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GMAT Anxiety: 5 Types of Test Anxiety and Strategies for Managing Them

Mike Diamond

Mike Diamond - ApexGMAT

Mike Diamond is Co-founder and the Director of Curriculum Development for ApexGMAT, a boutique MBA admissions consulting and tutoring firm with clients in more than 40 countries.

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Test anxiety is the single most common cause of underperformance on the GMAT exam, more than even poor time management or weak fundamentals. Many candidates that are able to perform at the 700 level never achieve that score due to unhealthy habits and perspectives. Test anxiety is so pervasive that, ironically, it goes nearly unspoken within the test preparation community. We here at ApexGMAT believe it is high time to come out of the shadows and address this insidious demon that undermines confidence and stands in the way of personal growth and happiness.

The GMAT exam is a test of decisions, and heightened anxiety can cause us to either make those decisions rashly, or become paralyzed by them. Neither reaction is a path to success. Before achieving a great GMAT score, one must come to terms with their anxiety, otherwise it will dictate your performance. 

Fully 40 percent of the candidates we work with have anxiety severe enough to disrupt their performance on the GMAT exam. Another 30-40 percent suffer from manageable, though not necessarily well-managed, anxiety responses. Importantly, this anxiety often interferes with their lives in more meaningful ways with respect to high pressure environments and the ability to learn new things that don’t come naturally.

In order to perform your best on the GMAT exam you must be in a strong place mentally. ApexGMAT believes in learning to make decisions without fear while being gentle with yourself. The culture surrounding GMAT prep can have a negative bearing on test takers’ mental health. We often find that GMAT test takers who overstudy, align their self-worth with the outcome of the exam, or rely too much on their GMAT score to get into a well-regarded business school often have unhealthy habits and attitudes toward the exam. Many of our clients come to us with a history of anxiety and we show them how to achieve a healthy perspective that enhances performance, as well as happiness. Remember: Unmanaged anxiety doesn’t allow you to make decisions as effectively as possible. But having a little anxiety regarding the test is normal!

(Note: At ApexGMAT we are not mental health professionals. Please remember to seek help from a mental health professional if your anxiety is manifesting in clinical symptoms.)

Types of GMAT test anxiety

So, let’s begin by talking about the different types of anxiety we here at ApexGMAT encounter with our clients:

1. Time-induced anxiety

We teach our clients to calibrate an internal clock so as to better manage their time on the GMAT exam. A good test taker may check the clock 2-3 times, while a great test taker can ignore the clock entirely and let their internal processes manage the time for them.

2. Subject-induced anxiety

These anxieties tend to be trauma-induced at a formative age by teachers or parents. Recognizing where their traumas lie and cultivating confidence in existent abilities can often address these issues.

3. Situational anxiety

Just like with phobias, test takers require careful exposure to overcome fears and become comfortable in the environment where they will be sitting the GMAT exam. Alleviating anxiety is just the first step; situated cognition can then be practiced to enhance performance while generating comfort.

4. Career anxiety

Our expectations about our development are deeply woven into our personal expectations and self-worth. Reframing the GMAT exam as one in a line of achievements, from past to future, can usually put things into perspective.

5. Timeline anxiety

Having a detailed plan for your future can often lead to more stress. Especially when you realize things aren’t turning out the way you expected. Understanding how long preparation takes and setting reasonable goals with accountability steps allows test takers to come to terms with the pressures of a too packed schedule

5 behaviors that can heighten your test anxiety

Below you’ll find five behaviors that can heighten your anxiety. If you recognize yourself doing any (or all) of these, know that there are actionable steps that you can take to curtail these behaviors, but also address the anxiety that they cause.

Almost every person preparing for the GMAT exhibits at least one of these behaviors, so a candid self-assessment is important. More importantly, if you don’t address these behaviors, the deeper strategies for addressing your anxiety outlined in the next section won’t be nearly as helpful.

1. Overstudying

At ApexGMAT, we see this a lot when clients come to us for help, and it is very unfortunate. People torture themselves for months, sometimes years, on end with brutal preparation schedules consisting of 5 am wake ups and all-day Saturday marathons. They abandon their social lives, sleep, and happiness in pursuit of a particular score. The mental health aspects of these behaviors are obvious, and when test day comes and the score isn’t where one wants, people are crushed and resolve to work harder.

What these well meaning GMAT preppers don’t realize is that studying past an hour or two a day, or on low sleep, is incredibly low-yield. More intensive study schedules tend to decrease one’s ability to remain cognitively flexible and habituates behaviors and thought patterns in a way that causes scoring plateaus.

