The following GMAT Test Day tips were written by Knewton's GMAT Prep Senior Editor, Josh Anish.
Even if you've been preparing for months and acing your practice exams, come test day you are likely to feel a little...less than confident. The important thing to remember is that the only thing standing in between you and a great GMAT score is yourself. If you're the type of test-taker who sits in front of an exam, pulse racing, palms sweating, mind everywhere except on the test in front you, you're not alone.
Everyone, at one time or another, has felt the negative effects of test performance anxiety. It's a horrible feeling - both during the test and afterward - knowing that you and only you were the direct cause of your subpar score.
Despite what you may think about your innate testing ability (I'm just bad at taking tests, I always choke, etc. etc.), there are ways to deal with this. And, just for the record, those ways do not involve drugs. Medications like beta blockers are popular for calming your nerves, while stimulants such as Adderall are often taken to boost mental performance and focus on test day. Both of these have drawbacks. For one, all drugs have side effects - beta blockers can make you feel slow and lethargic (not exactly ideal states for an intense test), while stimulants can cause your mind and body to race out of control.
While these side-effects (and other potentially worse ones) are far from optimal, the main reason you shouldn't use drugs to improve' your performance is because you won't be solving the problem - the next time you have to perform under pressure, you'll need the drug again. Effectively, you'll be writing yourself a lifelong prescription for a mental crutch every time you need to perform. This situation can only inhibit long-term improvement.
Drugs can temporarily appease the physiological problems of performance anxiety by lowering your heart rate or boosting your dopamine levels, but they cannot truly act to optimize your mental state. Only you can do this by, in effect, hacking your own brain.
So let's start with what makes test-day different from the experience of taking practice tests at your dining-room table. The test center can trigger sensory overload (and not of the good kind). First, there are the visual stimuli: the test center's unfamiliar appearance, a different kind of computer, the presence of other test-takers in the room. Then there's the smell of the room, the sound of other keyboards a-clicking (or the feel of the uncomfortable headphones if you choose to use them), the unfamiliar chair, the locker room before the test. Not to mention that unfamiliar and unsettling feeling that this one matters.
The classic symptoms of performance anxiety are merely responses to these changes in stimuli. Once you understand this, you can work on a few simple steps to help manipulate these responses so that they work to your benefit.
1. Keep track of your GMAT practice test scores and take notes. What did you do before the practice test on the day you got your highest score? Did you run? Did you listen to music? Or did you eat some pizza and watch 30 Rock? Write these things down and pay attention to them. It doesn't matter what they are. You're just looking for a set of 2-3 things that you enjoy doing - and they need to be things that you can do consistently every single day to get your brain ready to take a test. These things can be called zone-ins - you use them to zone in to your best state of mind before every test you take.
2. A great zone-in can be something as simple as eating pizza and watching 30 Rock. This is a good example because it touches upon more than one of your five senses. Pizza is a taste stimulus; 30 Rock is both a visual and an aural stimulus. Suppose you are a month away from taking your test. (You will need at least a month to make this process work). Do these two or three activities in the same order before every single practice test that you take: say you come home from work, eat your pizza, watch an episode of 30 Rock, and then take your practice test. After the test, take a break before you do any studying. You want to isolate taking the test well into a multi-step process that involves both eating your pizza and watching 30 Rock as matter-of-fact precursors to the actual GMAT. If you do this for about two weeks, it will become a habit: pizza, 30 Rock, practice GMAT.
3. In the two or so weeks prior to the test, start tapering down your zone-ins to processes that take progressively less time, but still retain the essence of the experiences. For example, instead of eating a whole meal of pizza, try snacking on just half a slice. And after you've done that, maybe cut it down to a quick cold bite out of the fridge. Maybe you can get yourself down to just needing to smell it (no worries if you can't, though). Or if you're watching 30 Rock, perhaps you can wean yourself down to just watching the opening minutes of the episode before the credits. And then you can get it down to a quick clip of a favorite moment. Perhaps after that you only need to hear the jaunty theme music or the sound of Tracy Jordan exclaiming to get your brain thinking: I'm watching 30 Rock.
4. The final step is, of course, to use these refined zone-in essences on test day. Maybe before you leave the locker room to enter the testing room, you take a bite of pizza and watch a clip of 30 Rock on your phone. Keep in mind that these activities can be anything - a long workout boiled down to a few quick push-ups, for example - as long as they reflect the feel and essence of your original zone-ins and are done in the identical order that you practiced and tapered. If you have done the process slowly, over at least a month, you will find yourself walking into the test room with confidence and scoring as if you were taking the test at your own dining-room table.