They make us stay up late at night, poring over thick, unwieldy books. They make us struggle with OMR sheets, graphing calculators and mind-boggling words. And before test day, they make us toss and turn in our beds all night, wondering, “What if I don’t ace this one? Where does my future lie?”
These are the multiple exams that one takes to study abroad, known collectively as standardized testing.
Gone are the days when the boy or girl next door who went to ‘Amreeka’ or ‘Lundun’ for higher education became a local celebrity. Today, applying abroad for undergraduate studies has become a norm for many young people in Indian cities. Globalization, liberal mindsets towards the ‘West’ and the competitiveness of our own system of higher education have made many students consider colleges abroad as their first option. With an increasing number of students choosing to study abroad, standardized tests like the SAT, the TOEFL and the GRE have become as commonplace as engineering or medicine entrances. A whole industry has spawned around standardized tests, ranging from a plethora of ominous looking guides, coaching centres, counsellors, consultants and the list goes on.
So what are these tests that are needed for applying abroad? The SAT Reasoning test is the first and most basic test that is required by ALL universities for undergraduate programs in the United States of America, and by some universities in other countries such as Singapore and Australia. The SAT consists of three sections: reading, writing and mathematics. The reading and mathematics sections are entirely multiple-choice questions while the writing section requires you to write an essay on a given topic. A perfect score on SAT is 2400 and most students applying to top colleges will aim for a minimum of 2200 or even 2300. Most universities in the US will also require a minimum of two SAT Subject Tests as well, which test aptitude for a particular subject such as Mathematics, World History, English Literature, Chemistry or Physics. TOEFL and IELTS are English proficiency exams for the US and UK respectively.
At the graduate level, the testing requirements are different. Graduate programs in management require the GMAT while GRE is required for all other graduate programs. The tests for English proficiency at the graduate level remain the same: TOEFL or IELTS.
When applying abroad, the multitude of tests one has to give can be daunting and overwhelming. For those students whose hearts are set on going abroad, the pressure to perform well can be intense and the fear of failure can be paralyzing and counterproductive.
So all of you who get psyched out by these tests: sit back, calm down and take a deep breath. Standardized tests are not difficult; in fact, most of them are easier than the school exams you take. Moreover, they do not really matter that much in the scheme of things.
Several common misconceptions exist about standardized tests; let’s look at a few:
1. Excellent Score = Dream College: While a good score on the SAT is essential if you are planning to apply to top colleges, it is not the only thing that matters on your application. Colleges look at an application from a very holistic point of view; school grades, extra-curricular activities, letters of recommendation and essays matter as much as SAT scores, if not more. Even for students scoring between 2300 and 2400 on SAT, the acceptance rate in top colleges is only about 15-18%. An excellent score may enhance your application, but it does not guarantee a place in any college. So work hard and do your best, but don’t sweat too much if the result is not in line with your expectations.
2. Coaching Centres Help Improve Your Score: A good proportion of students taking these tests enrol with a coaching program for preparation. Most of these carry a steep price tag. The truth is that coaching really doesn’t help much in preparing for the SAT, except for the fact that it builds a routine for you and provides you with vast amounts of study material. It is entirely possible for students to buy this material themselves and study on their own steam, with the same or even better results. Think about it: have you ever gone to a coaching centre to learn how to walk? The skills tested on standardized tests such as TOEFL or SAT are developed throughout your schooling years. If you haven’t acquired these skills in twelve years of schooling, it is quite unlikely that you will acquire them in three or six months. No coaching centre can teach you how to analyze passages or write effective essays. Moreover, the essays are meant to evaluate how effectively and cohesively you can organize and present your thoughts, they don’t test your knowledge about a particular topic.
3. The More, The Merrier: Advanced Placement courses are offered by American schools to their students and help to build extra credits before applying to colleges. They are an established part of the American education system. Many Indian schools following the IB program offer these courses in school itself, but students studying in CBSE or ICSE schools need to prepare for these on their own. Often students feel that if they take the Advanced Placement courses, it will put them into favour with colleges by showcasing their ‘academic rigor’. They couldn’t be more wrong. Colleges abroad do not expect Indian students to take these courses. So if you plan to take an AP exam, only expect extra credit from a college, nothing more. And don’t fall into ‘The More the Merrier’ trap. You might consider using the time to work on more crucial parts of your application.
These are a few things to keep in mind while preparing for a standardized test. Don’t overburden yourself, keep a cool head and give it your best shot! And remember, you can always take a standardized test again if something goes terribly wrong. Unlike board exams, they are not a one-time gamble!