One of the worst bugbears of GMAT preparation is “garden variety” anxiety.
It might seem as if the test is insurmountable, that it is some kind of obstacle that cannot be avoided. In a sense this is true. You will have to take the test. It will be a pain in the ass.
However, it is a lot simpler to work with the test and go through the steps necessary to crack its code than it is to try to figure out a way not to take it or to “game the system.”
In a very Zen sense, the ultimate goal for the GMAT is to get more questions correct and fewer questions incorrect.
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Nevertheless, in my 10 years of experience as a GMAT tutor, I have seen any number of people—all very well prepared for the exam—fail in the moment because they have built the exam up psychologically to a point where it is insurmountable.
In fact, many of these people feel that when they are in the exam situation that they experience heaviness in their chest, trembling hands, shallow breathing, and more symptoms.
Look at it this way: the GMAT is not the same as being faced with a firing squad, so there is no realistic reason to treat it in such a way. The next time you have nine guns pointed at you at the same time, you are welcome to tremble and breathe shallowly.
Let’s take an example from performance: stage fright. It’s a very real thing and I have suffered from severe stage fright for most of my adult life. A lot of this has to do with a few very ill-considered performance situations during high school where I cracked under pressure and made a complete fool out of myself.
For this very reason, despite becoming a much better musician than I ever was during high school, I have felt unable to perform. It is totally irrational, of course, and I realize that. Nevertheless, until the past three years or so, I would lock up if playing music in front of another person.
This starts a negative feedback loop: when the person for whom you perform senses your discomfort, they judge you or zone out. This discomfort—even if they don’t say anything—is perfectly clear and adds to the stress of the situation.
Analogously, the GMAT is expert at determining when you’re having trouble with particular types of questions and will give you lower-grade questions as a response, thereby lowering your possibility of scoring highly.
Nevertheless, I have slowly but surely built up my ability to perform in front of others. How?
Two ways: the first is to do the psychological “heavy lifting.” Primarily, this means realizing that my fear is irrational and learning to work through this. Not to gloss this over—I’ll explain the technique in a moment.
The next step is to take baby steps toward the goal: performing for music teachers as well as working to find groups who play at my relative level so that no one needs to be embarrassed. Just getting used to the stage performance: for that matter, taking public speaking and comedy courses.
Exercise: the “Heavy Lifting.”
Remember a situation where you failed spectacularly. Sit down and really think about it. Close your eyes. Imagine it as if it were happening right now.
See it all as if through your own eyes, feeling the feelings throughout your body, and note any sounds that you might associate with the same situation: any noises you hear, or anything that might have been said during the original situation, including anything that you might be saying to yourself.
Now step out of the situation—that is, remove yourself so that you can see your self in the situation. Imagine the image of the situation as if it were projected on a movie screen, then push the screen farther and farther into the distance.
Notice how your perception of the events has changed. Push it as far as you need—into infinity if you have to–to completely eradicate any emotions associated with the situation.
You can apply this to any unfortunate situation you would like to. Pick a situation you dislike in your life–GMAT or otherwise—and try the above exercise again.
Repeat the exercise with each situation daily—it should take less than two minutes—until you no longer experience any emotional tug with the situation.
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p.s. What is your worst performance experience? How does it feel after this exercise?
p.p.s. Can you apply this technique to other problems in your life?