Use Anxiety to Your Advantage on Test Day

GMAT PrepAt some point during the first session of each new class I teach, I’ll write my phone number on the board and mention that I take emergency calls. When I first started doing this, I figured that every now and again I’d get a call from a frantic student the night before the exam because he or she was running through some practice problems and was stumped on a concept that had previously been clear. I could then talk the student through a concept or strategy as a kind of pre-test boost. It turns out, these emergency calls happen far more often than I’d suspected, and they’re never about content. They’re always about anxiety. And the refrain is always the same. “When we’re doing the questions in class, I understand them. When I’m working on my own with no pressure, I’m fine. But when I see the timer…” The implications are clear: the issue often isn’t the content of the question, but the psychological mindset of the test-taker when he encounters it.

In fact, the link between anxiety and standardized testing is so prevalent that a Google search of ‘test anxiety’ yields well over 100,000,000 results. You want to make a parent nervous? Say something about Common Core. Want to freak out a high school student? Invoke the SATs. And if you’re reading this article, you are likely well acquainted with the pernicious effects that the GMAT can have on the ‘ol nervous system. It isn’t hard to see why. These tests not only have tangible academic and professional consequences that can reverberate for years, but they shape our fundamental self-perceptions. Someone who scores in the 98th percentile on a standardized test will, no matter what he says, walk out of that test feeling different about his abilities than someone who scores in the 7th percentile, despite the fact that there are literally dozens of variables in play that have little or nothing to do with underlying intelligence. (And this supposes that there is such a thing as underlying intelligence, as opposed to a host of complexly intersecting domains of intelligence, all of which may be difficult to measure with any kind of accuracy or consistency.) This is all to say that testing anxiety is both real and inevitable. It’s impossible to talk about preparation for an exam like the GMAT without addressing it.

Though this connection isn’t new, much of the science behind how the brain works under pressure is quite novel, and as we learn more, this knowledge will invariably seep into how teachers and tutors prepare their students for the exam.

First, consider the physiological process by which stress makes it make more difficult to perform well on exams. We enter what psychologists call a threat state. Here is a relevant quote from Barry Mendes, an associate professor of psychology from UC San Francisco, culled from a New York Times article on the subject. (The article is itself well worth a read).

The hallmark of a threat state is vasoconstriction — a tightening of the smooth muscles that line every blood vessel in the body. Blood pressure rises; breathing gets shallow. Oxygenated blood levels drop, and energy supplies are reduced. Meanwhile, a rush of hormones amplifies activity in the brain’s amygdala, making you more aware of risks and fearful of mistakes.”

And it turns out that the physiological processes in play are even more complicated than we’ve thought. Recent research has revealed that there is a gene that codes for the speed at which enzymes remove dopamine from various regions in the brain. Some remove dopamine quickly. Others remove it more slowly. In and of itself, this isn’t terrible interesting, but what is fascinating, and relevant to this discussion, is that those who had the gene that coded for the enzymes that removed dopamine more slowly did better than the other group on IQ tests in normal conditions, but worse than the other group on tests with significant time constraints. In other words, the gene that makes you smarter in a low stress environment causes you to underperform in a stressful situation. Suddenly, we have a scientific explanation for the dozens and dozens of students I’ve had over the years who maintained a 3.9 GPA in college, but could not, for the life of them, understand why they struggled on standardized tests!

The implications from the above discussion may sound fairly straightforward. Stress is bad. It can hurt test performance. But it isn’t that simple. It turns out that stress is one of those maddeningly elusive phenomena that we actually alter by focusing our attention on it. (Fans of quantum mechanics will recognize this as a version of the Observer Dilemma. In the quantum world, observing a particle alters the very characteristics we’re attempting to observe, so there’s no way to derive uncontaminated data. Scientists and philosophers have been puzzling over this for the better part of a century, and the phenomenon is no less strange now than it was when it was codified). This is best illustrated by a study conducted at Harvard. Half of the subjects were simply told that the purpose of the study was to examine the effect of anxiety on test-taking. The other students, however, were told that the anxiety during a test could actually boost performance. Sure enough, the group that was told that anxiety could boost performance did significantly better than the control group.

In other words, when we think stress is bad for us, it is. And when we think stress can be beneficial, it is. How we frame the issue in our minds has a direct and material impact on our response to trying conditions.

Moreover, there are things we can do to improve our performance in stressful situations. Pilots, for example, will practice dealing with artificial problems during test runs, and this practice yields benefits when these same problems happen during commercial flights. I’ll often encourage students to create a simulated stressful environment during a practice exam so that if a similar situation should befall the student during the real test, she’ll have an experience to draw on when attempting to adapt. For example, you can allow 10 minutes to elapse during a practice test so that if there is a time crunch on the real test, you’ll have already practiced how to address this potential crisis.

Last, you can practice mindfulness in the weeks leading up to the exam. A study performed last year demonstrated that students who began a mindfulness practice for only two weeks demonstrated improvements in working memory and concentration, benefits that translated to significantly higher scores on standardized tests. (The students in the study took the GRE, but there’s every reason to believe that mindfulness meditation would confer comparable benefits on the GMAT.) Here is an article distilling the main points of the study.

There is no avoiding stress on test day, but there is a lot we can do to reshape how we perceive this stress, and this reshaped perception can actually serve to improve our performance.


  • Remind yourself that stress is not inherently bad. It can be a source of energy and focus that you can harness. Moreover, your belief in the bracing qualities of stress can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Repeat that to yourself like mantra: stress can be helpful, but only if we tell ourselves so.
  • Simulate stressful conditions when taking practice tests so that these situations will be less alarming should they happen during the actual exam.
  • Consider starting a consistent mindfulness practice. The research indicating that mindfulness can boost test scores is promising, and the tangential health benefits are enormous.

Plan on taking the GMAT soon? We have GMAT prep courses starting all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By David Goldstein, a Veritas Prep GMAT instructor based in Boston.