How to Reach a 99th Percentile GMAT Score Using No New Academic Strategies

Pump UpLast week I received an email from an old student who’d just retaken the GMAT. He was writing to let me know that he’d just received a 770. Of course, I was ecstatic for him, but I was even more excited once I considered what his journey could mean for other students.

His story is a fairly typical one: like the vast majority of GMAT test-takers, he enrolled in the class looking to hit a 700. His scores improved steadily throughout the course, and when he took the test the first time, he’d received a 720, which was in line with his last two practice exams. After he finished the official test, he called me – both because he was feeling pretty good about his score but also because a part of him was sure he could do better.

My feeling at the time was that there really wasn’t any pressing need for a retake: a 720 is a fantastic score, and once you hit that level of success, the incremental gains of an improvement begin to suffer from the law of diminishing returns. Still, when you’re talking about the most competitive MBA programs, you want any edge you can get. Moreover, he’d already made up his mind. He wanted to retake.

Part of his decision was rooted in principle. He was sure he could hit the 99th percentile, and he wanted to prove it to himself. The problem, he noted, was that he’d already mastered the test’s content. So if there was nothing left for him to learn, how did he jump to the 99th percentile?

The answer can be found in the vast body of literature enumerating the psychological variables that influence test scores. We like to think of tests as detached analytic tools that measure how well we’ve mastered a given topic. In reality, our mastery of the content is one small aspect of performance.

Many of us know this from experience – we’ve all had the experience of studying hard for a test, feeling as though we know everything cold, and then ending up with a score that didn’t seem to reflect how well we’d learned the material. After I looked at the research, it was clear that the two most important psychological variables were 1) confidence and 2) how well test-takers managed test anxiety. (And there’s every reason to believe that those two variables are interconnected.)

I’ve written in the past about how a mindfulness meditation practice can boost test day performance. I’ve also written about how perceiving anxiety as excitement, rather than as a nefarious force that needs to be conquered, has a similarly salutary effect. Recently I came across a pair of newer studies.

In one, researchers found that when students wrote in their journals for 10 minutes about their test-taking anxiety the morning of their exams, their scores went up substantially. In another, the social psychologist Amy Cuddy found that body language had a profound impact on performance in all sorts of domains. For example, her research has revealed that subjects who assumed “power poses” for two minutes before a job interview projected more confidence during the interview and were better able to solve problems than a control group that assumed more lethargic postures. (To see what these power poses look like, check out Cuddy’s fascinating Ted talk here.) Moreover, doing power poses actually created a physiological change, boosting testosterone and reducing the stress hormone Cortisol.

Though her research wasn’t targeted specifically at test-takers, there’s every reason to believe that there would be a beneficial effect for students who practiced power poses before an exam. Many teachers acquainted with Cuddy’s research now recommend that their students do this before tests.

So the missing piece of the puzzle for my student was simply confidence. His strategies hadn’t changed. His knowledge of the core concepts was the same. The only difference was his psychological approach. So now I’m recommending that all of my students do the following to cultivate an ideal mindset for producing their best possible test scores:

  1. Perform mindfulness meditation for the two weeks leading up to the exam.
  2. Reframe test-day anxiety as excitement.
  3. Spend 10 minutes the morning of the test writing in a journal.
  4. Practice two minutes of power poses in the waiting room before sitting for the exam and between the Quant and Verbal section.

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By David Goldstein, a Veritas Prep GMAT instructor based in Boston. You can find more articles written by him here.

GMAT Tip of the Week: Cam Newton’s GMAT Success Strategy

GMAT Tip of the WeekAs we head into Super Bowl weekend, the most popular conversation topic in the world is the Carolina Panthers’ quarterback, Cam Newton. Many questions surround him: is he the QB to whom the Brady/Manning “Greatest of All Time” torch will be passed? Is this the beginning of a new dynasty? Why do people like/dislike him so much? What the heck is the Dab, anyway? And most commonly:

Why is Cam dancing and smiling so much?

The answer? Because smiling may very well be the secret to success, both in the Super Bowl and on the GMAT.

Note: this won’t be the most mathematically tactical GMAT tip post you read, and it’s not something you’ll really be able to practice on Sunday afternoon while you hit the Official Guide for GMAT Review before your Super Bowl party starts. But it may very well be the tip that most impacts your score on test day, because managing stress and optimizing performance are major keys for GMAT examinees. And smiling is a great way to do that.

First, there’s science: the act of smiling itself is known to release endorphins, relaxing your mind and giving you a more positive outlook. And this happens regardless of whether you’re actually happy or optimistic – you can literally “fake it till you make it” by smiling through a stressful or unpleasant experience.

(Plus there’s the fact that smiling puts OTHER people in a better mood, too, which won’t really help you on the GMAT since it’s you against a computer, but for your b-school and job interviews, a smile can go a long way toward an upbeat experience for both you and the interviewer.)

There are plenty of ways to force yourself to smile. One is the obvious: just do it. Write it down on the top of your noteboard in all caps: SMILE! And force yourself to do it, even when it doesn’t feel natural.

But you can also laugh/smile at yourself more naturally: when Question 1 is a permutations problem and you were dreading the idea of a permutations problem, you can laugh at your bad luck but also at the fact that at least you’re getting it over with while you still have plenty of time to recover. When you blank on a rule and have to test small numbers to prove it, you can laugh at the fact that had you not been so fascinated with the video games on your calculator in middle school you’d know that cold. You can smile when you see a friend’s name in a word problem or a Sentence Correction reference to a place you want to visit someday.

And the tactical rationale there: when you can smile in relation to the subject matter on the test, you can remind yourself that, at least on some level, you enjoy learning and problem-solving and striving for achievement. The biggest difference between “good test takers” and “good students, but bad test takers” is in the way that each approaches problems: the latter group says, “I don’t know,” and feels doubt, while the former says, “I don’t know…yet,” and starts from a position of confidence and strength. Then when you apply that confidence and figure out a problem that for a second had you totally stumped, you’ve earned that next smile and the positive energy snowballs.

As you watch Cam Newton on Sunday (For you brand management hopefuls, he’ll be playing football between those commercials you’re so excited to see!), pay attention to that megawatt smile that’s been the topic of so much talk radio controversy the last few weeks. Cam smiles because he’s having fun out there, and then that smile leads to big plays, which is even more fun, and then he’s smiling again. Apply that Cam Newton “smile your way to success” philosophy on test day and maybe you’ll be the next one getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to go to school for two years… (We kid, Cam – we kid!)

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By Brian Galvin.