GMAT Test Anxiety

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You don't have to be in the test prep business for very long before you start encountering students who claim to suffer from test anxiety. Attitudes towards the problem vary tremendously: at the high-school level, it's the sort of thing that many students include on their college applications, as if to apologize for their low SAT scores.

I have no doubt that test anxiety is a real thing: heck, if you're not nervous when you sit down to take a high-stakes exam like the GMAT, that might be a problem, too. But at the same time, the concern is usually overblown.

What Is Test Anxiety?

Most people who claim to have problems with test anxiety assume that they are getting more nervous that others during exams. More to the point, they feel like they do poorly on the tests because of this. Perhaps still more to the point, they think their test results don't reflect their actual ability levels.

Again, perhaps this is true. Standardized tests, however much companies like ETS and GMAC try to perfect them, are always approximations (at best) of a test-takers ability level. It stands to reason that some people will be negatively affected by the way in which the test-maker assesses ability.

The GMAT Stress Level

Whether you suffer from test anxiety or not, the GMAT is a stressful test. Apart from the high stakes and the money you may have invested in preparing for it, it gives you just barely enough time (or less) to complete a series of unfamiliar and challenging tasks. That's not easy for anyone.

Given all that, it seems likely that test-takers who have anxiety problems might be more seriously affected that others.

Face the Facts

At the risk of sounding uncaring, what bothers me about students who tell me they suffer from test anxiety is that they treat it like an insurmountable disease. They set low goals, or they set high goals that they don't really think they can reach. Then, every time they have a bad practice test, out come the excuses.

Frankly, I don't care what your excuse is, whether we're talking test anxiety or something else. The reason I don't care is that business schools aren't going to care, either. Business school is stressful, and the jobs you'll get after business school will be stressful too. Colleges may accept 17-year-olds who make excuses, but b-schools are a different story.

The Cure For Test Anxiety

I've noticed a funny thing: test anxiety is worst when the test is hard. Someone who suffers from test anxiety (or claims to have problems taking tests on a computer) is just fine filling out a personality quiz online. That's a glib comparison, sure, but if the problem is the test, or the computer, what's the difference?

The difference is difficulty. And therein lies the solution.

Knowing the material inside and out may not cure all of your stress. Even now, I get the jitters a little bit when I sit down to take the GMAT, and I've scored near 800 several times now. If those jitters are irrational, I don't know what is. But would you get stressed out taking a timed arithmetic quiz? Or perhaps answering questions about your job with the clock ticking? Those situations just aren't as bad.

Most importantly, you have to practice under timed conditions. That doesn't mean you need to take lots of practice tests: those are a waste of time. But you do need to practice with a stopwatch so you gain confidence answering GMAT questions in the right amount of time.

Maybe, if you do suffer from test anxiety, you need to learn the material "better" or more thoroughly than would someone who doesn't have stress problems. Maybe it's not fair, but that's how it is, and that's what it will take for you to get your target GMAT score.



About the author: Jeff Sackmann has written many GMAT preparation books, including the popular Total GMAT Math, Total GMAT Verbal, and GMAT 111. He has also created explanations for problems in The Official Guide, as well as 1,800 practice GMAT math questions.

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