The sports news story du jour is an amazing one – 14 year old Tianlang Guan spent yesterday not doing math homework (like you presumably are) or household chores like a normal 14-year old on a Thursday. He spent it shooting an incredibly impressive round at the Masters, arguably the world’s most prestigious golf tournament. His score of 73 beat the defending champion by two strokes and kept him in the hunt for another day. And it should also have taught you a lesson about the GMAT:
It’s good to be young and naive.
It happens frequently in sports and perhaps even more frequently on the GMAT (your author is a prime example), where a young talent seems to rise above the pressure of the moment beyond everyone’s expectations – mainly because that young talent doesn’t yet have enough perspective to have expectations or feel pressure. They’re just doing what comes naturally, focusing on the task at hand and not the context that surrounds it.
The road to 700+ on the GMAT is littered by the torn-up score reports of those who had outstanding practice test scores, knew all the material forward and backward, but succumbed to the stress of test day and made silly mistakes, botched their pacing, or lost their nerve and unraveled completely. But this isn’t a “be afraid” post – it’s more of a “be naive” post. You, too, can be Tianlang Guan – here’s how to keep your nerve on test day:
1) Know that only your best score matters.
In the vast majority of cases, schools will only care about your top score, and in many cases schools only go to the official score report (which lists your other scores) to confirm what you self-report, meaning that they’re not analyzing the report but rather just double checking. Even when they do see your score history, they’re very rarely swayed by anything other than your top score – they know this is a hard test, and one in which many (if not most) applicants do have to retake! So know that the GMAT is an opportunity to post a high score, but not a disaster if you don’t.
Admit it – the GMAT isn’t much different from other puzzle-style logic games (crosswords, Sudoku, chess, etc.) that you might enjoy playing. So while you should take it seriously, let yourself smile when you’ve caught that trap answer or found a clever shortcut. Smile even when the test just threw that one topic (“I hate Reading Comp about astronomy!”) at you that you hoped you wouldn’t see. “Touche, GMAT” – if you can let yourself get into the game and not think about the pressure that (mostly artificially) surrounds it, you can set yourself up for prime disposition and peak performance.
3) Know that you always have a retake fallback.
Much like Tianlang Guan, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to “win” at the GMAT – it’s $250 to retake it but considering that you’re looking to spend near $100,000 on business school it’s more of a nuisance than a catastrophe if you do need to retake. There’s something comforting about knowing that this isn’t your only chance – and those who can use that confidence to their advantage are more likely to not need that safety net, after all.
4) Know that pressure is adrenalin, and adrenalin leads to peak performance.
There are two ways to see those nerves in your stomach – one as a threat, and one as an asset. Your body uses adrenalin to gear up for peak performance – it’s part of that fight-or-flight response that’s been evolving in your DNA for thousands of years. Adrenalin tells your body “it’s time to shine”, so it’s not a bad thing at all. Everyone feels pressure, but those who succeed typically handle it by seeing it as an opportunity, by being excited to show their stuff and not panicked that they might have to show it. Remember – you’re only nervous when you think you have a chance of success (first dates, job interviews, big performances) and not when you have zero chance (lottery tickets, tweeting Kate Upton), so the fact that you feel pressure at all is evidence that you should do well. Use it to your advantage.
5) Don’t wait until you’re absolutely, positively, no-doubt-about-it ready to take the GMAT.
That day just about never comes – there’s always more prep you can do – but in waiting for it you build up the pressure of test day, as you’ve invested too much in it. The longer you wait, the more the pressure builds and instead of “let’s see how this goes” it becomes “today simply must be the day”. There’s value to naiveté, staying calm because you haven’t built up an undue level of pressure. Make sure to be prepared, but don’t let your preparation turn the GMAT into the 18th hold of the Masters.