2. Misdirected focus

This isn’t so much a cause of anxiety as a symptom. It is very easy to focus on aspects of the exam that are irrelevant to achieving a good score. The two most common are focusing on the future – whether your score, or the admissions process, or what life will be like once you have an MBA, instead of focusing on the problem in front of you. More generally, focusing on the goal rather than the immediate steps can be unhealthy, especially if the goal is several steps away.

This distraction not only occupies your headspace but makes the GMAT into an all or nothing endeavor that will determine the rest of your career. Be advised, it is not! The GMAT is an important part of your application, but not the only part. Placing the responsibility for your entire future on any particular test, meeting, or project is unhealthy, because it doesn’t represent reality.

The other focus-sink is related to time management. Watching the clock instead of the problem means that you’re already concerned about time pressure, but invariably it creates even more. Every time your attention pivots away from the problem at hand, you not only lose precious time, but also require an attention “reset” which is even more time consuming. Learning to passively manage your timing decisions is a key skill for GMAT success, but before you can do that, you need to trust that it can be done. 

3. Reviewing/revising notes and problem quantity

As I mentioned before, anxiety can manifest as a result of a disconnect between perceived and actual reality. Two common preparation techniques that harm more than they help are ones that feel really good. Going over your notes and doing lots of problems both provide the sense that you’re doing something, and that feels good and productive. For those who have been successful in the past in academic environments with these techniques, it can be even more disconcerting.

Any athlete will tell you that most of the work is not done playing the sport, but in the ancillary things they do – diet, weight and cardio training, balance exercises – that support their performance. For the GMAT, the hard work that helps you improve is often reading complex articles (in the Economist for example), practicing mental math by multiplying numbers together on your commute, and developing additional perspectives on subjects that you learned in the confines of school, where not all avenues might have been explored.

These behaviors are like going to a hardware store everyday, going around saying “This is a hammer. This is a screwdriver. This is a saw.” While identifying all of these items is important, recognize that this behavior doesn’t have you building anything. If you’re more concerned with labeling the tools rather than using them, or more focused on repeating what you know than exploring what you don’t, you’ll be at a (frustrating) dead end with your prep, and you might not even realize it.

4. Comparing yourself to others

Let’s begin with a simple truth: there will be people who score higher than you on the GMAT exam. There will be people who score lower. Both will almost certainly be a part of your MBA class.

Comparing yourself to others – peers, coworkers, the HBS incoming class profile, or strangers on the same MBA path as you who you find on blogs – is fruitless, but also damaging. A person can only run as fast as they run, and when running a race it matters very little who holds the world record, or what that record it.

It is easy to fall into the trap of looking at others’ success and thinking you’re not good enough in some way. What you know about other people and their struggles or successes on the GMAT, though, is hardly the whole story. The anonymous profiles below speak to that, as many of our clients don’t wish to publicize that they needed help to get to where they are.

Again, this is a question of distraction and focus. Every moment spent thinking about others, rather than learning better techniques and approaches, will load you with greater anxiety and simultaneously disempower you from addressing it.

5. Setting unrealistic expectations and timelines

Despite the emails you may receive featuring “I went from 560 to 730 in three weeks”, understand that these jumps in results simply don’t happen. To the extent that they do, it is because someone who already had the capability to get a 700 sat an exam without knowing how it worked.

True growth takes time. If your proposed application deadline is within a few months of when you begin studying for the GMAT, understand that you’ve already not budgeted enough time for this process. It’s not that quick success cannot happen, but that preparing for the GMAT is a process of growth, and growth – physical or intellectual – cannot be rushed.

Setting unreasonably high expectations is never productive “My 710 isn’t good enough. I need a 750 to apply!” – you don’t, for any program, anywhere. Neither is expecting a 300+ point increase in a time span of weeks. These goals cause those preparing to look for quick fixes and shortcuts in their preparation. More insidiously, some people continue to set goals for themselves without leaving enough time, so that in the end they have four 3-week preparation marathons focused on tactics to get nowhere, when they could have spent the same 12 weeks developing themselves and formulating a successful strategy for preparation.

6 tips for addressing test anxiety

You’ll be asking yourself at this point: “What can I do right now to get a handle on my test anxiety?”, and the short answer is: NOTHING. There is no easy, quick fix.

There are many steps you can take to take the first step in conquering your anxiety. A key insight is that the discomfort of many of your anxiety responses will not change in the short term, because anxiety operates as a feedback loop. To disrupt this loop, you’ll need to change how you respond to the discomfort.

The more you treat your anxiety as manageable, and get on with it (just like you would a hangnail or a nagging cold when you have more pressing things to do) the more rapidly it will fade into an annoyance rather than a debilitating condition allowing you to free up your head space to focus on your performance.

