10-10-10. The date has been plastered all over the streets of Chicago on billboards, storefront signs, flyers and posters. On that repetitive date, approximately 40,000 people will take part in one of the world’s most repetitive activities — the Chicago Marathon. A marathon is not unlike the GMAT — a task for which you prepare for months, agonize the night before, and hope to complete successfully in under four hours, for many. And, on both the GMAT and the marathon, the worst thing that you can do is think too much.
Your author will be among the 40,000 runners, so in a break from journalistic norm I may switch to first-person here. (As a side note, I took the opportunity last night to visit our Chicago GMAT course and picked up a memorable quote from instructor extraordinaire Frankie Beecroft: “You have to get as good at taking this test as they are at making it.” Brilliant.) In any marathon that I’ve ever run, the smartest thing I did was turn my conscious mind off, and I’m convinced that it’s the best way to take the GMAT.
Like the marathon, the GMAT is a repetitive activity — you’re studied for hours, taken multiple practice tests, and turned yourself into a creature of habit, subconsciously performing operations like “it’s a weaken question so I’ll focus on finding the conclusion and the logical flaw” or “that sentence leads with a description so the modifier may be misplaced.” But on test day, just as marathoners tend to do on race day, you’ll be tempted to think about anything and everything other than the problem in front of you: “This question looks too easy, so I must be doing poorly”; “I need to calculate my pace-per-question”; “What’s the shortcut that I read about a month ago, and does it even apply to this problem?” Your conscious mind, if let to run free, will overwhelm your subconscious — the part of your mind that already knows what to do.
My worst ever marathon experience was the first six miles of the Boston Marathon, a race that I had trained for years to qualify for and for which I had subsequently trained harder than for any other I had done. This was a dream come true…and for those first six miles I thought of nothing else other than calculating split times, worrying about where the next mile marker would come, second-guessing my hydration and nutrition strategies, etc. It was excruciating…at the end of hundreds of miles and several months of training, I was thinking about this race like I were a toddler taking his first step, completely overthinking and overanalyzing each step and each breath. Finally in the sixth mile, I had to take control of my conscious mind and put it in its place — a well-conditioned athlete in the first quarter of the race, I stopped and walked for a full minute to get control of my mind and start fresh.
I had to let my body do what I had trained it to, because at that point frantic thinking could only hurt me.
On the GMAT, you’ll likely need to do the version of the same. You’ve trained your mind to recognize common problem types and concepts, and you probably can do them in your sleep (admit it — we’ve all dreamed in Data Sufficiency form at least once). Let yourself do that — rely on your internal pacing clock that you’ve developed over several practice tests and do a self-check every 10 problems or so to make sure that you’re on pace. Relax and keep your conscious thought solely on the areas that you’ve preordained to be important — double-checking common mistakes, interpreting problems that look unique, etc.
Ultimately, test day, like race day, is just the final lap of a long process — by that point, the best thing you can do is to stay out of your own way and let your mind and body do what you’ve trained them to do. If you do find yourself thinking too much about anything and everything other than the problem, take a mental “walk” and remind yourself that your training needs to take over. Save your conscious stress for truly difficult decisions, like “Harvard or Wharton?”