5 Ways to Reduce Test-Day Anxiety

by on April 18th, 2011

Perhaps the most annoying thing about the GMAT is that it tends to punish those who care the most about it.  As you’ve studied, you’ve undoubtedly come to realize that often the easiest way to miss a question is to be rushed, distracted, or just stressed out .   And as though you are stuck in quicksand, the harder you struggle the deeper you sink.  Test-day anxiety is one of the leading causes of later-that-day depression, which is a leading cause of retaking-the-test-day-anxiety, and the vicious cycle repeats.  How can you fix that?

Here are five tips that can dramatically reduce your test-day anxiety:

1. Realize that Test-Day Anxiety is exactly what the test wants you to feel

Remember this – the GMAT is not as much a test of  “how well you’ll do in business school “as it is a test of “how we’ll you’ll do after business school”.  Business schools have essentially two constituents — students/alumni and recruiters.  And if the top recruiters come to the school to hire the students, the top students will continue to come — you are going to business school to increase your job prospects and career potential, so it’s only natural that you’ll want to go to the schools that have the highest job placement rates and starting salaries and the most alumni in leadership positions at top firms.  Business schools know this, and accordingly one of their top goals in the admissions process is to admit the kinds of students who will be successful in landing and excelling at great jobs.

As such, the GMAT is designed to test the kinds of  reasoning skills that lead to success in business, and one crucial component of that is your ability to make good, reasoned decisions while under pressure.  By having a timed test that many will struggle to complete on time; by including a stress-inducing check-in-procedure complete with photographs, fingerprints, and a sterile testing environment that reminds you “this is a big deal;” and by using technical language and additional algebraic variables  to contribute to a test that just looks and feels difficult, the GMAT puts nearly everyone under the kind of simulated stress that they may later face while making decisions with millions of dollars or thousands of jobs at stake.

To combat this stress, know that it’s an intentional part of the GMAT.  You are feeling stress because the GMAT needs you to in order to make the test more difficult!  Which, logically, means that if you can just let go of the stress, the test will be considerably easier. Which, if you follow the logic, means that the GMAT is an easier test than you think — it has to add artificial pressure to make it seem hard!  Tell yourself that you can relax and stay confident because, in many ways, the only thing you have to fear is fear itself.

2. Plan to Punt

As mentioned above, the timed pressure of the GMAT contributes immensely to test-day stress and to the kinds of silly mistakes that result from it.  Rushing through problems not only leads directly to  mistakes, but it adds additional stress that can grow unbearable.  But remember this about the GMAT’s computer-adaptive scoring system – you can (and will) miss several questions per section and still score very, very high.  It’s not uncommon for someone to miss 10 or 11 questions on each section and still score 700+!

If you acknowledge that you can-and-will miss questions, then use that knowledge to your advantage.  Plan on giving yourself 3-4 quick guesses, or “punts,” per section — if you start to read a question and realize withing 20-30 seconds that you are just not going to get it, guess and move on.  The extra time that buys you for the questions that you can-and-should get right will allow you to better relax and double-check your work to ensure that you  get credit for the correct work that you do.  And, frankly, on those 3-4 questions that intimidate you at first glance, your likelihood of answering correctly after 2-3 minutes is probably not all that much higher than your odds of guessing correctly.

Perhaps the two worst case scenarios on the GMAT are:  1) Spending more time than you should have on a question and still getting it wrong; and 2) Making a careless mistake on a question that you should have  gotten right.  Planning to punt a handful of questions that will fall into the first category can help you save time and peace-of-mind to avoid the second, and if pacing has been a cause of stress for you it’s quite helpful to know that you can afford to relax.

In business, it’s less exotic but just as important to celebrate the bad decisions that you didn’t make as it is to celebrate the good decisions that you did.  On the GMAT, deciding not to waste time on a question can be just as valuable to your overall score as getting a question correct can be.

