One of the most difficult and tedious tasks when applying to graduate school is studying for standardized tests. This task can get even more complicated if you are an international student and need to prepare for an English proficiency test as well. The most common standardized test requirements for grad school are the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and both the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) for international students (read about Rice's requirements here). Even though most schools have gone GRE-optional due to COVID-19 (including Rice – read about it here), there still might be some programs that would strongly recommend submitting test results for an application. Here, I will share some tips that made studying for these exams a less stressful experience!
Since graduate school application deadlines for most programs are around December through February, most people would recommend taking the exam a month or two in advance so that your results can get to the university on time. For this reason, it is recommended that you start studying several months in advance of the exam so that you can have enough time to familiarize yourself with the exam modules, refresh some topics, and overall feel more confident about yourself when you take the exam. For instance, I was working as a language teacher the year I applied to grad school, and I took advantage of the summer break to start studying for the exams which were booked for early November. That might seem like a very early start, but that also gave me plenty of time to do other application documents, such as the Personal Statement, without so much rush and stress!
Have a study buddy!
Keeping motivated to study can be very difficult on your own but having a study buddy can have so many benefits while applying for grad school! If a friend is also applying for grad school, you can share study resources, have study sessions together, and be a support network during this time. Even if you find out that none of your friends are applying to grad school, you can at least ask some of them, even relatives, to help you study with games or flashcards. For the English Proficiency tests, if you have a friend or relative who is fluent in English you can ask them if they would be willing to practice with you. Having someone support you while studying will keep your spirits afloat and even make it a fun experience!
Flashcards are one of the easiest ways to study for these exams, especially the GRE! You can make flashcards on your own or download apps that already have thousands of flashcards available. Even though there are flashcards for both the verbal and quantitative sections, as an international student I found the verbal flashcards more useful. They were essentially studying material for both the GRE and the English Proficiency exam as I could use some of the new words that I had learned in the written component of the tests as well.
The library is your best friend
When I was trying to study for these exams back in Mexico, I was very lucky to find out that my local library had several study guides for the GRE and TOEFL exams. These books were amazing resources to study from, especially for the Analytical Writing part of the GRE, since there were examples of texts which had a high score and a low score on that module and gave a thorough description of why they were scored that way. Since the analytical writing part might be the most abstract of the three modules of the GRE having that point of reference was very helpful. The librarian even let me take photocopies of some pages of the books so that I could also read at home and take notes! Libraries might also have English writing books and resources which might help you for the English Proficiency tests and other written components.
Specialized study websites
Since these standardized tests have been a very big deal for several years now, there are multiple online websites dedicated to design prep courses for these courses. For the GRE, my personal experience with one of these courses was great! Even though it was a paid prep course, since I had a study buddy, we split the cost and kept studying for months, which was definitely worth it. Most of these courses also offer flexible plans so that you only have a prep course for a certain area that you think you might struggle with most (Verbal or Math) and these are generally cheaper than the whole deal. If you are unable to afford some of these prep courses, the official ETS site has its own free test simulators and affordable study ebooks for the exam both for the GRE and the TOEFL. The advantage of these test simulators is that it will be the most accurate representation of the exam and it will give you a sense of how to manage your time during the actual test. On a side note, one of the best pieces of advice I received when I was about to take the test was that if I did not know the answer to the question, just skip it or leave a random answer! Do not waste more than half a minute on it. It is better to skip the question (and chances are the random answer might be correct) than wasting precious time that could be for answering questions you are actually able to!
Even though standardized tests have been a staple for graduate school applications for years, remember that they are only that – a test. They do not define your worth as a potential candidate for graduate school and most universities are taking that into account. For example, the graduate programs at Rice University see each application through a holistic lens and assess all components in the application, from the personal statement and your research experience, and even how you interact during an interview. When taking these exams, be sure to have had plenty of rest the night before, get appropriate time for studying and, most importantly, keep calm – you can do it!
About the author: Rosa Selenia Guerra Reséndez is a GCURS alum, a Fulbright-García Robles Doctoral Scholar and active member of the Latin American Graduate Student Association at Rice University. She is a third-year graduate student in the Systems, Synthetic and Physical Biology program, advised by Dr. Isaac Hilton, and in 2017 earned her B.S. in Genomic Biotechnology from Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León. Read more about Rosa here.