The GMAT: Why Test Strategy Matters
Test day is the culmination of your efforts, where you reap the rewards of all the nights and weekends you spent studying. Finally, you can put the GMAT exam behind you and focus on your essays knowing that you have positioned yourself to succeed. Unfortunately for some, everything doesn’t always go as planned, and instead of hitting their goal score they fall short. For many people, this is as a result of test day factors, not due to lack of studying. This guide will help you eliminate internal and external influences that may prevent you from achieving your best score.
Before beginning, it is important to keep two things in mind. First, if you are scoring 620 on practice exams, reading this guide will not help you score 700. There is no replacement for hard work and studying the test material. If you are already scoring in your target range, this guide may prove invaluable. Second, the GMAT exam is only one part of your business school application and putting too much pressure on yourself will hinder your ability to perform during the exam. If you are the type of person who is overly stressed by systems and order, only implement the parts that you are comfortable with. Being overly stressed out during the exam will hurt you much more than having inefficient test taking strategy!
Ideal Test Day Mindset
Your goal when taking the exam is to be completely focused on the current question and to remove distractions created by other thoughts and/or negative emotions. By improving this skill you will be more engaged in the exam, which should increase your ability to answer the questions and speed up your processing time, enabling you to have more relative time per problem during the exam. The test day factors that influence your performance and final score can be broken down into three categories: mental, physical, and external factors. External factors tend to be easiest to solve and are the low hanging fruit, while mental and physical factors take a bit more work, but tend to be more valuable.
1. External Factors
External factors are forces outside of your mind and body that influence your ability to focus on the exam and achieve your target score. By reducing or eliminating external forces, you reduce the outside distractions and a minimized the amount of willpower used prior to beginning the exam.
- Plan on arriving early to the testing location. Whether you are driving, walking, or taking public transportation, unexpected events occur and budgeting extra time dramatically reduce or eliminate the worry created should anything happen.
- Avoid taking work calls or checking your email before the exam. Your boss wanting a status update on a critical project or a close friend asking you for personal advice right before the exam will distract you and reduce your ability to be present during the exam. Airplane mode or do not disturb are great for helping you with this task.
- Find the official video of what will happen when you arrive at the test center. Knowing what the location looks like before taking the exam will enable you to be more comfortable in this new location, especially if this is the first time you are taking the GMAT exam.
- Practice using a laminated board and marker similar to what you will use during the exam. This will reduce the cognitive load required to figure out a new set of tools and reduce or eliminate any mistakes due to not being used to writing with a marker.
- Ask where the bathroom is when you arrive. This will save you critical time during your break and may even add to your comfort level with the testing center environment.
2. Physical Factors
Physical factors are those related to your body that influence you ability to remain calm and that prime your mind to perform at its top level. By improving your physical factors you will reduce physical distractions and support your mind’s ability to execute.
- Ensure that you get enough sleep in the week leading up to the exam. Not getting enough sleep has a significant impact on cognition and taking the GMAT exam on a sleep deficit will decrease your ability to perform during the exam. By ensuring that you get enough sleep for the entire week leading up to the exam you minimize the damage of a poor night’s sleep the night before the exam by reducing the potential impact. Some people experience difficulty sleeping the night before the exam due to excitement or nervous energy, so by anticipating this and minimizing its impact you set yourself up for success.
- Exercise the day before the exam. Exercise has been shown to have a beneficial impact on mental function and sleep.
- Do not change your coffee and sugar intake on the day of the exam. Coffee and sugar have a significant impact on energy level and focus. By consuming more or less coffee and sugar than normal, you risk either entering a low energy state or experiencing a large energy spike followed by crash, both of which are detrimental to your ability to perform on the exam.
- Bring snacks that help you maintain a calm and steady focus. As alluring as it is to bring a nice piece of chocolate cake as a treat for finishing your quantitative section, it will cause problems. Instead, bring foods that leave you feeling recovered and focused. The celebration can wait until after the exam.
- If you are feeling jumpy before the exam, take a walk to burn off nervous energy. Because you arrived at the test center with time to spare, you have the option to take a brief walk to calm yourself down if you are feeling anxious.
3. Mental Factors
Mental factors are those related to your mind that affects you ability to focus and that influence your ability to effectively think through problems. By improving your mental factors you will reduce mental distractions and increase your ability to work through challenging questions.
- Realize that this is just an exam and not a judgment of your self-worth and that it is only one of many factors that will influence your business school application. Your goal is to do your best so that when you finish the exam, you are not questioning if you did everything you could. That’s it.
- If possible, leave enough time in your application schedule for you to retake the exam should you not achieve your desired score. This safety net will remove some of the pressure of the exam by minimizing the negative repercussions of something unexpected going wrong. For most people, this will reduce the stress after making a small mistake, preventing it from growing and influencing the rest of your exam.
- Schedule the exam for the time of day when you are the most focused and present. Most people tend to be more focused in the mornings and if you fit into this category, schedule your exam for the morning. If possible, get up 2 hours before the exam to ensure that you are fully awake and do not feel rushed in the morning.
- A week or two before the exam do full exam practice near the testing center. Pretend you are going to take your exam at the exam center, except when you arrive at the testing location head to a nearby coffee shop or library and take a full-length practice exam. This will make the exam process more comfortable and routine, which should further reduce testing anxiety.
- Take full-length practice exams until they become routine. By taking full-length practice exams you will condition yourself to be ready for the mental exertion required during the exam and will make the actual exam feel more routine and comfortable.
- Avoid studying the day before the exam. By this point, you know everything you need to and the most valuable thing you can do is to take a day to recover and have fun.
- Meditate for a few minutes each day in the weeks leading up to the exam. By meditating for even a few minutes every day, you will improve your ability to return to a calm state and will be better able to catch yourself when you are feeling stressed. This will enable you to notice when your emotions are negatively affecting your ability to think through a question and to return to a calmer state where you are better able to focus on the problem at hand.
- Take a few deep breaths before beginning the exam. If you have practiced meditation in the weeks leading up to the exam, this will help you be calmer and more focused during the exam.
- Take a few deep breaths any time you feel stressed during the exam. If you find yourself feeling stressed, taking a few seconds to improve your mental state and clarity of thought is a great investment that will pay dividends in your ability to work through problems and focus on the question at hand.
- Use music to get you into a happy mindset before taking the exam. Have a song that makes you happy? Blast it on your way to the test center. Science shows happier people do higher quality work, so be happy!
While there are a lot of tips listed above, only use the ones that you are comfortable with and ignore the rest. Good luck on the exam!
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