usually face longer odds than round-1 or round-2 applicants). However, you should remember that your scores are not immediately available. Once again, processing times depend on the test but 3-4 weeks is typical.
- Balancing multiple exams. It is also in your best interest to ensure your assessments do not overlap. Certain colleges and universities require the relevant test alone, while others, such as the University of Chicago’s qual-free physics PhD, may also request a GRE subject test. For international students whose first language is not English, the TOEFL must also be taken, unless one is applying to a JD program (which I advise against in the current condition of the American legal job market if one is a foreign student with respect to US law schools). Each exam will cover markedly different material, so it’s important to allot each test the individual attention it deserves. Students should also allow for the possibility that they will need to retake one or more exams. Studying for more than one exam simultaneously is difficult for most students, and it adds unnecessary stress and complication to an already challenging process. Finally, note that subject tests are available less frequently than general exams (3 times a year), which can further complicate matters if you are aiming for a PhD program that requires one.
- Consider school commitments: Even for those students who must only complete one test, there are several advantages to targeting nontraditional test dates. The summer, for example, may offer plentiful study time and a minimum of scholastic distractions. In this instance, the first advanced GRE (if applicable) or LSAT test date, generally in September or October, can enable you to capitalize upon ample prep time. For students who work full-time in the summer, or who attend summer classes, the school year – say, April – may be a more viable option. Jobs, internships and travel can also have a negative impact on your review habits. The intensity of your schoolwork, midterms or final exams and extracurriculars can also factor into your schedule. Plan your responsibilities ahead of time, and then choose a time of year that will have minimal distractions before your test date.
- Manage your family or job commitments: Finally, consider the world beyond academics. Many graduate student hopefuls have family obligations such as weddings and vacations, or job obligations like a business trip. Speak with the important people in your life and identify unavoidable commitments. You may find that you must alter your exam dates or, more radically, register for a different test (in the case of MPH or MBA hopefuls most likely, where they may have the choice of sitting for either the GRE or the MCAT/GMAT respectively). Since colleges and universities offering MPH or MBA programs often assign the GRE and the alternate test (MCAT or GMAT, depending on the case) equal weight, and the exams are scheduled on different dates, simple availability may factor into your decision. Take advantage of the full range of possibilities when making your plans. Sitting for a graduate test can be very stressful. You can mitigate this stress, however, with basic planning and preparation. Know your deadlines and try to give yourself enough distraction-free time to study, and you may soon find that scheduling your test date is much easier than you imagined.