Tips for Creating a Strong College Application: Part-1

Part 1 – Cracking Your Standardized Tests

Standardized tests are a critical component of undergraduate applications to universities abroad. For example, students applying to the US typically take the SAT or ACT, and for UK, the IELTS. Standardized tests help universities assess whether students have the skills that are necessary to succeed in college.

Taking these tests can be stressful, so students needs to prepare for them well. Typically, the format of the tests is different from school exams, and the unfamiliarity can add to the stress. It is important to think about the different aspects of test preparation so that students can give it their best shot. In this article, I talk about simple things that can help students prepare for their standardized college admissions test. 

Understand the Test Format – When preparing for a particular test, the first thing to do is to become familiar with the test's format – what does it test, how long it is, if there are breaks between questions, is there negative marking, etc. Understanding the basics can help you feel confident and save valuable time on test day.

Practice, Practice, Practice – In order to do well on a standardized test, students have to master the different topics being tested, and develop a good understanding of the different strategies required to ace that test. There is no alternative to practicing a lot, for several weeks or months, before taking a standardized test. Focus your attention on each section of the test with the intent to master them all.

Focus on Weak Areas - When you analyze the score from a practice test, pay attention to the types of questions that trouble you and then focus on those areas as you prepare. If you continue working on areas where you’re strong, it won’t really help you improve your score.

Concentrate on Timing – While test practice is important, it comes with a caveat. The practice needs to be time-bound, since all standardized admissions tests are strictly timed. Hence, students should ideally replicate the real-day testing environment at home, and attempt to practice the entire test at once, instead of in parts.

Hold Your Nerves – Many students get nervous before an important test, and this can have a negative impact on performance. It is important to hold your nerves and be calm. Preparing well can help to a large extent – if you are confident, you don’t need to be anxious. Make sure you are well rested the night before an exam. Eat a good breakfast to retain focus. Don’t forget to carry everything you need to the test center.

Remember that Tests Are Not the Only Thing That Matters – Colleges give a lot of importance to how well you do in school academically, more than they give to your standardized test scores. So, while excellent test scores do help in strengthening your application, your academic transcript is one of the most important components in the application, because it demonstrates diligence and commitment over multiple years, as opposed to a test score from one day.

Don’t Take Tests Too Many Times – Sometimes students take the same test multiple times in the hope of achieving a better score. Studies show that taking tests multiple times don't significantly improve your score; in fact, some indicate that scores start dipping if students take standardized tests too many times. If you feel you didn't do your best in your first attempt, spend time to understand what went wrong, practice, and then take the test a second time. However, be realistic about your potential. Not everyone can get a perfect score. So stop when you should.

Be Smart about How You Interpret ‘Cut-offs’ – Colleges publish a range of scores within which their accepted students fall. Please remember that the test scores colleges show on their websites are averages, not ‘cut-offs’. There are students at every college who may have scored lower. So don’t feel like you can’t apply to a college because you missed the mark. If you have another very strong component in their application, you would still have a good chance of getting into a college of your choice.

Plan early and take your tests early, so that you can concentrate on other important parts of your application in Grade 12.

About Author: Ms. Lisa Jain

Lisa Jain is the Representative of The College Board in India. In her role, she works extensively with schools across India to help with the implementation of College Board programs. She also interacts directly with students and parents, educating them about how College Board’s programs and resources (such as SAT, AP, PSAT or Big Future) help in the college application and admission process.

Lisa was previously the Head of Marketing at an international school in Kolkata and has worked in the Equities division at UBS Investment Bank in London for two years.

She pursued her MBA at the Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad and her undergraduate degree in Industrial Economics at the University of Warwick in UK, on a scholarship. Lisa has also successfully completed Level II of the CFA Exam.