Lessons I have learned from preparing students for graduate school proficiency exams

I have been helping students prepare for graduate school proficiency exams for as long as I have taught English. In fact, my very first private class, prior to even signing my first contract as a teacher, aimed to assist a friend in preparing for a master’s degree proficiency exam.

This type of exam preparation differs significantly from classic exams, such as Cambridge, because each program has unique requirements. Depending on the situation, the program itself, the Letras department, or a local language school may be responsible for the examination process.

Tailor-made exams, which focus solely on reading comprehension, make the process cheaper and easier to prepare for. However, the process can also be slightly more unpredictable. I have come across situations in which I was not able to find reliable information on the exam format, marking process, or even the availability of the exam that year.

While preparing for high-stakes exams may be a suitable alternative if the candidate cannot take any risks, it also makes the process more costly and cumbersome. Candidates typically choose tailor-made exams, but they need to be aware of these potential pitfalls to make an informed decision.

Here are some lessons I have learned by assisting students in preparing for graduate programs:

  • Review the call for applicants yourself, as your students may not have enough information to make a sound decision. Be meticulous about dates, scores, formats, etc. Some programs combine two exams, such as specific knowledge and English proficiency, so it is critical to be aware of this.
  • Conduct a placement test as you would with any other student. This will provide you with more credibility in the event that you need to deliver bad news, such as low chances of passing or insufficient time to prepare.
  • Look for mock tests. Access the website of the institution responsible for the exam. If they do not have any mock tests available, kindly request one.
  • Take their strategies with a grain of salt. Although no one is to blame, they may lead you to believe that they know what the best course of action is, but they may be incorrect. Be kind, acknowledge their strategies, point out potential flaws, and suggest alternatives.
  • Develop a plan B. Will they have the opportunity to retake the exam if they fail? Are other universities offering similar exams that could be considered for the application process? Investigate possibilities.
  • Analyze their study strategies. Studying is a complicated task, so don’t assume they know how to do it. Small adjustments to their environment can have a significant positive impact. Inquire about their room, routines, strategies, etc., and suggest changes if something isn’t working.

Do you have experience preparing students for graduate school proficiency exams? What other items would you add to this list? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Have a great week!

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Arthur Damião Médici

Arthur Médici has been in ELT since 2009, working as an independent teacher since 2013. With a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in Psychology, he has a keen interest in English for Academic Purposes and professionalism for independent teachers.

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