Some stories are best told in the first person, so forgive me for the break from journalistic standards. As a longtime GMAT instructor – 10th anniversary coming up next month actually – I most empathize with my students when I’m preparing for any big event of my own, usually running and triathlon races. The months of grinding preparation, the sleepless night before the event, that helpless “if I’m not ready by now I guess I’ll never be ready, so here goes nothing” last week before the big day… I get to feel what my students feel leading up to their GMAT, and symbiotically I can both learn more about that experience and benefit from the advice I’ve always given about the GMAT.
So it was this past weekend, my last “long” run before tomorrow’s triathlon, that I had to heed my own advice about the last day or two before the test:
Don’t try to do new problems – and definitely don’t try to do a practice test – within 24 hours of your GMAT.
Why? Well here’s my story – I run along “The Strand” in Southern California, a long winding bike path along the beach. And my goal is to never get passed from behind – which sometimes is unavoidable (it’s busy out there, and some truly elite athletes train there) but if I’m working hard I can usually pull it off. Saturday was a “taper workout” – in the 10-14 days before a big race you tend to gradually back off the intensity to rest muscles, but then again running 15 miles is still running 15 miles. And for some reason – that extra half cup of coffee that took 10 minutes, or the time I woke up, or whatever it was – I happened out on that long-but-supposed-to-be-easy run right around the same time that at least a few pretty fast track clubs were in the middle of their workouts. And while I was going for distance, they must have been going for speed – on my first loop I got passed at least 15-20 times, but not without my pride turning an easy run into a “don’t get passed!” sprint pace at times.
And if I weren’t a longtime GMAT instructor, and had I not coached so many students against such a similar phenomenon over the past ten years, it might have been the most stressful and counterproductive workout you could have before a big race. How, after all this long training, was I getting beaten so badly by so many? And why, knowing that this wasn’t a race, was I sprinting to race random strangers when I was supposed to be casually stretching my legs?
I had to rely on the same speech I give my GMAT students – within a certain time period of your test, you won’t be able to improve by “learning more things” or putting in more effort. At a certain point – be it 48 hours prior if you’ve been studying a while, or just the day prior if you’ve condensed your studies to within a month or so – the best thing you can do is “keep the muscles fresh”. Because here’s what can happen if you try new problem sets or (heaven forbid) take a practice test:
- You can catch a run of bad luck or tough problems (like my parade of sprinters on the Strand) and ruin your confidence with wrong answers and tough concepts. And while learning-by-doing is huge with weeks to go until your test, the day before confidence is much more important.
- You can wear yourself out mentally, stressing through a test or monster problem set when your mind needs to be fresh and relaxed very soon.
- You can wear yourself out physically, sitting in one spot too long and not letting your body burn off anxious energy by exercising or just walking around. Or you can lose sleep by trying to fit in that extra study session before or after work.
- You can study the wrong thing and lose your focus on what’s important. The above for most are dangers you’re aware of, but this one is a little more subtle – people tend to chase “obscure” topics when they grind out new problem sets or attack the last practice test they haven’t taken yet, but the GMAT is much more a test of core skills and thought processes. If you spend a few hours the day before the test trying to master “Permutations With Restrictions”, when the odds are you may see 2 problems at maximum on that topic, you’re taking time away from reviewing the main thought processes for Data Sufficiency and Sentence Correction questions, those core processes that you’ll use around 15 times each on test day. The last 24-48 hours is not the time to try to chase new information that’s been baffling or challenging you; it is the time to remind yourself what you want to do (and avoid) on the exam.
There’s a strong link between athletic performance and the GMAT performance, so take a lesson from how athletes spend the day before a competition. It’s rarely if ever a hard workout or installing a new gameplan. It usually has two components:
1) A “walkthough”, reviewing the gameplan
2) A light workout, keeping the muscles fresh
How does this apply to your last day before the GMAT?
That day, you should spend time reviewing your approach for each question type, and reminding yourself of what to do (“Note all transition words in the passage, then make quick notes on the direction of the passage”) and what not to do (“don’t assume any variables are integers or positive numbers – always double check that”). And you shouldn’t do “nothing” – it would feel too strange to completely ignore the test, so carve out an hour to review a handful of problems of each type – problems you’ve seen before so that you don’t happen to pick a challenge set and shake your confidence, but so that you can remind yourself how to perform at your peak.
A successful GMAT tends to follow a successful day before the GMAT, so put some thought in to how you spend that last day. Stay fresh, stay confident, and stay off the Strand…man, those runners are fast sometimes!
By Brian Galvin