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Note: This handout is for the GRE, GMAT, and LSAT. Looking for the MCAT? Click here.

The basics

Determine which test you need to take

First, you’ll want to make sure you’re taking the test that’s required for the program in which you’d like to enroll. The GRE was redesigned a few years ago to expand its relevance to other areas of graduate study. Many business schools now accept either the GMAT or the GRE. Some law schools are beginning to consider the GRE in lieu of the LSAT. Once you’ve determined which test or tests you need to take, you’ll want to understand each test’s format and content.

Test Math Reading Vocabulary Logic Grammar Writing
GRE Measures problem-solving abilities using basic arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis Measures ability to analyze and evaluate written material, sentences, and words Similar to SAT About 4 questions N/A Two essays, reported as one score
GMAT 62 minutes for 31 questions. Measures your skill in data sufficiency and problem solving 65 minutes for 36 questions. Measures your skill in reading comprehension, critical reasoning, and sentence correction. N/A Integrated Reasoning questions with data Basic grammar rules tested as sentence corrections Analytical essay
LSAT None! 35 minutes for 27 questions. 4 passages to read and answer multiple-choice questions. Measures your ability to make inferences, determine the main idea, and understand a scholarly text. N/A Tested in two sections: analytical reasoning and logical reasoning N/A Argumentative essay, unscored and sent to Law Schools as a writing sample.

Take a practice test

Each test will take three to four hours, including breaks. When practicing, it is important to follow the schedule and complete the practice test in test-like conditions. After all, you are trying to get the best idea of how much you will need to study. (Free practice tests are available at the official sites for each test: GRE, MBA, LSAC.)

Check the average scores at your school of interest

This is usually found on the department website’s admissions section. If average scores are unavailable, you may want to email the department to ask. Keep in mind:

  • The GRE national average is about 150 per section (out of 170).
  • The GMAT national average is about 550 (out of 800).
  • The LSAT national average is about 150 (out of 180).

Determine if you make the grade

Consider the gap between your practice test score and the averages of the schools you’d like to attend. Keep in mind that it is easier to make larger gains when initial scores are around or below average, and harder to make gains when initial scores are above average.

Improving your GRE score
Improving initial scores by a few points is generally attainable on your own. Improving 10 points is considered a large gain and may be more likely to happen if you take some sort of prep course. Many schools consider total scores, where 310 is considered generally competitive. Depending on your area of study, some schools will focus much more on math or on verbal sections. A section score of 160 and above is generally competitive for highly ranked departments. Note that what is considered competitive varies widely for the GRE.

Improving your GMAT score
Improving initial scores by 50 points is generally attainable on your own. Improving 100 points is considered a large gain and may be more likely to happen if you take some sort of prep course. A score of 650 is generally competitive, but 700 and above is average for top tier schools.

Improving your LSAT score
Improving initial scores by a few points is generally attainable on your own. Improving about 10 points is considered a large gain and may be more likely to happen if you take some sort of prep course. A score of 160 is generally competitive, but 170 and above is average for top tier schools. The Princeton Review reports an average improvement of 12 points.

What to expect from a test prep course

Class length and commitment

Class sessions are typically around three hours long. Expect about 8-10 class sessions, although test prep companies are beginning to offer more course options that replace in-person sessions with “live” (synchronous) online instruction. If online modules and live online instruction works for you, then taking one of those courses may be less expensive and allow additional freedom. To state the obvious, these classes will only benefit you based on the effort you put into them, so be sure you have the time and energy to commit to the course sessions and the homework. Make sure you have a clear understanding of the time commitment (including homework) and are prepared to put in the work.

Class content

Class sessions will emphasize test-taking strategies more than content. The end goal of test prep is build the skills that get you more points. This happens two ways. The first goal of test prep courses is to improve your accuracy. Without accuracy, your scores won’t be consistent, and it will be virtually impossible to build confidence. The second goal is increasing speed. Of course, some content knowledge is necessary, but most of that review is accomplished outside of class sessions through assigned homework.

For example, the first class session will likely commit a great deal of time to familiarity with the test format, question types, and global strategy. Expect to discuss process of elimination, the benefits of skipping questions, and educated guessing. The final portion of class one will typically introduce one subject specific strategy.

Do your homework!

For each class session and periodic practice tests, there will be homework. This is where the magic happens. The more effort you put into practice and review at home, the more you will get out of the course. Exceptional review of your practice is highly metacognitive (thinking about thinking). Move beyond simply checking answers and ask yourself why you missed a question and how you could have avoided the error. Lastly, know that you alone are responsible for homework. The instructor will expect you to hold yourself accountable. It’s important to have a schedule for completing your homework. This is where working with an academic coach can be helpful.

Questions to consider when planning to take a test prep course

When will you take the test?

Take the GRE and GMAT no later than 2 months before your schools need to receive your official scores.

The LSAT is not offered every month of the year, so check the dates that it is offered and plan for what works best for you.

How much preparation time do you need?

If you take a prep class, leave at least one week and up to one month after the class for independent practice.

What should your course load look like?

How heavy is your course load? Do you need to adjust plans based on this? You want to dedicate at least one hour a day (on average) to practice. In total, plan to prepare for the test for three months (about 90 hours of preparation)

How much can you afford?

The Learning Center has a partnership with The Princeton Review, which gives UNC students a 20% discount on courses offered at UNC-CH. A course that normally costs about $1000 would cost Tar Heels $800. Many companies offer less expensive Live Online and Self-Study options, ranging from about $200-$700. Here are some other free or low-cost resources to consider:

  • Khan Academy Free MCAT and GMAT test prep
  • Magoosh (about $150/month for online access)
  • The Learning Center test prep library (SASB N 0118)

Whatever you decide, we recommend that you make an appointment with an academic coach to make a plan and stick to it. Academic coaches provide one-on-one support in any academic area, including goal setting, study schedules, and test prep. We also can connect you with other resources at UNC.

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