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