In his role as associate vice president for enrollment management and director of admissions at Duquesne University, Paul-James Cukanna meets many students who are stressed about standardized tests.
Whether they are high school students taking the SAT or ACT or applicants to graduate and professional programs taking the MCAT, LSAT, GMAT or GRE, they tell him how worried they are about getting a good score.
To those students, he offers this advice:
"I say, millions of students before you have successfully navigated these examinations and have gotten a place in a graduate program.
"Don't let it be a barrier to entry."
Easier said than done.
For as long as there are standardized tests to get into academic programs, there will be students who worry, sign up for intense and often expensive preparatory classes, and test and re-test to obtain a score that they hope will get them into their desired school.
While there are some schools that have gone test optional for at least some students, most undergraduate and graduate programs -- including those at Duquesne University -- rely on test results as an important criterion for admission.
That's because admissions officers must select a class out of hundreds of applicants from schools all over the country with different standards of grading and levels of competitiveness, Mr. Cukanna said.
The standardized test, he said, "is the only thing that is standardized across all these applicants."
Another reason is that research has indicated a correlation between how students do on the exams and how they will perform in the academic program, Mr. Cukanna said.
In addition to admissions, some schools use test results for distributing scholarship money and placing students in particular classes.
Mr. Cukanna considers standardized tests "part of the culture."
The same culture that requires standardized testing also has given birth to a test prep industry in which there is no dearth of advice, tips and practice tests.
Here's a primer on the major standardized tests used for admissions:
At Pine-Richland High School, where 92 percent of graduates plan to go on to college, Jean Whelan, director of collegiate affairs, tells students to take both the SAT and the ACT in the spring of their junior year.
That way, said Ms. Whelan, students can figure out which one they do better on, and then focus their efforts on improving their score on that test.
Both the ACT and the SAT are designed to help admissions officers gauge how well a student will be able to handle the academic rigor of college, said Kristen Campbell, the executive director of college prep programs for Kaplan Test Prep.
Surveys of college admissions counselors show that while the top factor in the admissions process is whether a student took rigorous courses -- and did well in those courses -- the second most important factor is usually SAT or ACT scores, Ms. Campbell said.
College Board studies released in 2008 indicated the best predictor of college success is a combination of high school grade point average and SAT scores.
The tests last about four hours each, and because they are fairly intensive testing experiences, both Ms. Whelan and Ms. Campbell recommended students spend time preparing.
How to prepare varies depending on the student, Ms. Whelan said, but she advises her Pine-Richland students to begin freshman year by reading as much as possible.
More focused preparation should start at least a few months in advance, she said, whether that be through classes with Kaplan, Princeton Review or another test prep service; with individual tutors; or on their own using books or online tests.
The SAT, administered by the College Board, covers critical reading, writing and math. The reading section includes passages and sentence completions, and the writing section has a short essay and multiple-choice questions on identifying errors and grammar and usage. The math section includes questions on arithmetic operations, algebra, geometry, statistics and probability.
Each section of the SAT is scored on a 200-to-800 point scale, for a possible high score of 2400.
Some schools require undergraduate applicants to submit scores from SAT Subject Tests, which focus on specific areas like U.S. history and chemistry.
The ACT, which includes an optional 30-minute writing component, consists of 215 multiple-choice questions, covering the subjects of English, math, reading and science. Scores range from 1 to 36. The fee to take the SAT is $47; the fee for the ACT is $33 without the writing component and $48 with it. Each offers fee waivers.
More information about the SAT: www.collegeboard.com.
More information about the ACT: www.actstudent.org,
Every year, Kaplan surveys law school admissions officers about what they consider to be the most important part of an application, said Jeff Thomas, director of pre-law programs for Kaplan Test Prep. The consistent answer is that LSAT scores are the top criteria.
All American Bar Association-accredited law schools require applicants to submit scores from the Law School Admission Test, or LSAT, a standardized exam that dates back to the 1940s.
The test, which takes about four hours, consists of a writing sample and multiple-choice questions that measure reading comprehension, ability to draw inferences, critical thinking and analysis, and evaluation of the reasoning and arguing of others. Scores range from 120 to 180.
Due to the importance of the LSAT in law school admissions, applicants should make preparing for the exam a priority. It's not a test that can be crammed for, Mr. Thomas said.
"It's more like learning to play a sport or a musical instrument," he said. It takes time to develop the skills, and Kaplan recommends students start preparing two to three months before the exam, spending about 10 to 15 hours a week studying.
Taking the LSAT costs $136. Fee waivers are available.
More information about the LSAT: www.lsac.org
Aspiring medical school students should begin preparing for the Medical College Admission Test --known as the MCAT-- once they've completed biology, chemistry, organic chemistry and physics, the four basic pre-med science requirements, said Jeff Koetje, the director of academics for pre-health programs with Kaplan Test Prep.
Most students spend between three and six months preparing for the exam, Dr. Koetje said, and the general recommendation from the Association of American Medical Colleges is to spend 300 to 350 hours preparing for the test.
The vast majority of American medical schools require the MCAT, and many schools report that MCAT scores are among their top criteria for admission.
A big reason so much importance is placed on scores, Dr. Koetje said, is because there is a strong correlation between a high score on the MCAT exam and a student's future performance on medical board exams.
The MCAT is a multiple-choice exam that assesses skills in problem solving, critical thinking, writing and knowledge of science concepts.
Taking the MCAT costs $235. Fee assistance is available.
More information on the MCAT: www.aamc.org/students/applying/mcat.
Other health care fields have different standardized tests. Applicants to dental school take the Dental Admission Test, or DAT; applicants to pharmacy school may have to take the Pharmacy College Admission Test, or PCAT; and applicants to optometry school take the Optometry Admission Test, or OAT.
The phrase "graduate school" encompasses thousands of different programs.
So the main standardized test for entry, the GRE, is the most popular post-college standardized test exam given, with more than 600,000 tests administered each year, said Lee Weiss, a GRE instructor and the director of graduate programs for Kaplan.
Kaplan's research shows that test-takers ages 22 to 23 achieve the highest scores, on average, on the GRE. It's best to take the test during college or immediately after graduation, when test-taking skills are still fresh, Mr. Weiss said. GRE test results are good for five years.
Regardless of when they take it, prospective graduate students should spend two to three months preparing for the exam. Schools consistently rank the GRE as the top or one of the top deciding factors when considering granting admission, Mr. Weiss said.
The test measures verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking and analytical writing skills.
Some schools may also require one or more GRE subject tests, which cover specific areas like biology and psychology.
A revised GRE will be administered beginning in August. The new test will be more user friendly, but it will be longer, and arguably more difficult than the current GRE.
Mr. Weiss recommended that students take the GRE before the new test comes out. However, those taking the new test in August or September will save 50 percent on the fee.
Taking the current GRE costs $160.
More information on the GRE: www.ets.org/gre.
"Business school applicants are brimming with overconfidence usually," said Andrew Mitchell, a GMAT instructor and the director of pre-business programs at Kaplan.
Still, it's important that test-takers spend at least two to three months preparing for the GMAT.
Scores range from 200 to 800, and people who score more than 600 points generally spend about 100 hours studying.
In Kaplan surveys, schools report that the GMAT score and undergraduate GPA are the most important factors in admissions.
The test measures verbal, mathematical, analytical and writing skills. Scores are valid for five years.
Taking the GMAT costs $250. Vouchers are available.
More information about the GMAT: www.mba.com/mba/thegmat.
Kaitlynn Riely: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1707.