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Jan. 26, 2010

Tests, tests and more tests

by Linda Brodsky

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No one likes taking tests. Unless you are really well prepared and know the answers to all of the questions. And then it can be fun as an affirmation of your hard work, perseverance, and mastery of the material.

My first big, important, life-changing test occurred in the 8th grade. The DATs—tests to help you figure out what career you might be good at. Don’t remember what the “D” stood for. On this 6 part test, I scored in the 99th percentile in spatial relationships, mechanical thinking, scientific reasoning and mathematical concepts. But I only scored 80th percentile on transcription and memorization. When the test results came out, the guidance counselor met with my parents to tell them what line of work I would best be suited for.

Based on my scores, my counselor told my father I would be a very good secretary! To his credit, my father told the counselor that his honor student daughter could be other things beyond a secretary. And then he told me to ignore her the same way she ignored those tests.

Why do I tell you this? Because tests, while important in helping someone else determine your strengths and weaknesses, are only one part of what you are and what you are going to become. They are simply not a complete picture of you.

Having said that, it is important to know that test taking is a fact of life if you are going to become a doctor. The tests start early and they seem to never end. In fact, every time you take on the care of a patient, in some way, you are being tested as to how good you are as a doctor.

But let’s leave that particular philosophical debate aside for the moment. Practically speaking: What kind of tests will you encounter? How important are they in becoming a doctor? When do you take your last test?

First, it is very important you know how to take tests. The subject matter is important, and preparation is the key to success. There are the tests you take for classes. Teachers are usually pretty generous in letting you know what to study. But then there are those dreaded standardized tests that colleges require for your application to their school. Unfortunately, many times these tests are used as cut offs to separate out students who will be considered for admission and those who won’t.

The last time I looked, the pre-SATs (scholastic aptitude tests) are taken early in the junior year of high school. These tests help determine who will receive national merit scholarships. They also give the student a taste for what’s to come.

Then comes the big sister test. The SATs. They have three parts—math, English and writing sample. These scores are weighted more or less heavily towards admission depending on the college. Their results are also provided to colleges which then begin the process of sending you material encouraging you to apply to their school.

Prep courses abound. Is Kaplan better than Princeton Review? Don’t know. But they can be expensive, and I do not think there is financial aid for the near $1000 fee charged for college preparatory tests. (I sent an inquiry to each last month, but have yet to receive and answer). But they also can help boost your scores and even guarantee it or your money back.

Even without test prep courses, you can find used test prep books on-line. And then: Practice. Practice. Practice. The discipline is not only useful for these first tests, but also will help you learn how to learn to take tests for the rest of your life. Alas, a painfully necessary skill.

Hey, Dana, now that you are back from the Big Sur, what do you think of my take on tests?

About Linda Brodsky

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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