Top 5 GMAT Test-Taking Strategies

By Chris Ryan, Director of Instructor and Product Development, ManhattanGMAT.

You've studied all the content, you've done hundreds of problems, you've taken practice test after practice test. And now, it's GMAT game day. You're following all the logistics tips: you got enough sleep last night, you've shown up early, you haven't eaten anything funny, you plan to take the breaks while giving yourself enough time to check back in with the proctors. But what about actually taking the test? What do you have to remember while you're in the thick of battle?

Here are five strategies to guide you.

1) Turn the page.

Imagine you've just clicked "C, Next, Confirm" on a tough Data Sufficiency problem involving two overlapping triangles and lots of labeled angles. One of the statements was utterly baffling. You spent too much time deciding between C and E, and now you think you probably chose wrong, with your luck.

Forget all that.

You are facing a new problem. This is the only place your mind should be. Take out a "blank sheet of mental paper" and dive in.

Now, as you get into this new problem, a whisper in your head tells you that the problem is too easy, so you probably got the last problem wrong, and by the way - you're doing poorly overall.

Turn that whisper off.

You should not spend an instant of your time wondering about the past or about "how you're doing." You truly have no idea how you're doing - and if you did know, it wouldn't help you anyway.

The only opportunity you have to affect your fate is THIS problem. Forget about one minute ago. Focus on the here and now, and do the problem as best as you can.

2) Know when to fold 'em.

You are now embroiled in a different problem, and it's a dogfight. This problem seduced you - you thought you knew how to solve it, but the answer you got wasn't on the screen. Now you're scrambling to recheck all your math, and you can't find any errors. Frustrated, you feel like simply choosing the answer choice that's in the same ballpark as the answer that you calculated.

Now take a deep breath.

And remember that to win this war, you have to lose some battles. Don't be a perfectionist. Remember that even people who get very high scores on the GMAT get a substantial proportion of questions wrong. Be ready to cut bait and walk away.

"But," you think to yourself angrily, "I've spent all this time, and now it'll all be wasted."

Well, maybe not. Step back and see if you can take an intelligent guess. Eliminate some answers if you can. Sometimes, by giving up on Plan A, you can spot Plan B - which may not get you all the way to the right answer, but it might increase the odds.

So you give this "Plan B" idea a try - and it doesn't work this time. You don't see any other way to attack this evil problem. What do you do now?

Tell yourself the problem is experimental - and that's why it's so cryptic! As many as a quarter of the questions are in fact experimental, and will not count towards your score. Of course, you shouldn't try to guess which ones, but if you find yourself at approximately the 2-minute mark with no way forward on a particularly dastardly problem, tell yourself that the problem probably doesn't even count. Then, take your shot and move on.

Save your time to invest in problems you really know how to do.

3) Do your work on the scratch paper, not in your head.

Now you get a problem involving odds and evens. The problem looks pretty straightforward, so you start thinking, "Okay, let's see, x odd plus y even is odd, then I multiply that odd by this other odd and I get odd. Or I could have x be even, so then even plus even is even, then I multiply that even by odd and I get a..."

Stop. You are setting yourself up for a fall.

Your working memory can only hold a few items at a time - under the best conditions. And studies have shown that under test pressure, the powers of your working memory shrink even further. Remember that other odds and evens problem you did in your head while you were sitting at your kitchen table with a plate of cookies? That problem won't be so easy right now, here in the exam center.

Write out your steps. Put the scenarios down on the scratch paper. Make the process as easy on your brain as possible.

And be organized. Be a friend to your future self - the self you're going to be in thirty seconds, when you're looking back over all these scribbles and trying to figure out what you just wrote down.

4) Check the time periodically - but don't be clock-paranoid.

Now you're into another problem, and you're worried you're spending too much time. Your eyes dart to the clock every half a minute; you can just feel the seconds dropping away, like grains of sand through the neck of an hourglass. There go a few more. And a few more.

Stop. Focus on the problem you're doing. By checking the clock so often, you're taking your mind off of solving the problem itself.

Moreover, you're liable to think you're taking more time than you actually are. As a result, you may put in too little effort and bail out too quickly.

Manage time by keeping to a rhythm, a kind of internal drumbeat. Then, every so often, check the clock and figure out if you're ahead, behind or right on pace. You can use benchmarks (where should you be every 15 minutes?) or simply compare the time left to the number of problems remaining. You should have 2 minutes per math problem and approximately 1 minute & 50 seconds per verbal problem (don't compute that precisely - simply figure 2 minutes per problem, then take off about 10%).

If you're behind, adjust your drumbeat accordingly. You'll need to shave seconds here and there. Don't try to make it all up in one fell swoop.

5) Take a moment to smile.

You've got 10 minutes left and 7 math problems to do. Panic has set in. You're about to start randomly guessing, even though you know how to do this problem in front of you. And you can't help thinking that the whole exam has gone horribly wrong.

Okay, this last prescription will seem extremely difficult at first. Apply the muscles of your face to your tightly pursed lips, causing the corners to arch upwards as you breathe in deeply through your nose. Now let the breath back out. Keep smiling, even if it's forced.

Emotion affects cognition, for good or for ill. If you panic, you can't think. And a direct way to change your emotional state is simply to fasten a brief smile on your face.

Now get back into the fight. But stay positive - it's the best way to ensure that your performance measures up to your abilities.

The GMAT is like a tennis match at Wimbledon. And like a tennis pro, you should recognize that the game is not truly physical: it's mental. Control your mind, and the body will take care of itself. In a similar way, your GMAT knowledge and skills will come out on the exam, if you control your mind using the strategies described above. Good luck!

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