By Nate Burke
The GMAT is an important exam, one that has the potential to make or break your business school applications—and accordingly, your resume, earning potential, and educational opportunities for the next few years. As such, you’ve prepared diligently for months, perhaps even years, for the test. In the days and weeks before the exam, your understanding grows to the point where you are confident in your mastery of the material. You get it. Your scores on GMAT practice tests are consistently good, your grasp of the exam format is secure, and there is nothing imaginable that could get in the way of you and a top score on the test.
Nothing, that is, except yourself and that pesky text anxiety. Your hands sweat; your mind travels in a million directions at once. Everything except the test in front of you comes to the forefront of your mind: you begin to worry about the fact that you are worrying. You realize you’ve spent the past 5 minutes staring at the first question on the GMAT quant section, without even thinking about beginning to find a solution.
Does this sound familiar?
If so, the good news is that you’re not alone. At some time or another, most everyone will experience the negative effects of test performance anxiety. It’s a horrible feeling, especially when you’ve prepared for the test and know that you and only you will be the direct cause of your subpar score.
Despite how you’ve classified yourself (“I’m just a bad test-taker,” “I’ll never be able to get over my fears”) there are ways to deal with text-anxiety.
The first bit of advice? Don’t turn to artificial solutions. You may have heard about, or even tried, drugs called beta blockers in an attempt to calm your nerves. You might know people who swear by powerful stimulants like Adderall and caffeine to improve their focus and mental agility on test-day. But both of these solutions have drawbacks. All drugs have side effects—beta blockers can lead to lethargy (not what you want on GMAT test day), and stimulants can cause your mind and body to race out of control. Using drugs to optimize test-day performance is a complete band-aid solution—the next you need to perform under pressure, you’ll need the drug again. Unless you want to write yourself a lifelong prescription for this kind of mental crutch, look elsewhere for a solution.
Instead of turning to drugs—which solve the physiological problems of performance anxiety by addressing the physiological of the phenomenon—make an effort to “hack” you own mind. This will allow you to optimize your mental state in ways drugs cannot.
First, think about what makes taking the GMAT at the test center different from taking a practice test in your living room? Sure, there are the visual stimuli: the slightly annoying monitor, the unfamiliar setting, the presence of other test-takers. There might be an unpleasant smell, the sound of clicking keyboards (or the feel of uncomfortable headphones), a stiff chair, etc. And then there is the overwhelming feeling that this one matters. The test-run is over.
The classic symptoms of performance anxiety are all merely your body’s reaction to these small changes in stimuli. Once you understand this rationally, you can take a few simple steps to engineer your body’s responses to work to your benefit, rather than your detriment.
- Keep a record of your GMAT practice test scores, with notes about your routine on the day you took the test. Did you exercise? Relax by listening to music? Eat an extra-large pizza and zone out to your favorite TV show? Write these things down, even if they seem silly. You’re just looking for a short list of 2-3 things that you enjoy doing—things you can consistently do to put you in a good test-taking state of mind in the days and hours before the test. Let’s call these things your “zone-ins”—you’ll use them to get into your best state of mind before every test you take.
- Figure out two important zone-ins about a month before the test. Suppose your two are eating mac-and-cheese and watching The Office. These are particularly good because they touch upon more than one of your five senses: mac-and-cheese is a taste stimulus and The Office is visual and aural. Do these two activities in the same order before every single practice test you take before test-day. Say you come home from work at 6 and eat your mac-and-cheese while watching a rerun of The Office online, and then take your practice test. Take a break before doing any studying after the test. You want to try to isolate “taking the test well” into a multi-step process—one that involves both eating your macaroni and watching The Office as matter-of-fact precursors to the actual GMAT. It’ll take about two weeks for this routine to become a habit.
- About two weeks before your test date, taper zone your zone-ins to processes that take progressively less time, but still retain the essence of your zone-in experience. Instead of eating a bowl of mac-and-cheese the size of your face, make some the night before and heat up a few spoonfuls in the microwave. And after you’ve done that, cut it down to a spoonful straight from the fridge. After that, maybe you just need to smell the cheesey goodness. If your other zone-in is watching The Office, maybe instead of watching a full episode, you just watch the first 6 minutes. Then maybe you cut it down to a webisode. And then you only need to hum the opening music or hear the sound of Michael Scott’s lilting voice to think, “I’m watching The Office. I’m almost ready for the test.”
- The last step? Take these distilled essences of your zone-ins and find a way to use them on test day. Before you leave the locker room to enter the testing room, eat a spoonful of mac and cheese and hum the opening bars of The Office theme song. Remember, these activities could be anything—touching your toes, calling a friend, taking a sip of soda—as long as they reflect the feel and essence of your original zone-in activities, and are done in the same order that you practiced. If you’ve completed this process slowly, over a long enough period of time, you’ll walk into the test room with confidence, and you’ll score the same as though you were taking the test in your own living room.
In the end, it’s all about tricking your mind. We are creatures of routine—and if you can bring some of that familiar routine into the stale, sterile air of the test-center on GMAT test day, you’ll assure your mind and body of its ability to succeed!