Packed into a sweltering room with a loud ticking clock and a gum-chewing proctor, you struggle to focus on your LSAT or MCAT exam. As your mind wanders, you wish you had known beforehand that this site would be so distracting.
Columbia students who choose to take the test at Columbia might not have to worry quite so much about test-taking nightmare, though. For the second consecutive year, Columbia University is the highest-ranking site in the five boroughs for conditions conducive to taking the LSAT.
Two years ago, Kaplan Test Prep created a Test Site Rater through which students can rate nationwide LSAT and MCAT exam locations on a scale of 1 to 5 based on "proctors," "quiet and comfort," "overall experience," and "desk space." The rating tool, which may be accessed by visiting kaplansurveys.com/ratings_browser/main.php, already contains input from over 5,000 Kaplan LSAT students from 261 test sites and 2,124 Kaplan MCAT students from 187 sites.
"We've learned throughout the years that site choice, a factor many test-takers don't seriously consider, can have a huge impact on performance," said Justin Serrano, executive director of Kaplan Test Prep, in a press release.
Caleb Vognsen, CC '04, took the LSAT at New York University on Dec. 6, the day of the biggest snow storm of the year. He said it took an extra two hours to get everyone settled down and things in order. He imagined it could have been a "psychologically destabilizing experience" for some. However, he said the conditions did not greatly affect his test-taking performance. "I would have been nervous no matter what happened," he said. "I would have clung to any possible discrepancy. There's always something."
In the press release, Serrano said, "The validity of standardized testing rests on standard test conditions. Most people choose their test location based only on convenience; however, this study shows just how drastically sites can vary."
Liz Goldman, CC '04, took the LSAT in October at Manhattan College. She said she took a very long subway ride and is unfamiliar with the Bronx. "If I had taken the LSAT at Columbia, I would have been so much happier," she said.
In addition to her commute to the test site, Goldman said that there were "two annoying Columbia students there who were extremely cocky. They said 'Let's go take an LSAT' and put their feet on their desks without their shoes on. I felt like I went to school with people who were obnoxious," she said.
"Before students sign up, they should carefully research their options to find the best location available," advised Serrano.
According to Kaplan's ratings, the Ivies don't always score at the top of the list. Serrano said, "Despite the Ivy League schools' excellent and well-deserved reputation overall, many of them were ranked quite low by our students. This may surprise many would-be test-takers, who might naturally assume that the Ivies would offer a testing experience equivalent to the high quality of their education," he added.
Lauren Ende, CC '04, chose to take the MCAT at a community college near her house. "I had an excellent test-taking experience," she said. "I would have been extremely intimidated knowing all of the people in the room."
For the LSATs, the University of Pennsylvania ranked moderately, placing 64th out of 307 sites in the nation. No other Ivy ranked above 74. For the MCATs, Brown ranked 79 out of 189 and was the only Ivy to make it into the top 100.
Columbia did much better in the ranking for the LSATs than the MCATs.
Karen Love, CC '04, recently took the LSATs at Columbia University and found her test-taking experience positive. The proctors were "very quiet and nice" and they "stuck so closely to the rules," she commented. "Some students thought the swinging chairs in the International Affairs Building were uncomfortable, but I was used to them."
The highest-rated MCAT site in the city was the New York Marriott on the east side of Manhattan. The Marriott was rated 9 out of 189 sites in the nation. Overall, both Columbia and the Marriott ranked well on a national level.
In addition to differences between states, there are great variations in testing sites within metropolitan areas. In Chicago, LSAT-takers ranked the University of Illinois 83 out of 307, while the Illinois Institute of Technology was ranked 298 of 307. For the MCATs, City College of Chicago ranked 127 of 189 and the University of Illinois ranked 153 of 189. Similar variations were also found in Los Angeles: the University of Southern California ranked 17 out of 307 for the LSATs, whereas UCLA ranked only 241. USC ranked less impressively when it came to the MCATs, placing only 120 of 187, while UCLA ranked 164.
"The good news in big metropolitan areas is that students have options," Serrano said. "The wide variations illustrate how important it is for test-takers to carefully weigh their options and consider how site choice may ultimately affect their test score."