GMAT Psychology and Timing Strategies

At first glance, the GMAT is a test of academic content. But when you dive deeper you realize the GMAT is really a test of how you handle pressure, how you handle time, and how you handle your emotions.

The GMAT tests basic concepts like the distance-rate-time formula, triangles, circles, angles, factoring, exponents, subject-verb agreement, basic English grammar that you see everyday—these are all topics you covered in high school or earlier.

There’s nothing to be intimidated about. The GMAT is not a test of how well you understand economics or if you have what it takes to start a business. It does not measure your business savvy, EQ, IQ, or future success.

There’s a lot of material on the exam but you already know most of it. You just need to review the concepts and learn the sneaky ways the GMAT guys try to trick you on the exam. You definitely need to think but it’s not rocket science.

So why, then, do people find the GMAT so tough?

Because the test is largely psychological. Athletes who condition themselves for long marathons, intense tennis matches, or any activity that requires strong mental toughness know what I’m talking about. Heck, preparing for the exam itself is rigorous. Do you have the determination and discipline to follow a study plan that will help you get the results you want? Do you have the right attitude towards learning that will help you absorb as much material in as little time as possible?

The exam itself is definitely like an intense marathon. You plow through question after question. The adaptive nature of the exam messes with your mind even further as you might wonder how you just did on the previous question when you are all of a sudden given a very easy question.

Did I mention logistics? Did you clear out your bladder before the exam? Do you tend to get nervous right before the exam and mentally freeze up? Do you have quick lunch plans in mind that won’t force you to rush to the bathroom? Are you accustomed to waking up early in the morning with an alert mind by the time of your exam so you can process a marathon of questions? Are you able to budget the last few days before the exam so you do not have to go to work and deal with the stress there? Are you fully focused as you go into the exam??–assuming no girlfriend/boyfriend issues, employer issues or family issues that might interfere with your mental state.

Too many people underestimate the psychological aspects of the GMAT exam. You should pay particular attention to these psychological aspects during the last week before the exam.

Perfectionists and overachievers like myself often have trouble with the GMAT. Why?

Because we are so determined to get every question that comes our way correct that we sacrifice time and ultimately are forced to guess the last several questions. The GMAT is designed to push you to your limits.

The CAT format is much harder from a psychological standpoint than a paper-based test on the same content. The reason is that by its very nature the computer-adaptive format is designed to push you to your failure point – and for us perfectionists that’s a VERY uncomfortable place to be.
The computer adaptive format means you get a harder question when you get the current question correct. What ends up happening to perfectionists is we get each question correct and in turn the GMAT throws us even harder questions. We perfectionists then spend more and more time on these harder questions double checking our math or re-reading portions of each answer choice over and over with the determination to get each question correct. Meanwhile, we sacrifice time and get heavily penalized for not finishing the exam.

In fact, part of the reason I did so poorly on my first practice exam was because I did not finish the exam in time. I was too focused on getting the question correct that I lost sense of the big picture–that I really needed be strategic with my time.

If you are pressed for time and have 4 questions left but really have time only for 2, my suggestion is instead of answering questions 34 and 35 and then guessing 36 and 37 for Quant is to answer 34, guess 35, answer 36, and guess 37. This allows you to stay at a relatively same level (or higher if you guess one right) than potentially dropping below the level you were at question 33 by getting multiple questions wrong in a row.

Since the GMAT penalizes you heavily for getting many consecutive answers incorrect you should make sure you do not end up in a position where you need to guess the last 10 questions because you spent too much time on each question in the beginning. In general, you are better off guessing 10 random questions than guessing 10 consecutive questions–so make sure you time yourself properly.

You should be aiming, on average, to answer each question in less than two minutes. With practice you should be able to sense when you are at around the 3 minute mark that you are spending too much time on this question. Around this time you should make a strategic guess and move on. With easy-type questions you should definitely not reach the 3 minute mark.

Visualize Success

Imagine: It’s test day–the real deal. Not a practice exam. You’ve walked by or driven by your test center a few days earlier so you know what it looks like. You imagine yourself walking into the test center. You know your test is in front of a computer at one of those testing centers. Visualize yourself going through the directions on the computer.

Spend at least five minutes at a time imagining different details about taking the test. Visualize yourself spotting sentence structures based on keywords or commas. Visualize yourself checking for X & Y consistency for SC questions or recognizing a Data Sufficiency Percent vs. Actual Number question. You know what to look for and where the pitfalls are (multiple % data points without any actual number data points are useless if they ask you a “how many” question).

Your visualization scene doesn’t need to be the same each time, but you need to tap into a sense of accomplishment, calm, and confidence. Do this every morning and before bedtime.

Neurophysiologist researchers at Stanford University (my alma mater) and University of Chicago evaluated the efficacy of visualization. They compared two sets of basketball players. The first group practiced playing whereas the second group only imagined practicing. The players who didn’t physically practice, but visualized peak performance, improved 23 -30 percent in their actual basket-shooting ability, whereas the students who physically “practiced” saw little improvement. (source)

Cognition: Think extreme positivity and confidence.

In a way, this is a chicken and egg problem. You need to do well on GMAT questions in order to be confident. And you need confidence in order to get the tough GMAT questions correct. But you should develop a little of each and have them grow upon each other.

Bad thoughts:
1) I suck at math.
2) There’s no way I’ll finish the exam.
3) English is not my first language, I can’t do it.

Good thoughts:
1) Math is not my strong point, but this math isn’t rocket science. Sure, I get some wrong, but looking back at them–the questions are actually pretty easy. I just need become familiar with the different ways that the GMAT can test me on these relatively simple concepts that I learned in high school. I can do that! No problem!

2) GMAT is a timed test. I’ve had tons of timed tests before. I just need to come in with the right thought process and get enough practice that I have the confidence to know when I am positively sure about a GMAT question. By being super confident in an answer in as little time as possible, I know know I’ll be able to nail the super easy ones in less than one minute and the harder ones in less than 2-3 minutes. Confidence = less double checking/rereading = less time.

3) Although idioms are a part of the GMAT, a lot of the questions actually don’t test the idioms. A lot of times there are other concepts tested alongside the idioms and as long as I focus on that portion of the question, understand the key frameworks, and recognize how those concepts can show up in test questions, I’ll be fine.

Extreme positivity:

I’m going to kickass on the GMAT. Sure, I’ve been to college and failed tons of exams. But the GMAT is so much easier–it’s high school material repackaged in fancy, awkward questions. I just need to get used to it. My goal is to follow a study plan. I’ll stick to it and keep pushing myself. Heck, I’ll even visualize the questions that I got wrong and see myself think through it correctly as if I were sitting in for the real exam.

My strategy will be to first get as many correct GMAT practice questions as I can. Then I’ll try to get those questions correct in as little time as possible. Any question the GMAT throws at me will be answered correctly and tossed away as I wait for the next one. Bring it!

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