Scholastic Achievement Test
For: College
Type: Paper-based
Length: 3 hours 45 minutes
Sections: 3
Reading-  67 questions; 70 minutes; score 200-800
Math-  54 questions; 70 minutes; score 200-800
Writing-  49 questions plus 1 essay; 60 minutes; score 200-800
Fee: $54.50 (in US)
Total score: 400-2400 (sum of the three section scores)
When given: Offered 7 times a year (January, March, May, June, October, November, and December)
Where to take: Nearest test center
Score available: In 17-19 days
Take more than once? Yes
Cancel score? Yes, if done by 11:59 pm on the Wednesday after test
Subject tests: 1 hour tests in 20 subjects specific to English, History, Mathematics, Science and Languages. These are taken separately from the SAT.
Preliminary Scholastic Achievement Test (PSAT): Shorter version of SAT, usually taken as practice

American College Testing
For: College
Type: Paper-based
Time at test center: 4 hours 15 minutes (5 hours 15 minutes if taking Writing Test)
Sections: 4 or 5
English-  75 multiple choice questions; 45 minutes; score 1-36
Mathematics-  60 mcq; 60 minutes; score 1-36
Reading-  40 mcq; 35 minutes; score 1-36
Science-  40 mcq; 35 minutes; score 1-36
Writing (optional)-  1 essay; 30 minutes; score 1-36
Fee: $39.50 ($56.50 with Writing test)
Total score: 1-36 (average of the section scores, not including Writing Test)
When given: Offered 6 times a year (February, April, June, September, October, and December)
Where to take: Nearest test center
Score available: In as soon as 2 weeks, but sometimes only within 8 weeks
Take more than once? Yes
Cancel score? Yes, if done by noon Central Time on the Thursday after test
Graduate Record Examination
For: Graduate school
Type: Computer-based (where available; paper-based otherwise)
Length: 3 hours 45 minutes
Sections: 6
Analytical Writing-  2 essays (analyze an "Issue" and analyze an "Argument"); 30 minutes each; score is an average of the two and ranges from 0-6
Verbal Reasoning-  2 sections; 20 questions and 30 minutes each; score 130-170
Quantitative Reasoning-  2 sections; 20 questions and 30 minutes each; score 130-170
Fee: $195
When given: Year round, by appointment
Where to take: Nearest test center
Score available: Within 15 days
Take more than once? Yes
Cancel score? Yes, at end of test
Graduate Management Admission Test
For: Master of Business Administration (MBA)
Type: Computer-based
Length: 3 hours 30 minutes
Sections: 4
Analytical Writing-  1 written assignment; 30 minutes; score 0-6
Integrated Reasoning-  12 questions; 30 minutes; score 1-8
Quantitative-  37 questions; 75 minutes; score 0-60
Verbal-  41 questions; 75 minutes; score 0-60
Fee: $250
Total score: 200-800
When given: Year round, by appointment
Where to take: Nearest test center
Score available: Within 20 days
Take more than once? Yes
Cancel score? Yes, at end of test
Law School Admission Test
For: Doctor of Jurisprudence (JD)
Type: Paper-based
Time at test center: Up to 7 hours
Sections: 6
5 multiple choice sections, 35 minutes each
1 writing sample, 35 minutes
Questions: in total, 100-102 are scored; there are 3 types-- Reading Comprehension (1 section; 26-28 questions), Analytical Reasoning (1 section; 22-24 questions) and Logical Reasoning (2 sections; 24-26 questions each)
What's scored: 4 of the 5 multiple choice sections; writing sample is not scored, but is sent to school
Total score: 120-180
Fee: $175
When given: 4 times per year
Where to take: Nearest test center
Score available: Within 3 weeks
Take more than once? Yes
Cancel score? Yes, within 6 days of taking test
Medical College Admissions Test
For: Doctor of Medicine (MD)
Type: Computer-based
Time at test senter: 7 hours 33 minutes
Sections: 4
Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (59 multiple choice questions; 95 minutes; score 118-132)
Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (53 mcq; 90 minutes; score 118-132)
Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (59 mcq; 95 minutes; score 118-132)
Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (59 mcq; 95 minutes; 118-132)
Fee: $300
Total score: Sum of the section scores (472-528)
When given: Offered 15 times a year
Where to take: Nearest test center
Score available: Within 30-35 days
Take more than once? Yes
Cancel score? Yes, at end of test

