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July 29, 2007

GMAT, GRE & TOEFL Preparation: Do What Works For You

This will be the first of a series of posts where I discuss GMAT, GRE, and TOEFL test preparation from the viewpoint of someone who first taught TOEFL and TOEIC in 1995, marketed test prep worldwide, and has worked with applicants as they struggle with test preparation. (For more about my background, click here).

Disclaimer: My views are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization that I have been affiliated with.

When you apply to graduate school there will be many people who will offer advice about test preparation. Some will offer their advice and/or instruction for free and some for fee. I think it is ultimately important that you determine what will work for you. After all, the are many possible right ways to prepare. Anyone who tells you differently and say they have the best way or the only way is making this claim based on (1) their own experience; (2) the fact that they have only mastered one method or a limited number of methods to assist you; and/or (3) they have prioritized their own desire to sell you something over your specific interests.

Everyone has bias. In my case, my bias is based on the fact that I don't have any financial stake in how anyone does their test preparation and hence believe that the key issue is determining what method will work for you.

People have different learning styles when it comes to preparation. Each person has their own learning needs which will not be equally addressed by all the different options for test preparation.

Essentially test preparation consists of mastery of the material being tested on and test taking techniques (some specific to the test, others more general). Whether you consult a standard guide, take a course at a test preparation school, take a course by distance (online or video), buy software, use a book, or study with a tutor, all of these methods will consists of some combination of mastery of the material and test taking techniques. The exact combination that you need is something to try and determine as quickly as possible.

To what extent have you already mastered the content? If you are very weak at math, you may find that the pacing of a live class to be too fast for you and would be better off with a tutor or self-study. If you are a non-native English speaker with advanced level skills, but want to get a very high score on the TOEFL iBT Speaking Section, you may find that most classes are too slow. Some international applicants will, in fact, find that studying GMAT or TOEFL in their own native language a help, others will find it to be a hindrance. I don't know what will work best for you, but if you are honest with yourself, take the time to try out different methods (use trial lessons,online demos, look at books in bookstores), and you will find the best way(s) for you.

Are you a good test taker? Many applicants are very good at test taking while others are just awful at it. Sometimes the reason goes back to the fact that the applicant had very little experience with test taking. Depending on the country you live in, the frequency and significance of such tests varies. Individuals without significant test preparation experience may find that mastering test taking techniques as adults to be a more difficult task than they anticipated. Depending on your background, you may spend as much or more time on mastering test taking as on mastering the test content.

Don't forget about the GMAT AWA and GRE Analytical Writing Sections! I know that anyone preparing for TOEFL will not forget about this, but native English speakers sometimes get bad scores on the writing sections due to not taking such writing tests seriously enough. Some applicants buy a book and take a diagnostic test and realize that they will have no problem with the multiple choice sections of the test, take the exam, and find themselves with a substandard writing score. Take the time, and, if necessary, spend the money, to prepare for the entire test!

If one method does not work, try another. If you have given a test preparation method your full effort and still are not getting good results, try another method. In the process you may discover something more about your own learning style, a valuable lesson that you can apply long after you have finished with test preparation.

Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com
-Adam Markus
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