Baby, it’s cold outside. Pretty much no matter where you are while you read this, it’s cold right now (even here in Los Angeles), and whether it’s by blankets, Starbucks holiday drinks, or thermal underwear, you’re probably hoping to warm up. Which is actually good advice for the GMAT, too, just in a slightly different way.

En route to blowing his previous practice tests out of the water on the real thing last week, one of our professional athlete students remarked this about his GMAT studies: “I’d never go play a big game with cold muscles, so why would I try to attempt this big test without warming up my mind?” And so it began – before each practice test or study session, he’s grab 1-2 easy questions of each type, remind himself of the thought process and parameters from each question, and then dive into the more-challenging questions as a well-oiled machine.

So what does this mean for you? Don’t try to dive into the GMAT – or your GMAT practice – from a cold start. GMAT questions have a unique bent to them – in day-to-day life you’re not typically reading as closely for precise language, or thinking in terms of the factors of each number you see, or glancing at answer choices before you read sentences. The GMAT is a unique task and your mind is probably playing on a different field for most of each day, so take some time to set your mind right before you dive in. Here are a few ways to do so:

1) Before practice tests or homework sets, start with a couple “warm-up” easy questions – even if it’s questions that you’ve seen before. While you do so, remind yourself of the thought process that you employ on that type of question. Before you challenge your mind, make sure you’re in the right mindframe.

2) The morning of your GMAT exam, do a “walkthrough” – don’t strain yourself, but go back to 1-2 problems of each type (and make them problems you’ve already seen before…don’t run the risk of shaking your confidence because you happened to pick the two hardest problems in the Official Guide and got them wrong!) to get yourself warmed up and thinking the right way. Articulate the steps you take on each problem (“circle the variable that the question asks for, double check each equation you set up, check the answer choices for shortcuts before you start doing math…”).

3) During that first hour of the test – the AWA and Integrated Reasoning sections – take time to notice and reflect on each of the Quant and Verbal tasks you’re asked to perform. The AWA essay *is* a Critical Reasoning question in essay form, so use that as an opportunity to get your mind thinking about Critical Reasoning. With the IR section, you’ll be asked to make mental calculations (Quant) and analyze conclusions (Verbal). Take solace in the fact that these tasks are warming up your mind nicely for the main event to follow. Give yourself quick pats on the back for estimating with authentic numbers (51,285 divided by 16,960 is pretty darned close to 51/17 which is 3…you’re factoring, my friend!) or noting little subtleties in wording that change the answer (for example, if the graph maps a ratio but the question asks about an absolute number…that will come in handy on Critical Reasoning, too).

Most importantly, recognize that frame of mind and confidence are big variables on this test, and so it pays to go into the test warmed up (but not strained – do not take a practice test the morning of your exam!) and already feeling good about your thought process. Before any big competition, athletes take time to warm up their muscles; the brain is just one hugely-important muscle, so be sure to warm it up before you put it to the test.

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