It’s all around us this time of year – the NFL Draft talking heads will discuss it ad nauseum, as will commentators for the NBA playoffs. Barack and Hillary are embroiled in a public relations debate over who would have more of it given a 3 a.m. phone call. Interviewees in this competitive job market are faced with it, as are traders trying to keep investment banks afloat admist market uncertainty. So often in life, as we see today more than ever, one’s ability to perform under pressure is what matters most. What, then, can Matt Ryan, Chad Henne, Barack Obama, a Citibank trader, or you, a GMAT test-taker, do to become more “clutch”?

As I’ve taught the GMAT for five years, I’ve come to realize that “clutch” has common attributes across situations, and that the most easily distilled features are confidence and relaxation. If I can break it down even further, I’d say that the singlemost important gesture a person can make under pressure to increase his potential for clutch is to smile. Think about it – where have you most been impressed by a clutch performance in the past?

-Before Joe Montana led the 49ers to a 92-yard, Super Bowl-winning drive in Super Bowl XXIII, he casually joked to his teammates in the huddle, “Look, it’s John Candy!”

-Similarly, when Tom Brady led a game-winning drive in Super Bowl XXXVI, he famously spiked the ball to stop the clock, caught it with one hand, and delivered it to a referee with a confident smirk

-In NBA history, the list of most clutch performers would have to include Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Isiah Thomas – all known famously for their smiles. Similarly, among Larry Bird’s most famous moments was a shot to win the All-Star weekend Three-Point Shootout during which he turned, smiled, and pointed up his index finger before the final shot even neared the rim.

-The most powerful political debate answers almost always start with a grin and the words “I’m glad you asked that”

-When I took the GMAT, I laughed out loud on multiple occasions

The common thread? People tend to perform their best when they’re enjoying what they do. Naturally, it’s difficult to enjoy the process if you’re struggling the entire time, so it’s extremely important to be able to perform the skills required. From there, however, attitude controls a large portion of whether someone maximizes his potential. The ability to relax and even smile will undoubtedly increase your performance. How can you practice “clutch”?

-As you practice, make it a goal to note at least two questions each session that you “enjoy”, either because of their difficulty level, your admiration for the way in which they are written, or your interest (or lack thereof) of the subject matter. Learn to embrace the GMAT as a challenge just like Sudoku, crossword puzzles, Minesweeper, Free Cell, or Solitaire.

-Embrace your mistakes as opportunities to learn. In practice, laugh at your careless mistakes while reminding yourself that “I’m better than that”. Note the most common errors you make, and challenge yourself to be conscious of them the next time. Few things are more enjoyably rewarding than knowing that you’ve saved yourself a few points by not making the mistake that had become your Achilles’ Heel.

-Write a few GMAT problems. If you can write a question that tricks your friend or study partner, you’ll learn to appreciate those same questioning devices when you see the GMAT try them on you. Jordan and Bird could openly smile during games because they knew the strategies their opponents were trying to employ – they had practiced and used them themselves. If you know that you can outsmart your opponent – the GMAT exam – you can confidently enjoy watching the test try in vain to beat you.

-Remember that, regardless of what happens, you will live to fight another day. In Jordan’s first NBA Finals, he missed a shot that would have won the first game…then came back to win the next four. For all of Joe Montana’s and Tom Brady’s successes in the Super Bowl, each of them has failed to even make the game more often than they won it. Similarly, business schools are only concerned with your ability to attain a high score once – they won’t penalize you for a subpar performance en route to your top score. Relax knowing that, at worst, a poor score only means you have to retake the exam. The GMAT is a tremendous opportunity for you to succeed with little to no penalty for failure. Enjoy the experience!

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