3. Focus on what you DO know and not on what you don’t

The GMAT is designed to intimidate you, but the flip side is that it is also designed to reward you if you are able to navigate it effectively.  As a multiple-choice test with some pretty stringent time constraints, each question must have a ~2-minute path to a definitively correct answer — that’s just the rule.  So while it’s natural to be anxious about the fact that the test is intimidating, it’s equally helpful to focus on the fact that each question is giving you all the clues you should need to solve it.  And if you train yourself to begin each question by looking for the latter, you can drastically reduce the downside of the former.

When a question looks convoluted or intimidating, try to identify one thing that you do know right away and consider that an asset that you can use to find the next.  Many GMAT questions will have you solve for the fourth or fifth variable, and just the mere presence of that many steps or variables can be stress-inducing.    Let yourself win that initial psychological battle of identifying “well, I do know ________” so that you can proactively build from that.  Celebrate the milestones — each variable you solve for, each answer choice you eliminate, is a step toward a correct answer.  The power of positive thinking dictates that a proactive approach to “I know x, which leads me to y, which leads me to…” will be a much more productive approach then “how in the world will I ever solve for z?”  And knowing the GMAT, you’re never more than 4-5 steps away from the finish as long as you are willing to identify, celebrate, and take those steps.

4. Smile, or take a deep breath

While it sounds a bit corny or esoteric, it’s physiological that smiling releases endorphins that relax and empower your mind.  Simply the act of smiling will improve your disposition, and the mental process that you consciously go through can be just as powerful a stress-reliever.  The most stressful situations on the GMAT tend to be those situations that you knew would come up; Murphy’s Law that “anything that can go wrong will go wrong” tends to apply directly to the GMAT (although students are currently appealing that law via the Supreme Court under the constitutional amendment against cruel and unusual punishment.  Smiling yet?).  But there are two ways to deal with that: either “oh, no…I hate coordinate geometry and they gave me coordinate geometry.”   Or “ha…figures that I’d see coordinate geometry, my least favorite subject. Well, here  goes nothing… at least I know that this triangle will have a right angle…”  Laughing off that one question that you did not want to see or that one concept that you knew you should have studied is a great way to remind yourself that the current question is just one of 78 multiple-choice questions you’ll face, and that it is probably less intimidating than your test-day-anxiety wants you to think it is. Try it — as cliche 1980s after school specials would say, let your smile be your umbrella and you’ll find that it actually does protect you from the thunderstorm of stress that’s hoping to downpour on you.

5. Understand the GMAT’s role in admissions

While the pressure described above is designed to make you think that the GMAT may be the most important day of your professional career to date, the truth is that it might be…but really only if you do well.  Business schools, with precious few exceptions, only care about your highest score on the GMAT. After all, that is what they report to the rankings services, to employers, and to prospective students.  In fact, most applications ask you to self-report your GMAT score  by typing it into your application form, and then the admissions office will simply cross-reference your file to confirm that score.  You can’t fake your way to a high GMAT score, and schools don’t have much reason at all to punish you for underestimating the difficulty of the test once or twice before you saw the light.

So what the GMAT is is an opportunity for you to succeed, not a pass/fail final referendum on your  candidacy.  Your safety net on test day is the knowledge that the worst you can do is need to take the GMAT again — a nuisance, definitely, but not a life-changing catastrophe.

Test-day anxiety has befallen many a GMAT examinee, but like the GMAT itself it can be overcome!  Ultimately the best defense against anxiety is confidence, so prepare thoroughly and earn your right to be confident!


  • It's such a pleasant read.

  • I AM FOUR DAYS AWAY FROM TEST NOW. the article reinforced my confidence.

  • really good article. small but very important thing. In my first attempt just because of pressure, my score diped by almost 100 points.

  • Wow! this is something that i needed...!! am sure this wil help many... :-)

  • Brian -

    This is something special. The analysis of the GMAT as a indication of success AFTER business school is huge.

  • Hi Brian,

    This simple, yet insightful write up couldn't have come at a better time for me.
    Like you said, keeping things simple is the best approach towards keeping things in order and under control.

  • Superb article! I need to read this regularly!

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