Admission essays

This portion of your application can make all the difference in getting accepted.  It's your opportunity to show you are a human being and not just a GPA or a number on a test score.  Regardless the degree, most programs really do want unique individuals.  Accordingly, many applicants with so-so metrics make it in each year based on an interesting essay.

Choosing a topic

Choosing your topic can be the hardest part of writing your essay.

  • Pick a topic that you know about and care about.  Something that reflects well on you and demonstrates the confidence you have in yourself.
  • Winning essays include personal anecdotes, so be sure your topic is one with which you have hands-on experience.  Also be sure it's something that can be easily covered in the allotted number of words.
  • Brainstorm possible topics.  Make a list of five to ten.  Wait a day and start a new list.  Wait another day and start a third list.  Eliminate topics not on all three.
  • Ask your family and friends topics they would suggest and why.  Discuss your list with them.
  • Settle on a tentative topic and a runner-up.  Begin writing on your tentative topic.  If you find yourself struggling switch to your runner-up.
Essay writing mechanics

Assuming you and your topic are a good match, actually writing your essay can be surprisingly easy.

  • Develop a central idea for your topic.  Encapsulate the central idea in a single "master sentence".
  • Jot down as many aspects of the idea as you can think of.  Do it rapidly.  Don't worry about grammar, spelling or the order you write things in.
  • Group the aspects under a few main headings or subtopics.  Let the bad ones go.
  • Logically arrange your subtopics.
  • Logically arrange the aspects grouped under each subtopic.
  • Turn each aspect into a sentence or two, and each group of aspects into a paragraph.
Tips for writing a great essay

As you write your essay keep in mind:

Your work should be unified
A paragraph is unified when it only contains sentences which contribute to understanding the subtopic.  An essay is unified when it only contains paragraphs which contribute to understanding the central idea.  As a discipline, compare each sentence to your master sentence.  Ask yourself, "Is this getting me off on a tangent?"

Your work should flow
There is a natural logic to organizing an essay.  If you're telling a story, things should build toward a climax.  If you're writing a history, things should unfold chronologically.  

Your work should start energetically
Grab the reader's attention with something dramatic.  Pose a profound question or paint a picture of an interesting location or event.

Your work should be tight
Never use more words than necessary.  Never use bigger words than necessary.  Don't repeat yourself.  Vary the words you use.

Your work should be thoroughly critiqued
Do yourself a favor-- the more people who review your essay the better. 

  • Applying to college- try your high school counselor and teachers
  • Applying to grad school-  your academic advisor and willing professors
  • Applying to law school- have a lawyer you know read it
  • Applying to medical school- a doctor
  • Generally speaking any one whose opinion you respect can help you by reading your essay and giving you feedback

Your work should be revised as needed
Don't be afraid to improve your essay based on the insights of others.  Even if you defy the laws of nature and create a perfect essay in one sitting, you should wait a couple of days and reread it.  Chances are you will find things that you yourself want to change.

Your work should be "neat and tidy"
It is critical your essay be grammatically correct and free of spelling errors and typos. Any punctuation lapses or misspelled words will jump out on the page and cost you points. 

Sample admission essays and personal statements

Before writing your admission essay or personal statement it can be instructive to review what other applicants have come up with.  Below are links to examples of actual essays written for admission to assorted colleges and programs.

Sample essays for college admission
Coe College

For graduate school
California Institute of Technology

For medical school
U of Virginia

For law school
U of Chicago
Wheaton College

For fellowship application
Michigan State
Penn State
Worcester Polytechnic Institute


Comparing schools

Colleges can be rated and compared using a variety of insightful statistics.  The most reliable way of finding the latest data is by visiting official .edu websites.

