One of the most compelling dramas in all of sports took place yesterday in the Tour de France, with Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador — the two leaders of the race, which ends Sunday — matching each other’s yeoman efforts pedal-for-pedal up one of the world’s most intimidating mountain roads, the Col de Tourmalet. Through the fog, up grades of over 10%, surrounded by fans waving flags and cowbells, and well ahead of every other rider in the race, the two riders — separated after two weeks and thousands of miles by only eight seconds — put on a battle for the ages.
While winning the respect and admiration of the world, Schleck also won the day although he may have lost the Tour in the process (history suggests that Contador, who owns the eight-second advantage, will extend that lead significantly in tomorrow’s Individual Time Trial, the last real opportunity for the riders to separate themselves). And he was able to do it by employing the exact kind of poise that you may need on the GMAT.
Just two days earlier, Schleck proved himself the stronger man in the mountains, at least for that day, attacking Contador with a massive burst of speed and appearing to be on the verge of extending his 31-second lead at the time. Pushing to extend his lead, he flipped a switch on his handlebars to change into a larger gear, and the unthinkable happened — his chain slipped of the ring in the process, and his bike cruised idly to a stop, leaving him to fix the mechanical problem with his heart beating near its maximum of around 200 beats per minute and his lifelong dreams escaping before his eyes nearly as frantically.
The same may happen to you on test day — in the midst of a hard problem, you may find that a calculation yields a number unlike any of the answer choices, or that you can’t find a way to isolate a variable in a calculation, or that none of the answer choices seems to match with the conclusion of a Critical Reasoning problem. Like Schleck, you may feel the pressure of months of hard work slipping away from you in the blink of an eye, while the clock ticks ever louder giving you less and less time to right the wrong and get back on track. Unlike Schleck’s situation, however, a rare gear malfunction that happened at the exact worst moment in one of the unluckiest events in all of cycling, mistakes are bound to happen for you on the GMAT — you almost certainly will encounter some kind of stress-turned-panic one at least one question.
So how can you react to such a situation? Like Andy Schleck did. Amidst all the chaos and pressure, with his heart beating out of his chest and his lungs craving oxygen at high altitude, Schleck calmly rotated his pedals, threaded the chain onto the sprockets, turned the crank to ensure that it was in place, hopped back on his bike and went back to work. In GMAT terms, he calmly assessed the problem, went back through the same motions he had done thousands of times before, and focused on the task in front of him with little thought about the panic behind him. The result? An event that could have lost him minutes of time only cost him about 30 seconds, and allowed him to take part in yesterday’s epic duel with everything on the line and a chance to win the greatest endurance race in the world.
On the GMAT, you’ll make mistakes, you’ll feel pressure, and you’ll see time slipping away. How you manage the situation is what determines your success, and the best way to manage the situation is to go back to the basics. Identify the question you’re being asked, think of the strategies that work on those problems, and follow your work calmly to see where you may have been in error. If you can’t get back on track efficiently, know that there are multiple battles — 37 math and 41 verbal — to be fought, and that you may simply need to limit your time losses on one problem to be ready to fight on the next. Keep your cool and prove to the test — and those who view your scores — that you can calmly and efficiently manage stressful situations, and like Schleck you can continue on to bigger and more rewarding challenges with the respect of those around you.
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