You have prepared for months, perhaps even years for an important exam. Days and weeks before the exam your understanding grows to the point where you are sure that you have a complete mastery of the material. 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 great score on this test.
Nothing, that is, except yourself. On test day, your pulse quickens, your hands sweat, and your mind races. You find yourself concentrating on everything that isn’t the test in front of you. You actually begin to worry about the fact that you are worrying, until you realize that you have just spent 5 minutes staring at the first question on the GMAT quantitative section without even beginning to find a solution.
If it does, you are not alone. Everyone, at one time or another, has felt the negative effects of test performance anxiety. It’s a horrible feeling — both during the test and afterward — knowing that you and only you were the direct cause of your subpar score.
Despite what you may think about your innate test ability (“I’m just bad at taking tests,” “I always choke,” etc. etc.), there are ways to deal with this. Check out this concrete plan, after the jump.
You may have heard about or even tried drugs called beta blockers in order to calm your nerves. You also might know some people that swear by powerful stimulants like caffeine and Adderall to boost mental performance and focus on the day of the test. Both of these solutions have drawbacks. For one, all drugs have side effects — beta blockers can make you feel slow and lethargic (not exactly ideal states for an intense test), while stimulants can cause your mind and body to race out of control. The main problem with using drugs to optimize performance is that you don’t really solve the problem — the next time you have to perform under pressure, you’ll need the drug again. Effectively, you’ll be writing yourself a lifelong prescription for a mental crutch every time you need to perform. This situation can only inhibit long-term improvement.
Drugs solve the physiological problems of performance anxiety by addressing the physiology of the phenomenon. While they may lower your heart rate or boost your dopamine levels, they cannot truly act to optimize your mental state. To do this you need to effectively hack your own mind.
What makes test-day different from taking practice tests in your living room? There are the visual stimuli: the unfamiliar appearance of the testing center, the slightly annoying monitor, the presence of other test-takers in the room. There is also the smell of the room, the sound of other keyboards a-clicking (or the feel of the uncomfortable headphones if you choose to use them), the unfamiliar chair, the locker room before the test, etc., etc. And then there is the unfamiliar feeling that this one matters. You are not in Kansas anymore.
The classic symptoms of performance anxiety are merely responses to these changes in stimuli. Understand this, and you can take a few simple steps to engineer these responses to work to your benefit.
1. Keep a record of your GMAT practice test scores with notes. What did you do the day you scored your best? Did you exercise? Did you listen to music? Or did you come home from work, eat a big bowl of mac and cheese and watch The Office? Write these things down and pay attention to them. It doesn’t matter what they are. You’re just looking for a set of 2-3 things that you enjoy doing — things that you can do consistently every single day to put you in a good test-taking state of mind. Let’s call these things your “zone-ins” — you will use them to zone in to your best state of mind before every test you take.
2. Suppose your two zone-ins are eating mac and cheese and watching The Office. These are particularly good zone-ins because they touch upon more than one of your five senses. Mac and cheese is a taste stimulus; The Office is both a visual and an aural stimulus. Suppose you are a month away from taking your test. (You will need at least a month to make this process work). Do these two or three activities in the same order before every single practice test that you take.
Say you come home from work at 6, eat your mac and cheese, watch an episode of The Office online, and then take your practice test. Take a break before you do any studying after you take the test. What you want to do is to isolate “taking the test well” into a multi-step process that involves both eating your mac and cheese and watching The Office as matter-of-fact precursors to the actual GMAT. Spend about two weeks doing this until it becomes a habit.
3. Beginning roughly two weeks before the test, slowly taper down your zone-ins to processes that take progressively less time, but still retain the essence of the experiences. For example, instead of cooking and eating an entire box of mac and cheese, try making it the night before and reheating a few spoonfuls in the microwave. And after you’ve done that, maybe cut it down to a quick cold spoonful out of the fridge. And after that, maybe you just need to smell it. Or if you’re watching The Office, maybe instead of watching a full episode, you just watch the opening 6 minutes of an episode. And then you cut it down to maybe a 2-minute webisode. And then maybe you only need to hear the opening music or the sound of Michael Scott’s voice to make you think, “I’m watching The Office.”
4. The final step is to take these boiled-down essences of your zone-ins and find a way to use them on the day of the test. Maybe before you leave the locker room to enter the testing room, you eat a spoonful of mac and cheese out of a Ziploc bag and watch a webisode of The Office on your iPhone. Remember, these activities could be anything, as long as they reflect the feel and essence of your original zone-ins and are done in the identical order that you practiced and tapered. If you have done the process slowly, over at least a month, you will find yourself walking into the test room with confidence and scoring as if you were taking the test in your own living room.
Nate Burke is a Content Developer at Knewton, specializing in GMAT prep.