Simply sitting with your anxiety, letting it wash over you and realizing that you’re powerless to meaningfully tell it what to do leads to acceptance, and – ironically – this acceptance does permit you to begin to manage it. At this point, we can pursue other meaningful strategies to combat the underlying causes.

First steps:

1. Seek help

Speaking with an experienced instructor can set you immediately on the right path. You should expect professionals in the test preparation field to ask probing, meaningful questions and offer insight and direction right from the get-go.

Even if you don’t wish to pursue professional tutoring, a good tutor is invested in the success of everyone they interact with and should take a reasonable amount of time to listen to the challenges you’re facing and offer guidance. If there’s a paywall before speaking to a tutor about these issues, it’s likely that that particular tutor or service is not the right one to address your needs.

Second level strategies:

2. Enhance your confidence

This is a toughie, because confidence begets confidence. With that said, once you know that you know a particular concept backwards and forwards it is much easier to not second guess yourself and lead yourself down a path of self-doubt. This saves time as well, which we know is a core asset on the GMAT exam.

The example I like to give is “What is 2+2?”. No matter how much I may try, I’m certain I can’t convince you that it equals anything but 4. Deeper mathematical and linguistic concepts are susceptible to the same confidence once you understand them thoroughly. This means engaging with, and often struggling with, material that you know in domain-specific situations. The best way to do this is to try to explain a complex problem to someone else. As they say, if you can’t explain it, you don’t really know it.

3. Develop consistency

Consistency in your performance, from prep session to prep session and practice test to practice test, provides critical feedback of how deeply you understand the fundamentals and can use them effectively on the exam. So, if you’re not consistent, there’s work to be done and you’re likely not yet ready to sit the GMAT exam.

From an anxiety perspective, being able to rely on yourself for consistent performance can scare away those evil demons in the back of your head casting self-doubt. Focusing on consistency then, provides double value – it both speaks to meaningful improvement in your GMAT game, and that begets more improvement and additional consistency that culminates on exam day.

More advanced strategies:

4. Mindfulness and meditation

While not limited to addressing GMAT test anxiety, mindfulness exercises, meditation, and controlled breathing have thousands of years of history in helping people get a handle on their emotions. Mindfulness – of emotional and intellectual states – is central to how we accomplish meaningful growth in abilities (not just scores) here at ApexGMAT.

A great resource for beginners, or even those more advanced in their practice is Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryo Suzuki. There are also many apps, like Headspace, that also can help you develop a practice that can extend to calmness in many areas of your life.

5. See a professional

As stated at the beginning of this article, if your anxiety is leading to clinical symptoms that are affecting your everyday life, your first step should be speaking with a mental health professional.

Similarly, even for subclinical manifestations of anxiety, it can be helpful to speak with a medical professional who can provide various solutions to help you tackle your anxiety, including cognitive behavioral therapy and talk therapy.

You can conquer test anxiety!

Whatever the underlying reason for your GMAT anxiety, be confident that it can be surmounted! What’s most important is to be gentle with yourself, understand that you’re not alone in struggling with this exam or it’s stressors, and that with the right guidance and attitude you’ll be able to perform strongly and grow in the process.

The GMAT journey can be one fraught with challenges, but if you meet them head on and ask for help when needed, you’ll be transformed in the process. Like most things in life, tackling your anxiety surrounding the GMAT is much easier when you seek the guidance of others, are willing to develop yourself, and maintain a positive attitude. ApexGMAT offers consultations to any and all. Schedule your complimentary call at any time.

Mike Diamond

Mike Diamond - ApexGMAT

Mike Diamond is Co-founder of ApexGMAT and as Director of Curriculum Development heads instructor training. Mike has a strong passion for education and the multiple ways people solve problems. At Apex, he develops instruction that is designed to be customized to the cognitive profiles of each of our clients, while recognizing and addressing the psychological and emotional components of the GMAT. He firmly believes that everyone's MBA goals are achievable with the right combination of cognitive guidance and personal drive. Mentoring future business leaders as they embark on their MBA journey is he finds the most fulfillment. Mike has a strong grounding in advanced mathematical modeling specializing in non-linear mathematics, stochastic calculus and statistical analysis which he has utilized in a career that spans finance, politics, and the classroom.

With 14 years’ experience in test preparation, Apex focuses on driven individuals seeking admission to the most competitive MBA programs around the world. Mike has personally tutored hundreds of successful MBA applicants to 700+ GMAT scores and has supported them through the MBA admissions process. He oversees a team of tutors who have each scored in excess of 770 on the GMAT, but more importantly bring cognitive empathy and a passion for teaching to Apex.