Out of Practice: Getting Back in the Game


Preparing for entrance exams, years after undergrad.

As if taking a standardized test wasn’t hard enough, imagine taking one after being out of the classroom for 10 years. That’s what Northwestern University law student Sarah Streit Milam did, and she isn’t alone.

According to Lee Weiss, director of graduate programs at Kaplan Test Prep, about 12 percent of people who take the GRE are between ages 31 and 40; 7 percent are 40 and older; and about 48 percent are between ages 23 and 30. “When you look at people 30 years old, they have a significant gap between their undergraduate experience and taking this test,” says Mr. Weiss. “If you haven’t taken a standardized test for a long time, rust builds up and you get out of practice. You need those fundamental skills back.”

After graduating with both a master’s and bachelor’s degree in accounting from Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, North Carolina, Ms. Milam went to work in public accounting and finance with large corporations. However, she could never get her dream of attending law school out of her mind. “I always thought about going to law school,” shares Ms. Milam. “It was something I knew I wanted to do, but wasn’t ready right after school. As my career progressed, and as I moved up, it became harder and harder to take time away from work. I got to a point where I never stopped thinking about law school, and realized I needed to go ahead and try.”

Ms. Milam knew she needed some help, so she enrolled in an online test prep course, Manhattan LSAT. “It was conducted like a conference call with PowerPoint, so it was something I was used to, coming from the corporate world,” she explains. “It worked really well for me.” Although it seemed Ms. Milam was at a disadvantage, having taken the exam in her early 30s, she believes she would have done worse had she taken it right out of college.

“People have this perception that if you go away from the classroom, when you return, it’s this completely foreign experience,” she observes. “But, I now know how important it is to do well,”  she says. “I just don’t think I had that appreciation when I was younger.” However, Ms. Milam’s situation may be an exception. “For both men and women, we see good scores from those in their mid- to late-20s, but test scores for people in their 30s are, on average, a little lower,” says Andrew Mitchell, director of pre-business programs at Kaplan Test Prep. “People taking the test in their 20s generally have a little bit of an advantage.”

Ann Bezbatchenko, director of graduate and professional enrollment management at Loyola University Chicago, agrees. “People in their 20s have a few advantages,” Ms. Bezbatchenko explains. “First, they’re closer to their undergrad experience and may recall what it’s like to study and prepare. Second, they may also have more time. When you move into your 30s, you’re not only juggling an increasing workload professionally, but also balancing an increasing load in your personal life.”

Mr. Weiss says standardized tests are more difficult for students out of practice, but stresses that doing well is a matter of good training. “It’s more challenging to take the GRE as a student who’s been away from the classroom for several years, but it doesn’t mean you can’t do just as well with good preparation,” he affirms. “One thing we find about older students is they are often more passionate about what they’re interested in studying, and that’s good motivation for studying hard and doing well.”

Ultimately, good test scores come from approaching these exams one step at a time. “We tell people the GRE is very much like a marathon, especially if they’re out of practice,” explains Mr. Weiss. “You wouldn’t strap on your sneakers and say ‘I’m going to run 26 miles tomorrow!’ You’d need to get your confidence back and build up your stamina over time,” Mr. Weiss explains. “That’s how you do well on the test.”

By Morgan Quilici


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