Preparing for the GMAT exam
There is one sobering thought that constantly pops into the minds of most of the graduate school candidates in the days leading up to their GMAT exam; namely, that what happens in those four somber hours could have a greater impact on their admission success than all of the work they have done before the day of the actual test.
For some, this frightening thought fosters added motivation and resolve. For others, it introduces a daunting and seemingly insurmountable pressure burden that intimidates and seems to possess a voice of its own, constantly whispering disconcerting remarks into one's ear. On which of these two sides does a candidate find himself in often depends not so much on their personality, but often rather more on his or her circumstances going into the exam. If you have not put in as much effort into your work as you should have, and judge that your academic skills will not set your application apart, then you have less to lose and might look at the GMAT exam as a chance to prove yourself and strengthen your bid for admission. On the other hand, those who have excelled in their exams thus far and have already built a strong application may shiver at the possibility of a single exam - which lacks a clearly defined and delimitated subject material that one can study – casting a shadow over their hard-earned achievements. If you ask me, the best side to be on is neither of them.
Stemming precisely from this nauseating vertigo-inducing nature of the exam – the fact that it is a "one shot" kind of exam (for most people, retaking it more than once is not only unfeasible but also unproductive), notorious for its difficulty, time-pressure and portent – it is my opinion, having taken the exam myself, best to focus on your approach and attitude towards the exam, rather than on its content. Being as comfortable as possible with the format, structure, time constraints, the entire experience of the exam, can have a bigger impact on your score than studying math formulas and shortcuts for weeks on end. This is an exam that is best done with the mindset of a robot. You should be neither too eager nor too nervous to take it. You should be neither confident nor insecure when you sit down in front of your screen. Naturally, this is easier said than done and it is all but certain, from the simple fact that you are human and reading this, that you will be trying your best to cope with these very same emotions on the test day.
What I'm trying to say is that how you study is more important than what you study. Effective preparation entails, in my opinion, in addition to reading up on all the nuances of the test such as how each question influences the next one and affects your score, using practice questions and exams as a sort of shock absorber. Many of the most challenging aspects of the test can be prepared for and improved upon by placing yourself under even more stringent circumstances than you will experience during the exam itself. Your main goal when doing practice exams should not be to learn new tricks, techniques, or to familiarize yourself with the material, but instead to become faster, and more efficient at solving GMAT-style questions.
Here are a few suggestions and study methods that were useful to me and that you may hopefully also find to be valuable to you:
1- Limit your preparation to one or two weeks of intensive practice, preferably right before the exam, rather than doing a little bit every day for a month. This may sound too short, but if you immerse yourself in practice questions and exams each day, after a couple of weeks you'll be as ready as you'll ever be.
2- Practice finishing each section of the exam in half the amount of time that you will be given. By the end of the second week you should be fine with this, but naturally this is not to be applied as a rigid rule. If at the start of your practicing for the exam you are having trouble finishing a section in the original time given, then start by giving yourself 80-90% of the original time, and slowly move down to 50%. When you first start doing this exercise, it will force you to guess on many more questions than you should, and moreover cause a number of oversight mistakes you would not otherwise make. This is perfectly natural and you can expect it to happen beforehand. The goal is that, hopefully, by the end of your preparation, having forced yourself to answer as many questions in half the time, the actual time given in the real exam won't seem nearly as impossible or stress-inducing as it did before. You will develop your own rhythm that is faster than you "have" to be, and this allows you to focus more on the questions and less on the clock. Keep in mind though, that your aim in the actual exam is to finish each section in exactly the amount of time given, and never in much less time, as you cannot go back to check answers with any spare time you may have left. This exercise is merely a means to "force" you to speed into your problem solving and overcome the natural fear of running out of time, with the added bonus that you will become better at making calculated guesses.
3- Do practice exams with unlimited time. This is the "yang" to the previous exercise's "yin". Spend as much time as you need on each question until you are confident that you have the right answer. Because your answer to each question determines the difficulty of your next question, being able to do practice tests with unlimited time gives you the opportunity to produce a long streak of correct answers, thus running into some of the toughest questions you can expect to find. This exercise not only improves your ability to concentrate as you try to answer all of the questions correctly, being mindful of every detail and possible trap, it also exposes you to the thought process that goes into some of the hardest questions in the test. You will learn to immediately disregard solutions that seem too obvious or straightforward, solutions that are often purposefully designed to keep you grasping at straws for just long enough to force you to give up and move on to the next question. Remember that the more difficult questions are seldom solved exhaustively, but rather typically require a unique logical solution.
4- Practice under real time conditions in a distracting setting. Consider taking some practice questions with you to a crowded, noisy café, or put on some music that you usually find it very difficult to concentrate with. On the test day, you should be impervious to a myriad of possible distractions and this exercise prepares you for that. It is possible, even likely, that another test taker will begin his or her test while you are in the middle of yours, and that he will briefly converse with the examiner while in the same room as you are. It's your responsibility to prepare yourself to be able to remain unfazed in the face of any interruptions and interferences.
This practice methodology does not in any way guarantee success, but is in my opinion a better way of becoming comfortable with the exam and ultimately improving your performance, than focusing too much on core knowledge and problem solving techniques, although of course you should not entirely overlook the latter. Perhaps the most common piece of advice from those who have already taken the test is to try your best to keep its menacing import in the back of your mind. Prepare yourself as thoroughly as you can and remember that everything else lies outside of your control. Do not get too "invested" in it by constantly talking about it with your family or friends, by starting to contemplate all of the possible scenarios, by aiming for specific scores or creating expectations for specific sections of the test. The old adage of taking it one, in this case question at a time is particularly poignant and useful as a mindset to take into your exam.
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