Perhaps the most annoying thing about the GMAT is that it tends to punish those who care the most about it. As you’ve studied, you’ve likely come to realize that often the easiest way to miss a question is to be rushed, distracted, or just plain stressed out.
Here are four tips that can dramatically reduce your test-day anxiety:
- Understand that test-day anxiety is exactly what the test wants you to feel
Remember this – the GMAT is not as much a test of “how well you’ll do in business school “as it is a test of “how well you will do after business school”. Business schools have essentially two constituents — students/alumni and recruiters. And if the top recruiters come to the school to hire the students, the top students will continue to come. Business schools know this, and accordingly one of their top goals in the admissions process is to admit the kinds of students who will be successful in landing and excelling at great jobs.
As such, the GMAT is designed to test the kinds of thought processes and reasoning skills that lead to success in business, and one crucial component of that is your ability to make good, reasoned decisions while under pressure.
To combat this stress, know that it is an intentional part of the GMAT. You’re not feeling stress because you’re personally not worthy of success; you are feeling stress because the GMAT needs you to in order to make the test more difficult! Which, logically, means that if you can just let go of the stress, the test will be considerably easier. Which, if you follow the logic, means that the GMAT is an easier test than you think! Tell yourself that you can relax and stay confident because, in many ways, the only thing you have to fear is fear itself.
As mentioned above, the timed pressure of the GMAT contributes immensely to test-day stress and to the kinds of silly mistakes that result from it. Rushing through problems not only leads directly to score-killing mistakes, but it adds additional stress that can grow unbearable. But remember this about the GMAT’s computer-adaptive scoring system – you can (and will) miss several questions per section and still score very, very high. It’s not uncommon for someone to miss 10 or 11 questions on each section and still score 700+!
If you acknowledge that you can-and-will miss questions, then use that knowledge to your advantage. Plan on giving yourself 3-4 quick guesses, or “punts,” per section — if you start to read a question and realize withing 20-30 seconds that you’re just not going to get it, guess and move on. And, frankly, on those 3-4 questions that intimidate you the most at first glance, your likelihood of answering correctly after 2-3 minutes is probably not all that much higher than your odds of guessing correctly, and the time that you save for future questions may be even valuable than one correct answer with accompanying stress.
Perhaps the two worst case scenarios on the GMAT are: 1) Spending more time than you should have on a question and still getting it wrong; and 2) Making a careless mistake on a question that you should have gotten right. Planning to punt a handful of questions that will fall into the first category can help you save time and peace-of-mind to avoid the second, and if pacing has been a cause of stress for you it’s quite helpful to know that you can afford to relax.
In business, it’s less exotic but just as important to celebrate the bad decisions that you didn’t make (Madoff may be a bad investment…) as it is to celebrate the good decisions that you did (Apple? Yeah, maybe computers are the wave of the future). On the GMAT, deciding not to waste time on a question can be just as valuable to your overall score as getting a question correct can be.
- Focus on what you DO know and not on what you don’t
The GMAT is designed to intimidate you, but the flip side is that it’s also designed to reward you if you are able to navigate it effectively. As a multiple-choice test with some pretty stringent time constraints, each question must have a ~2-minute path to a definitively correct answer — that’s just the rule. So while it’s natural to be anxious about the fact that the test is intimidating, it’s equally helpful to focus on the fact that each questions is giving you all the clues you should need to solve it. And if you train yourself to begin each question by looking for the latter, you can drastically reduce the downside of the former.
When a question looks convoluted or intimidating, try to identify one thing that you do know right away and consider that an asset that you can use to find the next. Many GMAT questions will have you solve for the fourth or fifth variable, and just the mere sight of that many steps or variables can be stress-inducing. But remember — every long journey begins with a single step, and do does every convoluted GMAT question. Let yourself win that initial psychological battle of identifying “well, I do know ________” so that you can proactively build from that. Celebrate the milestones — each variable you solve for, each answer choice you eliminate, is a step toward a correct answer. The power of positive thinking dictates that a proactive approach to “I know x, which leads me to y, which leads me to…” will be a much more productive approach then “how in the world will I ever solve for z?” And knowing the GMAT, you’re never more than 4-5 steps away from the finish as long as you’re willing to identify, celebrate, and take those steps.
- Know the GMAT’s role in admissions
While the pressure described above is designed to make you think that the GMAT may be the most important day of your professional career to date, the truth is that it might be…but really only if you do well. Business schools, with precious few exceptions, only care about your highest score. After all, that is what they report to the rankings services, to employers, and to prospective students. In fact, most applications ask you to self-report your GMAT score by typing it into your application form, and then the admissions office will simply cross-reference your file to confirm that score. You can’t fake your way to a high GMAT score, and schools don’t have much reason at all to punish you for underestimating the difficulty of the test once or twice before you saw the light.
So what the GMAT is is an opportunity for you to succeed, not a pass/fail final referendum on your candidacy. Your safety net on test day is the knowledge that the worst you can do is need to take the GMAT again — a nuisance, definitely, but not a life-changing catastrophe. There is, in fact, very little to fear on test day other than fear itself.
Test-day anxiety has befallen many a GMAT examinee, but like the GMAT itself it can be overcome! Ultimately the best defense against anxiety is confidence, so prepare thoroughly and earn your right to be confident!
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