Many students struggle with test anxiety at some point in their lives. Whether you’re paralyzed by anxiety before an important exam, or just have a few butterflies, here are 10 tips to put your mind at ease before you set foot in the test center.
1. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
This one is key. Yes, you should study hard for the GMAT, and yes, the GMAT is a very important component of your MBA application — but your GMAT score will not determine your future happiness or career success. If you don’t do as well as expected on the test the first time around, you can always take it again. And though the GMAT certainly plays a significant role in admissions decisions, officers also weigh other factors such as your work experience, GPA, extracurricular activities, and leadership experience. You should certainly try your best on the test — but don’t set the bar at 800! Test anxiety often affects perfectionists and people who associate their self-worth with their performance on exams and in school. Remember: your GMAT score does not, and will not ever, define you!
2. Establish smart study habits in the months before the test.
Being disorganized in your study habits or cramming before the test will only heighten your GMAT test anxiety. Whether you’re taking a GMAT prep course or self-studying, establish a schedule ahead of time. Your plan should be realistic and take into account your existing commitments. If you’re a morning person and you’re working a full-time job, try to get in an hour or two of studying before work. If you really can’t fit in any study time during the week, be sure to set aside a chunk of time each weekend for GMAT prep. The number of weeks, or months, you set aside for studying will depend on how many hours a week you can spare. Be sure that you’re studying efficiently. Focus primarily on your weaknesses (while maintaining your strengths) to maximize score gains.
3. Make sure you’re as prepared as possible.
If you know that you’ve put your all into your GMAT prep, you’ll have much less to worry about. You’ll be aware of your individual strengths and weaknesses and have strategies for making the most of your limited time and attacking specific types of questions on the Quant and Verbal sections. You’ll also have built up your test-taking endurance, so that test day won’t feel like a completely foreign experience.
4. Know exactly what to expect.
This tip comes to us from one of our GMAT prep students who struggled with test anxiety. Her strategy to overcome it? She watched this video, which provides a tour of a GMAT test center, many times before test day. By the 80th time or so, she says, her heart had finally stopped pounding and she felt ready to conquer the GMAT. (By the way: she ended up scoring a 720!) Familiarity is often associated with comfort — so watch this video, talk to people who have taken the GMAT at your test center, and be sure that you’ve taken plenty of full-length CATs before you embark upon the real thing.
5. Treat your body as an extension of your mind.
In the months before the test, make a concerted effort to eat well and get plenty of exercise and sleep. The healthier you are, the better you’ll feel on test day. Exercise in particular can be a great stress reliever. Try yoga or meditation if you’re looking to clear your mind.
6. Try the “Thought-Stopping Technique.”
Test anxiety can stem from a feeling that you have lost control; this strategy helps sufferers overcome their panic. If you find yourself obsessed with negative thoughts, silently shout to yourself, “Don’t think about that!” or just “Stop!” Once you’ve silently shouted, relax your muscles, take a deep breath, and repeat a positive statement inside your head (“you can do this,” “this will not make or break my life,” “you are prepared for this,” etc.) You can employ this strategy on test day or whenever you start feeling anxious.
7. Relax the night before the test.
In fact, you should make a concerted effort to relax the whole week leading up to the test. Don’t be tempted to cram in these last few days. It’s unlikely you’ll learn anything substantial and you’re almost certain to make yourself nervous. The night before the big day, be sure to get plenty of sleep and do something to put your mind at ease, whether that’s cooking dinner for yourself, going for a run, or watching a movie with friends.
8. Be sure you have everything you need ahead of time.
Compile everything you’ll need for test day a few days ahead of time. Here’s a list of what to bring to the test center from mba.com (it also includes information about what’s not allowed). Print out directions to the test site and, if it makes you feel better, visit the center in person to see how long it takes you to get there. You can even pick out your outfit ahead of time — try to choose something comfortable and dress in layers in case it’s hotter or colder than you anticipated. Buy any snacks for the designated breaks, and put them in your bag too. The more prepared you are, the less you’ll have to be anxious about.
9. Be positive.
If you’re driving to the test center and find yourself fixating on failure, make an effort to think positive thoughts. Remind yourself that you don’t have to be perfect, and that you’ve adequately prepared. Tell yourself that everything will be fine, and that four hours will not make or break your life. It may seem silly, but talk to yourself aloud. Say things like, “I’m going to feel calm now. I’m going to try my best. Everything will be fine.”
10. Employ relaxation techniques during the test.
If you’re in the middle of the testing center and anxiety strikes, take a couple of deep breaths and tense and relax your muscles. Close your eyes for a moment. If you’re still feeling nervous, here are a few unobtrusive relaxation methods (source):
Tensing and Relaxing Method:
- Put your feet on the floor.
- Grab underneath your chair with your hands.
- Push down with your feet while pulling up on your chair. Do this for approximately five seconds.
- Relax your body for another five seconds.
- Repeat 2-3 times.
The Deep Breathing Method
- Sit straight in your chair.
- Inhale deeply through your nose.
- Fill the lower section of your lungs with air, then work up the upper part of your lungs.
- Hold your breathe.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth.