The standardized tests are without a doubt one of the most stressful parts of applying to Fulbright, and ultimately, to grad school in the US. Whether you find them useful or not, we all have to play the game and suffer through the pain of taking these exams. They are long, expensive and particularly challenging for international students. However, they are surely not the biggest challenge in your academic journey, and they will certainly not be comparable to the intellectual challenges you will face once in grad school. So long story short: yes, these tests are not the most fun thing to do, but they are also not the hardest step in your career.
Let’s start with some context. There are many standardized tests: GRE General, GRE Subject, GMAT, LSAT, TOEFL, and the list goes on. Depending on your field, you might have to take several of them. You need to check the specific admission requirements in your program to identify which tests you need. Now to the big question, how important are these tests in your application? There is not an easy answer. I would say that a high score does not guarantee acceptance, but a low score does decrease your chances significantly. (Editor's Note: for 2021, Rice has waived the GRE requirement for graduate study; however your programs of interest may still strongly suggest you submit scores. Confer with your program of application for details.)
Test Scores = Filters
In many universities, test scores are used as a first filter. Since departments usually receive a large number of applications, they use test cut-off points to narrow the pool of candidates. In some places, this means that your application might not even be read if your scores are significantly low. This is very frustrating because how you perform in these tests is not a prediction of how good you will perform in grad school. Rather, they simply indicate how good you are at taking standardized tests. This is not bad news entirely. Since we know what these tests really measure, the road to ace them becomes a bit clearer: we only have to practice the format. You might have to refresh some topics and brush up your old calculus notes, but the real key is getting used to the type of questions, and practice how to answer them rapidly. That practice makes perfect is also true for standardized tests.
The filtering role of these exams becomes more relevant when you are an international student. Maybe you graduated from the top school in your country, but the graduate committee that handles admissions might simply see some foreign academic credentials. Because they are not aware of how good your school is, they will look at your scores in more detail to find a sign of your academic skills. A good score will always keep you in the clear while a bad score will raise doubts. How the members approach the latter case is unpredictable. If you are lucky, the members of the committee will look for other application materials to better assess your case, but with a large number of applications and a limited time to make decisions, discarding an application will always be easier and faster. Bottom line, a low score may stack the cards against you.
There are also strong incentives to score high in these tests. Many universities have specific minimum marks you need to meet in order to apply. This is particularly true for high ranked universities and top programs. It would be really sad if you find your dream-program but you cannot apply because of your scores.
Time is your best ally
We all know how to run, but can we all run a race? Probably yes, with some training and preparation. We do not need to learn the moves, but we do need to learn how to keep our pace, breath better, keep hydrated and boost our endurance. These tests are quite similar. For the most part you already have the knowledge. If you are taking these exams, you went through high school, and likely, you have already completed a bachelor’s degree. All you need is preparation, and to prepare you need time.
There are plenty of resources online that can help you train for every specific test. From forums and tutorials to YouTube videos, the web is full of free and paid materials. Make time to dig around. You will be surprised to find out how much information is out there. Start by familiarizing with the test itself. Watch videos and read blogs that explain how it works, the different sections and likely topics. More importantly, try to find as many examples of the questions as possible. Getting used to the type of questions is how you crack the exam. Once you have the full picture of the test, start refreshing the content.
One of the main challenges to prep for these tests is fighting procrastination. We all know that leaving things until the last minute causes anxiety and stress. Yet, we keep doing it anyway. So here’s a good reason not to do that. These tests are very expensive. They all cost over $200 USD each. So if you score low and you have to re-take it, that is going to add up and you will be very mad at yourself for having to spend so much money in some tests that you will never use again. So use this financial factor as a strong motivation to prepare as best as you can.
A useful timeline:
The timeline below is based on the graduate applications that are due on December/January. However, the Fulbright applications can be in the middle of the year and they also require the tests scores, so you will need to adapt it to your specific calendar.
August: Familiarize with the test sections and types of questions.
September and October: Refresh the content.
Late October: Take the test. Once you have the results (they will be available within two weeks), assess whether or not you should retake the test based on how competitive your scores are and the requirements for the programs you are interested in.
Mid November: Retake the test if needed.
December: Submit applications.
About the author: Santiago Lopez Alvarez is a third year doctoral student in political science, and a Fulbright grantee from Medellín, Colombia. He is currently studying how violence affects voting behavior and political preferences, using statistical and data analysis techniques. After his doctoral studies, he plans to work somewhere between the academic and the practitioner world. Read more about Santiago and Fulbright at Rice here.