For years as a GMAT instructor, I’ve been constantly telling students to use their practice tests as great learning opportunities, but not stress-worthy predictors of potential or final scores. I tell them to use these tests to allow themselves to make valid excuses for poorer-than-desired performance on practice tests in order to maintain confidence through the rest of their studies – to focus more on the process of taking the practice test and what that process can teach them than on the results themselves. I’ve told them to remain calm as they approach their exam dates, to stay rested and relaxed and to focus on the things they’ve been doing well and to not sweat those nerve-wracking details once the time has passed to do much about them and the hour of reckoning arrives. It’s been easy to say all of this, completely free of test day pressure as a teacher and not a student. Until earlier this week, when I took a practice test of my own.
My training program for an Ironman triathlon called for another 100-mile bike ride, one of those “either you have it or you don’t, and you’d better have it” endurance tests that athletes dread for a day or two beforehand, knowing that in many ways completion of that task is a referendum on fitness – if you can complete it comfortably and near your goal time, you’re on pace. If you can’t, well, you worry. In many ways, these monster training days are just like GMAT practice tests – you use them to plot out your pacing strategy, test your stamina, learn what types of tactics work best for you, and ultimately determine if you’re really capable of achieving your goal.
So you could say that this week I put myself in my students’ shoes: I took a practice test.
I took a practice test and I did everything that I tell you not to.
You know how one of the worst things a student can do is try to predict his current scoring level based on the difficulty level of the questions he’s seeing? I’ll be honest – although my true goal times for this race are personal, my worst-case scenario goals are pretty standard – in no way, shape or form do I want to run afoul of the course cutoff times. I’ll scrap and claw however I can to finish the swim in 2:20 and the bike by 10:30. If I don’t, I’m disqualified – it’s as though the computer would shut off if you score less than a 3.5 on your AWA! All that work and you don’t even get to attempt the whole thing.
With those cutoffs in mind, and particularly with the bike cutoff and the potential for flat tires, mechanical troubles, or “anything can go wrong when you’re riding your bike 112 miles”, I have some pretty rigid ideas of what my average pace really needs to be on the bike so that I can withstand a healthy hour or two of Murphy’s Law.
So as I began riding, I made the classic GMAT mistake of reading absolutely everything into small snapshots of performance. The speedometer on my bike computer shows average speed, and I watched that thing like a hawk, nervous the entire time that my pace wasn’t all that far above my worst-case-scenario pace in the first ten miles. Did I give myself some leeway because I hadn’t taken a rest day in a full week and was riding with stiff, tired legs? No – just like you probably don’t let yourself off the hook for taking a practice test after a 10-hour workday before you’ve eaten dinner. Did I consider that my speed might be held back a bit because I had to ride pretty cautiously and slowly the first three miles on the community bike path through some pedestrian traffic? Nope – much like you may well fail to consider that a seemingly-easy question on your practice test could be a simulated “experimental” question, or just easy because it pretty closely mirrors a question you’ve done twice in the Official Guide. I was in full GMAT student basketcase mode, watching that speedometer hover near, at, or (gasp!) below my “at the very least you have to ride this fast” speed.
With close to 90 miles to ride, I started my first (slight) mountain climb with a mountain of stress on my shoulders, doing everything I tell my students not to do and suffering the consequences firsthand for the first time in years.
It wasn’t until close to 20 miles later, as I passed the Veritas Prep offices and turned past Point Dume to the westward coast of Pacific Coast Highway toward my favorite stretch of open road, that I had this epiphany: “As my GMAT students prepare for their monumental task, I tell them over and over again not to stress the results but instead to focus on the process. Why don’t I practice what I preach when I prepare for my own monumental task?!”
So I did. I clicked the speedometer function over to the much-less-stressful compass function, and in doing so I freed my mind to emphasize the process. I thought about things like “keep your elbows loose to take stress of your shoulders”; “push a big gear out of the saddle on slight upgrades to maintain speed and take yourself off the bike seat periodically”; “stay parallel and don’t drift when working up hills”. I experimented with comfortable bike positions; kept mental notes of when I felt most fatigued, hungry, or dehydrated; reminded myself that, actually, this whole thing was kind of fun and definitely a productive use of a vacation day (hey, boss – I was working on a blog post while riding…do we really have to count it as a vacation day?). And in the end, my practice test had taught me some really important things about how I perform best.
When I did click the speedometer back over around 30 miles later, my pace had picked up considerably – I was well past my worst-case-scenario goal and actually pretty darned close to my best-case goal. More importantly, I felt great – by taking the minute-to-minute stress off of my shoulders, I freed myself to enjoy, to learn, and to focus on the experience. Ultimately, the only way to achieve my practice test goal was to force myself to forget about the goal entirely while I focused on the steps that would get me there.
There’s a lesson in this, and one that may also tie back into triathlon. If you watch a great swimmer like Michael Phelps, you’ll often be surprised at how effortless he looks while setting world records. It’s certainly not because he’s not trying – with his Speedo and Wheaties contracts the guy has literally millions of reasons to put out maximum effort. It’s just that his effort is so controlled and efficient that you don’t see him splashing around the way a 10-year-old “trying her best” will swim. He’s only putting forth effort into the motions and activities that he knows produce success.
As a GMAT student, you have plenty of opportunities to put your effort into counterproductive actions: you can attempt to gauge the difficulty level of the question that you’re facing; you can worry over a practice test score that’s 30-50 points below your previous test; you can – and I’ve seen a student do this – waste precious exam time calculating your pace-per-question in the margin of your noteboard…so worried are you that you’ll fall behind your desired pace that you’ll actually spend EXTRA time doing unrelated calculations!! Instead, you need to turn off the stress and focus on the fundamentals. Understand what type of question you’re being asked; pause to fully digest the conclusion of a CR argument; double-check your assumptions on a DS question; check the pacing clock every 10 questions to make sure you’re staying within your plan. Overall, you should stay alert, and allowing your mind to process too much stress will work completely counter to that. Thinking about “what” your score is won’t get you there; thinking about “how” to achieve it is your best bet.
As for practice test results, heed that old axiom that Thomas Edison never saw an experiment as a failure; he just now knew one more way that a light bulb would not work. Every practice test comes with multiple lessons, and the vast majority come with reasons for confidence. If you’re studying effectively, you should be more tired when you take your practice tests than when you take the real thing; you’ll also be less prepared for your practice tests, as each of those tests takes you a step further toward your goal. Lackluster practice test scores are learning opportunities to dissect why you underperformed. And if you need to make an excuse here or there to save your confidence – “my cell phone rang three times during the quant and I was distracted”; “I studied too late the night before and I was exhausted”; “I don’t think that scoring algorithm was accurate”, it’s probably better than the handwringing alternative.
My recent practice test started like many of those I’ve heard about from students – stressful, lethargic, and much more cause for fear than for confidence. But a quick change of mental gears turned all that around, and I know that by putting less emphasis on my score I was finally able to post the results that I wanted. I hope you choose to do the same.