Our friends at Manhattan Prep often tell students to think of the GMAT as a long-distance race. Successful runners conquer race day through specific goals, consistent training, and mental toughness. The same holds true for successful GMAT test takers.
Setting a Goal Pace
The best runners do not just aim for completion; they set a goal pace. How do they arrive at a specific, measurable goal? Marathon runners test their abilities on shorter races (5K, 10K, half marathon) to determine an achievable goal for race day. Also, many runners are looking to beat various thresholds, such as completing a marathon in under four hours.
Similarly, if you are taking the GMAT, you should have a goal score in mind. You arrive at that goal score by taking a practice test to gauge your current proficiency and then setting a challenging but reasonable goal score. Usually that goal score also coincides with the benchmarks posted by the business schools you’re looking to attend. Having a specific goal in mind helps you develop an appropriate study plan and informs your test day strategies.
The majority of a race’s outcome depends on the work you put in before you are on the race course; all the training that your legs have endured will push you across the finish line. For runners, following a consistent training plan produces the physiological changes necessary for improving their pace; it gets their bodies ready for challenges they will face on race day. Just as runners aim to train four or five days a week with a couple rest days sprinkled in between, GMAT test takers should aim to do ~30 minutes of practice on most days and schedule longer (but not too long!) studying sessions for the weekends. Why?
Well, first off, spending long stretches of time away from test material will wipe away some of the “gains” you made in previous weeks. If two weeks have passed since you looked at a Critical Reasoning question, you will need to refresh your memory on the various types of Critical Reasoning questions and the approaches for each. Regularly exposing yourself to the material will keep you moving forward instead of having to repeat a chapter that you previously covered.
Second, consistent studying is more manageable than attempting to cram in many hours of studying on the weekend. If you are aiming to run 50 miles in a given week, trying to complete 40 of those miles over the weekend results in overtraining and perhaps even injury. Long, exhausting study sessions leave you tired and demoralized, and more importantly, mastering all the content covered during those sessions is very difficult because your brain is on overdrive. In fact, studies have shown that knowledge retention improves when students space out their study time. Shorter but more frequent study sessions also let you “sleep” on certain concepts and problems, and you will find that you are able to tackle challenging problems with greater ease if you step away from them for a day or two.
Lastly, consistent training leads to incremental improvements. Runs that felt tough two weeks ago start to feel easier because you have been training almost every day and your body is making the appropriate physiological adjustments. Jumping from a 500 to a 600 on the GMAT is impossible without making many small improvements along the way. Significant score improvements are achieved through a combination of incremental changes, such as mastering Quant topics, using alternative problem-solving strategies, and improving time management.
So open up a calendar and set a consistent study schedule. Feel free to vary things by studying in different locations, mixing topics, etc. You will feel yourself training your brain muscles, and the incremental improvements in performance will sufficiently prepare you for test day.
Preparing for the Big Day
Before race day, runners spend approximately one week “tapering.” Tapering involves reducing training volume to give your body rest, giving you that “fresh legs” feeling on race day. Staying up late the night before your test is a bad idea. Instead of frantically taking practice tests and completing problem sets during the week leading up to test day, try to taper the amount of studying so that you are well rested and “mentally fresh.”
On the big day, all runners are nervous. The runners who hit their goals manage their nerves and exhibit mental toughness. They are optimistic because they know that they have set appropriate goals and trained consistently toward those goals, and they do not let the challenges of race day get in their heads, focusing instead on producing the best outcome possible. Also, they are ready for the long haul. Instead of gassing themselves out by running too fast for the first half of the race, they conserve their energy to maintain the pace required to hit their desired finish time.
How does that translate into strategies for test day? On test day, you will be nervous and that is expected. Stay optimistic, gather confidence from all the hard work you have put into studying, trust yourself, and stay mentally resilient in the face of challenging problems. Oh, and if you manage to also have fun on test day, I am confident that you will deliver your best performance.
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