There are also a number of services that provide rankings (see "Additional resources" to the right).


General institutional Years in existence
Highest degree awarded
Number of degrees offered
Student teacher ratio
Average class size
Faculty % fulltime
% with doctorate
% tenured
Average salary
Average hours teaching per week
Acceptance Number of students accepted annually
% of applicants accepted
Average high school class rank
Average high school GPA
Average standardized test score
Retention and graduation Freshman retention rate
Graduates per year
 % of  students that graduate
Student body Male-female ratio
Average age
International student percentage
% of students by ethnicity/race
% of students who are full-time 
% of students living on campus
Library Number of books
Number of subscriptions
Entry requirement weighting High school record
High school class rank
Standardized test scores
Extracurricular activities
State residency
Work experience
Community service
Cost Tuition and fees
Room and board
Books and supplies
Financial aid % of students receiving aid
Average amount received
Average % of total expense covered
After graduation % of graduates employed after 6 months
Average starting salary of graduates
Student placement budget per graduate
Free practice tests and tools
Selected college guide books

The Insider's Guide to the Colleges
Yale Daily News / St. Martin's Griffin / July 2014 /
1024 pages / ISBN 1250048060

This compendium is unique in that much of its content is contributed by students.  It attempts to give unvarnished assessments of campus life at some 330 US and Canadian colleges.  Additionally, it provides a variety of statistics and a quiz you can take to help match yourself with a compatible institution.

How to Get Into the Top Colleges
Richard Montauk and Krista Klein / Prentice Hall / August 2009 /
640 pages / ISBN 073520442X

If you have your eyes set on attending a tier one US college, this book will probably provide interesting reading.  It analyzes the admission requirements of forty "premier" colleges as well as the three American service academies.  It provides examples of successful essays, recommendations and interviews and gives worthwhile advice on how to "self-market".  A favorite feature of the guide is its collection of applicant case studies.  These include feedback from actual admissions directors that pinpoint application weaknesses and ways to improve them.

The Yale Daily News Guide to Succeeding in College
Shaheena Ahmad / Kaplan Publishing / June 1997 /
208 pages / ISBN 0684837579

This venerable guide mixes practical academic advice with suggestions for doing well in the other areas of college life.  A highlight is the section on writing papers.  In all, there are a multitude of "how to's", including how to work with professors, handle partying, get along with your roommate, and so on.


MBA basics

The purpose of the MBA degree is to provide a comprehensive view of how businesses work.  Students are exposed to all of the common business specialties and come to see the ways the functions are interrelated and dependent on each other for success.  Upon gaining an MBA, graduates are not only more sensitive to the teamwork needed in organizations, they are also better prepared for executive leadership.

Most programs include the following core courses.

Accounting- examines different types of financial information and demonstrates decision-making methods for using it.

Management Science- explains scenario modeling and the employment of algorithms to reach optimal outcomes.

Economics- explores the narrow (micro) and broad (macro) forces that affect the production and consumption of a company's output.

Statistics- applies probability theory to define uncertainty and reduce its impact.

Finance- provides an overview of raising and employing capital to meet the needs of a business.

Organization- delves into the human element of business and the effect that organizational structure has on behavior.

Marketing- teaches an appreciation of the research, development and promotion necessary to offer successful products.

Production- surveys various planning and scheduling techniques used to achieve manufacturing goals such as increased efficiency or on time delivery.

Information Management- covers mapping the informational needs of a business and employing technology to meet them.

Business Strategy- explains the importance of identifying an organization's proper direction and the planning needed to navigate it.

Sample curricula
U of Pennsylvania (Wharton) 
Old Dominion


First year law school courses

Most JD programs require three years to complete.  First year students encounter the same basic courses.  These are are designed to introduce the uses of law and the tools employed by attorneys.

Civil Procedure- overview of the steps involved in a civil lawsuit.

Legal Research- teaches library research, and legal writing skills.

