What are the entrance examinations commonly taken for universities in the US? How important are they for the application process?
John. S., via email

While exploring undergraduate or graduate-level education, applicants are bound to come across some form of required examination or an aptitude test as a requirement for admission. Some universities even go to the extent of indicating the sum of scores needed to make the cutoff point. So what are these exams and what do they normally measure?

In general, we can classify these exams into three broad categories. First would be the general English language proficiency tests that are required of non-native English language speakers, in this case the TOEFL and IELTS. Second would be the general aptitude tests like the PSAT, ACT, SAT (for undergraduate) and the GMAT and GRE (for graduate-level studies) mostly for the US and Canada. Third would be the field-specific exams for law school and medical school like the MCAT, UKCAT, PCAT, LSAT and so on that would be focused on admission to a singular programme.

In most cases these tests are administered by an independent testing centre or a professional association.

The main objective is to provide a common yardstick to measure the potential of all applicants that might come from different backgrounds and curricula against a standardised set of skills that would be required by a specific programme.

It provides university and college admission counsellors with a clear-cut measure that is somewhat effective, in trying to assess a candidate's ability to join their programmes.

There are schools that don't make these exams a requirement. But more and more schools are becoming inclined to make them mandatory as these tests do give some indication about the applicant and therefore it is advisable in most cases to consider taking these exams.

The exam results are important and students should be well prepared. There are many ways to prepare for these exams and I would not look down on coaching centres and tutors as they can provide a lot of insight and tips that help students.

The world is very competitive and professional coaching can only help. What is also worth knowing is that the exams are only one part of the entire admissions criteria. American Universities, especially the more competitive colleges, take a holistic view of the student and non-academic criteria can be critical in gaining admission.

Your academic scores, essays, recommendation letters, community service and extracurricular activities are equally important.

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Verma began his career with Ernst & Young before moving on to set up the Gulf operations of IDP Education Pty. He now leads Intelligent Partners in Dubai developing a wide range of solutions in areas of international education.