Get a New Attitude: 4 Steps to Become a Strong Test-Taker

by on July 23rd, 2013

Good test-takers are made, not born. For graduate business candidates who have struggled with standardized tests in the past, take a new approach to the GMAT® exam. Develop strong test-taking habits and achieve a score that is a better reflection of your abilities.

You’ve decided that you want to attend business school to advance your career and you are confident that you would be a great fit for graduate programs. As you conduct research on schools, however, your excitement begins to wane as you learn the average GMAT score of current graduate students. You’ve known for years that you aren’t “a good test-taker” and are concerned about how your GMAT score will affect your admissions decision.

Business schools know that you are more dynamic than just a GMAT score. Their admissions teams will consider several components beyond the GMAT score when reviewing your applications. This might lead you to dive into the other areas of your application profile, such preparing admissions essays, strengthening your resume, and networking with school representatives, instead of focusing on the GMAT.

Standardized tests are not the only admissions factor, but your score will still be considered when your application is reviewed. So before you accept the label of “poor test-taker” and wave the white surrender flag on the GMAT, take these four steps to become a strong test-taker and get the best score that you possibly can:

1. Understand What the GMAT Measures

If you are thinking, “standardized tests just aren’t an accurate reflection of my capabilities” — you’re right. The GMAT exam is not an achievement test. It won’t predict whether you will be a successful professional or determine how smart you are. The GMAT is a predictor of your first year grades in graduate business programs. Unlike the tests you took for high school and college classes, which were designed to test your knowledge and recall of specific material, the GMAT exam assesses your skills, namely analytical writing, reasoning, and critical thinking. As you prepare for the test, spend less time trying to memorize information and instead, focus on the big ideas, concepts and formulas that you will use again and again on the test. Mastering these skills will translate into an improved score.

2. Turn Your Anxiety into Motivation

When you haven’t tested well in the past, it’s easy to fear all standardized tests. This anxiety can perpetuate the poor testing cycle, preventing you from doing your best. Being a little nervous about taking the GMAT exam is normal and in fact, can serve as motivation to diligently prepare for the exam. Recognize that as you study some concepts will be easier for you to master than others; have patience with yourself and your preparation. Finally, practice for the GMAT to minimize your anxiety on test day. When you take a practice GMAT exam, try to simulate, as closely as possible, the stress-inducing distractions that may occur on test day, such as noise or a room that is too warm or cold. This will allow you to train yourself to perform even when you are presented with something unexpected.

3. Speak Strong Test Performance

Not surprisingly, candidates who say they are weak test-takers, perform poorly on tests. Not to get too psychological here, but when it comes to test-taking “what you say is what you are.” You must reframe your approach to test-taking, believing that you can be successful, to actually do well on the GMAT exam. The good news is that as powerful and complex as the human mind is, it can be easily manipulated. From now through answering the last question on the official GMAT on test day, speaking positively about your test-taking abilities, or at least let go of the negative self-talk. Remind yourself that you have a robust GMAT preparation plan, strong aptitude, and the right attitude, which will yield a score that is a better reflection of your skills.

4. Isolate Your Issue

When your overall score is lower than you want, you may assume that you are a poor test-taker. More likely though, you just have a couple of specific issues that are affecting your overall test performance. Unless you got every question wrong or are a lucky guesser, there were some areas of the exam in which you did well. Understand the concepts you have already mastered and pinpoint where you need more work. Everyone has different challenges on the GMAT exam. For some, it’s difficult to keep information straight — the same concepts you knew during study sessions go missing and everything gets jumbled. For others, budgeting time is an issue. They may have trouble focusing on the test and run out of time, or get stuck on a question and feel unable to move on. When you are aware of your specific challenges, it’s easier to identify test-taking strategies and allocate your study time accordingly to solve them.

You can simulate the actual GMAT test-taking experience by downloading GMATPrep® software, free to registered users of

Submitted by Nicole Lindsay, a career development expert who is working on her first book about women and business school. She is a former MBA admissions officer, MBA recruiter and non-profit executive. Connect with Nicole at @MBAminority.


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