Constitutional Law- examines how interpretations of the constitution have effected the rights of citizens and the relative power of institutions.

Contracts- provides an understanding of legally enforceable agreements.  Focuses on the steps necessary in writing and interpreting contracts.

Federal Litigation- introduction to the litigation process. Usually entails exercises that imitate case preparation and court proceedings.

Criminal Law- survey of the purposes of the prohibitory rules put in place by the government and the issues involved in enforcing them.

Torts- explores wrongful acts that result in injury to person or property and for which compensation is due.

Property- covers the legal aspects of owning land, including concepts such as trespass, eminent domain and the relationship between tenant and landlord.

Sample curricula


First year med school courses

First year studies tend to focus on the human body and how it functions.  Classes dealing with the doctor-patient relationship are often included, as well as ones exploring medicine in a social context.  M1 courses at a sampling of medical schools are listed below.

Ambulatory Care
Evidence-Based Medicine & Population Health
Head, Neck, and Special Senses
Health Policy and Economics
Medical Neuroscience
Metabolism, Nutrition, and Endocrinology
Medical Neuroscience
Molecular and Cellular Physiology
Molecular and Human Genetics
Patient Behavior & Development
Physician-Patient Communication
Physician Role and Behavior
Renal & Electrolytes
Sexual Development and Reproduction
Social and Cultural Issues in Health Care

Clinical Epidemiology and Population Health
The Human Body
Human Genetics
Immunology, Microbiology & Pathology
Integrated Human Physiology
Introduction to Health Care Policy
Introduction to the Profession
Introduction to Social Medicine and Global Health
Medical Ethics and Professionalism
The Molecular and Cellular Basis of Medicine
Patient-Doctor I
Physician in Community
Scholarship in Medicine

New York Medical College
Behavioral Science
Biostatistics and Epidemiology
Community and Preventative Medicine
Foundations of Clinical Medicine
Gross and Developmental Anatomy
Histology and Cell Biology
Medical Ethics


Med school admission requirements

Besides an acceptable MCAT score, medical schools have other admission requirements.  While policies vary somewhat from school to school, the following are almost always required:

• 4 year undergraduate degree

• Undergraduate courses
One or more years of biology, general chemistry. organic chemistry, and physics

• Acceptable undergraduate GPA

Additional common requirements are letters of recommendation, background check, admission essay, interview, community service, and prior experience in a health related field.

Know before you go

American higher education has a well deserved reputation for innovation.  Each year hundreds of new programs are introduced, many of which entail avant garde learning approaches that attempt to streamline the academic experience.  While such programs can seem attractive, it is important to verify that both they and the schools which offer them are properly accredited.

Without accreditation, the value of your degree will be diminished.  So it is worth some time to learn more about the accrediting process and to check the status of any program you consider.


Your resources vs. college expenses

Before committing to a program there is nothing more important to evaluate than your finances.  That's because no matter what you choose to study or where, painful consequences will follow if you find you cannot keep up financially. 

The only solution is to perform a detailed analysis before making decisions.  Add all the resources you expect to have per year (wages, savings, allowance, gifts, loans, stipends, etc.).  Net out any taxes.  Then itemize your estimated annual expenses.  Include everything you can think of that will cost money, and make realistic appraisals.  Also, be sure to account for cost of living differences.

You can work up your numbers using this calculator:

Total after tax resources for year

Estimated expenses for year

Room or rent  
Car payment  
Gas/ auto maintenance  
Electric/ gas  
Food/ household  
Loan payments  
Other transportation  
Additional resources

Ranking American schools
US News (college)
US News (grad school)
Forbes top colleges
DOE scorecard
Wikipedia summary of ranking services

NACAC guide to the admission process
Virtal campus tours
DOL scholarship search
DOE guide to student aid
How to survive the first year of law school (PDF)
MCAT essentials (PDF)


This guide was prepared by the editors at
All test names and abbreviations included herein are registered trademarks or service marks of the respective boards, councils and services which administer exams. has no affiliation with any of these organizations.
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