Everyone struggles with some amount of anxiety when taking a test like the GMAT, but some people struggle more than others. Stress can also affect your preparation before you ever get to the test center – if you’re too stressed out when studying, that will hurt your ability to make and recall memories. So what can we do to reduce studying and test-taking stress?
Know what’s coming
The more you’re prepared for what you’re going to face, the less stressed you’ll be. This won’t completely eliminate your anxiety – nothing will – but it can help to reduce stress to more manageable levels.
One major source of stress on this test is the feeling that you need to get everything right (and getting stressed out when you hit questions that you know you’re getting wrong). Read this article: In It To Win It. The nutshell: you’re not trying to get everything right. Nobody gets everything right, including me and other 99th percentile testers!
If you have the right attitude going into the test, that will help significantly. I like to pretend that I’m playing tennis. Nobody expects to win every single point in a tennis match – that’d be silly. But I do expect to win more points than my opponent, and I don’t stress out when I lose some points. So think of this as a tough tennis match: your opponent’s going to win a lot of points, yes, but you’re going to win more!
You will of course need to know what’s coming in terms of the formulas and rules and question types and all of the other things we need to know on the test. But also know that you’re not going to know everything and that’s okay. (Why? See “In It To Win It” above.) So don’t stress out when you see a question that’s too hard or tests you on something you don’t know. That’s just one point for your opponent.
Manage your time well
When people are trying to get everything right, they often mess up the timing. Discovering that you’re behind on time just compounds your stress and makes everything worse, so we have to know how to manage time well all the way through the test. We also need to know what to do if we find ourselves in trouble on the timing.
Read this time management article and start incorporating its recommendations into your study right away. One big note: our discussion in the last section (“know what’s coming”) tells us that we’re going to get lots of questions wrong, so don’t worry when you get a question that you think will take too long, or if you’re so behind on time that you need to skip a question or two entirely in order to catch up. Those can just be some of your opponent’s points!
Anticipate problems and brainstorm solutions in advance
When I say we need to “anticipate problems,” I’m not talking about individual test questions. I’m talking about problems such as “What should I do if I realize that I’m 5 minutes behind on time?” or “What am I going to do if I start to feel mentally fatigued or distracted but the section isn’t over yet?”
How do you make a guess on the different types of problems? When do you make that decision – I need to guess now and this is how I’m going to do it? There are all kinds of things that you can (and should) think about in advance so that, on test day, you’ll just be able to react. That will also lessen your anxiety because you’ll have anticipated all kinds of problems and you’ll know you have solutions for them in place, just in case.
What if it’s the middle of a section and you start obsessing about that last question, because you’re sure you got it wrong, but you’ve already answered it and now you can’t go back, and I have to stop thinking about this because I’m on the next question now. But that last one – I knew how to do it! Argh, I really have to stop that, I have to concentrate on this question, but…
Sound familiar? Okay, if you start thinking about anything other than the question in front of you right now, tell yourself this: I can think all I want about that as soon as I’m done with this question – just give me 2 minutes. Pretend someone at work is trying to interrupt you and you’re saying, “yes, I’ll help you, just give me a minute to finish writing this email.”
Why would I advocate that? Why not just say “Stop thinking about that!” instead? Because it’s impossible to stop thinking about something by telling yourself to stop thinking about it. It just doesn’t work. So distract yourself – give yourself permission to think about it in a minute. Just not right this second. If you’re still thinking about it when the next question starts, tell yourself the same thing – I can think about that right after I’m done with this question. If necessary, jot down a note to yourself and say, “See, I’m writing it down so that I can’t forget to think about it in a minute. But not right this minute.” And so on, till the section’s finished. Then you can think about it all you want. : )
Also, when was the last time you were driving in a ton of traffic and you thought, “Oh, look, I’m in the lane that’s moving and all of the other lanes are really slow. Ha ha!” How about, “Wow, I keep hitting all these green lights – I’m so lucky today!”
That’s not what happens. We only notice when we’re in the slow lane! We only notice when we keep hitting a bunch of red lights! The same thing will happen on the test – you’ll notice all sorts of things that you’ll think will indicate that the test is going poorly, and you’ll gloss right over the good stuff. Remind yourself of that when you’re taking the test.
Exercise. Eat well. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep – that’s crucial. Don’t pound the caffeine and pull late night study sessions. Make sure you’re doing non-GMAT things: dinner with friends, a movie, hobbies or other activities you enjoy. Do things that will genuinely take your mind off of the GMAT for a while.
Severe anxiety issues
Severe anxiety issues can include physical reactions, such as a racing heart rate, sweaty palms, dizziness, nausea, and feelings of panic. If you are experiencing severe reactions, then you may need to discuss your symptoms with your physician. Your physician may be able to refer you to a therapist who can help with such things as deep breathing exercises, meditation, redirecting anxious or repetitive thoughts, and other methods for reducing anxiety.
There are also medications that can help in serious cases, but you would need to test these medications well in advance, with the help of your physician, in order to ensure that you have the right treatment and dosage, and in order to ensure that there aren’t negative side effects that could be worse than the treatment.
Key Takeaways for Managing Stress:
(1) The better prepared you are for what’s coming, the easier it will be (though still not easy!) to manage your stress levels.
(2) That preparation involves the actual test content, of course, but also “What if…” scenarios about timing and other strategies. (What if you get lost on the way to the test center? What will you do? : ) ) Answer these questions in advance and you’ll just be able to react to a situation in the way that you’ve already decided to react.
(3) For severe anxiety issues, you may need the help of a physician or qualified therapist. There are a number of remedies and many people struggle with this.