For older students, an unhappy reunion with the Big Test

Remember taking that last ACT exam? It got you into college and you thought: “I’m done forever with the Big Test!” Then the recession hit and you decided to go to grad school.

Now you’re swimming through those math, logic and reading comprehension questions, wondering who talked you into it.


We know the lousy economy is driving thousands of 30-and-older Minnesotans back to school. Standing in the way for some? The standardized test and all the butterflies that come with it.

We got tuned into this concern by a Twin Cities teacher who’s part of MPR’s Public Insight Network and preps students for the Graduate Record Exam.

She asked not to be identified. But she opened a window for us onto what she’s seeing: adults, years removed from school, worrying like teens. They’re frustrated by tests that seem pointless, working through the anxiety of a timed exam, nervous about how they’ll do and what it might do to them.

“One of the main stumbling blocks older students face with regard to college admission tests is that their math is very rusty,” she said. “Many haven’t worked with right triangles or exponents, for instance, since high school, and that may have been ten or more years ago.”

Also, they may not have recent experience reading challenging texts using academic vocabulary outside their area of immediate interest, another skill these exams test.

Another challenge for all test takers, but particularly for older students who haven’t taken a test for many years, is the rigorous timing of the tests — the computer-adaptive tests allow only 30 to 90 seconds per question.

This can be especially stressful for someone who’s been in a work environment for years, where one is generally allowed more leeway in managing time to solve problems, rather than a school environment.

We wanted to see if there was more here than just an anecdote or two. We checked in with test prep giant Kaplan. “Your theory is supported by data,” Russell Schaffer, Kaplan’s senior communications manager, told us, citing the GMAT, the gatekeeper test for graduate business school.

According to the GMAT test maker, studies show that GMAT takers aged 20-21 have the highest average scores of all those taking the test.

This is why at Kaplan, we recommend that undergraduate students sit for their grad exam while still in college because they’ll find it easier since they are still in test-taking/study mode and some exam content or skills they may have learned as undergrads are still fresh in their minds

Scores on the GMAT, LSAT (for law school) and GRE are generally valid for 5 years, although that varies from program to program, Schaffer said.

Despite the struggles of her older students, our Network source made it clear they are set on succeeding.

“My older students brought a high level of focus, discipline, commitment, and motivation to achieving their goals that would serve them well as they moved forward,” she said.

“One thing I have not noticed is any embarrassment or self-consciousness on the part of older students about their age, either when interacting with me or with younger students. It now seems generally accepted as normal that people return to school at all stages of life.”

BONUS FACT: At Kaplan’s Kaplan University unit, online enrollment of students age 55 and older has jumped 10-fold since 2007, from about 200 in 2007 to more than 2,200 today.

DOUBLE BONUS: Here’s a sample GMAT problem solving question. Makes my head hurt just thinking about it.


Are you an older or non-traditional student? How it’s going being back in school or trying to return to school? What’s working and what isn’t?

Post below or contact me directly.