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GMATs, LSATs and PSATs, Oh My! Major Exams Explained

Students writing exams
400 200 OnTheHub Team

If you’re thinking about going to college or continuing your education after your undergrad, you may have to take an exam to gain entry into a specific program. Taking the any exam can be stressful, but these exams are a lot simpler than you might’ve imagined. Here’s a breakdown of the major undergraduate and graduate admissions tests, why they’re important and what you can expect if you have to take one.


What it is: The Preliminary SAT (PSAT) is taken by high school students to prepare for their SAT, the standardized test. Although it doesn’t count towards college admissions, it’s used to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program.

What it looks like: The PSAT is split into three sections: Math, Critical Reading and Writing Skills. The Math section draws on algebra, geometry and trigonometry. The Reading and Writing sections ask students to analyze and answer questions about passages that are sometimes accompanied by tables, graphs and charts.

Why you should care: The PSAT is taken mainly by junior and sophomore high school students as a precursor for the SAT and can be important when starting your college admission journey.


What it is: The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a standardized test given to potential graduate students across many disciplines.

What it looks like: The GRE can be taken as a specific Subject Test or a General Test which looks more widely for verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing. The verbal reasoning and quantitative questions are mostly multiple choice, whereas the analytical writing section consists of two essays.

Why you should care: This is the most general graduate admission test and is taken by the largest number of students. Even if you aren’t planning to go into a specific occupational program, you could be facing this test if your department requires it.


What it is: The Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) is used to assess your suitability for business school. It assesses your verbal, mathematical and analytical skills.

What it looks like: The GMAT is three-and-a-half-hours long and features questions that fall under three categories: analytical writing, which requires you to write an essay in 30 minutes; quantitative reasoning, which includes multiple choice questions that test your ability to problem solve and wade through data; and verbal reasoning, which includes multiple choice questions that evaluate your ability to understand and correct written material.

Why you should care: If you’re looking to go into business school, you’ll likely come across this test. The GMAT is used by graduate business schools to assess critical thinking and problem solving skills in candidates.


What it is: The Law School Admission Test (LSAT) measures skills of candidates that are considered useful for law school, such as reading comprehension and argument evaluation.

What it looks like: Lasting just under three hours, the LSAT is delivered in five sections of multiple choice questions. Topics include reading comprehension, analytical reasoning and logical reasoning. Questions test how you interpret difficult texts and evaluate arguments.

Why you should care: This is the test that Elle Woods had to get a 170 on to go to Harvard, and if you have lawyerly ambitions, you’ll have to take it, too. The LSAT is required by law schools in both the U.S. and Canada.


What it is: The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is used by medical programs to test applicants’ problem solving, critical thinking and understanding of natural, behavioral and social science concepts and principles.

What it looks like: The MCAT is a standardized, multiple choice exam that reports scores in four sections: biological and biochemical foundations of living systems; chemical and physical foundations of biological systems; psychological, social and biological foundations of behavior; and critical analysis and reasoning skills.

Why you should care: Pretty much all U.S. medical schools and many Canadian ones require MCAT exam scores. If you want to realize your parents’ dream of you becoming a doctor, you’re going to have to take it on.

There are tons of resources out there to help you prepare for standardized graduate admissions exams, including online guides and prep courses. Once you’re done with the exam, you’re only a transcript, admissions essay and a couple of references away from completing your application and embarking on the next leg of your educational journey. Good luck!

Photos: wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock, Volt Collection / Shutterstock, Skitterphoto, Stuart Jenner / Shutterstock, Joe Gratz, DarkoStrojanovic


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