If you are feeling anxious or worried about beginning the journey to an MBA or PhD, you are not alone. In particular because the first step are the dreaded standardized exams.
There are many of us out there who don’t do well on standardized exams for a number of reasons. When I prepared to take the GMAT to get into my MBA and the GRE to get into my PhD, I was quite frustrated. English is not my first language. I had no money to prove I needed accommodations for my dyslexia. I was working full-time. Furthermore, minorities taking these exams usually fare a lot worse than non-minorities (Why Minority GMAT Scores Still Lag).
As a Latina, I felt that these exams were rigged to keep me and others like me from getting access to education and other opportunities. As a dyslexic, I found it hard to believe I could even complete the exams, let alone pass.
Still. These exams are required. So this is what I did:
Instead of thinking about how terrible the exams would be, and how it represented how unfair the educational system was, I tried to see them as a game.
All games have rules. All I had to do was learn the rules and practice. This is what those prep guides do. They educate you on how the game works. They also give you the opportunity to practice. You would not show up to a big game without practicing – a lot. The same is true for the test.
By separating what the test meant (access to my dream career) to what it was (a game), I was able to calm my anxiety enough to concentrate in my preparation and studies for the exam.
The test feels like is this huge monumental event. As I was working full time, I did not think I could take the time to study like I should. I most certainly did not have the time to attend any prep courses.
Having re-framed this test as a game, I decided to create a training plan. I used the GMAT/GRE test-prep books. I looked at the outline and divided them into pieces: Learning the rules, getting skills, practicing skills.
Each day, I would review the rules (the logic behind the different types of questions). Then I would learn a new skill (techniques on how to approach those questions). Finally, I would practice. Each day, I leveled-up on my skills. Each day I would practice my new skill and many of the previous ones.
Breaking it up into small pieces really helped since I was working full time. In the mornings, I would take 20 minutes to review the rules I had learned the day before. Over lunch, I would take 20 minutes to practice skills from the day before. In the evening, I would learn a new skill for 20 minutes and practice for 40 minutes.
Breaking it up into pieces also helped with the anxiety. It made it fun, too. I gave myself fun stickers and other treats for every new skill I gained.
When I finally scheduled my tests, I practiced taking the exams in as similar conditions as I would face on the actual day. I did about ten different practice test runs for the GMAT and 12 for the GRE.
Since I was working full-time, my drills were scheduled on the weekends. I had the whole week to level-up. Saturday to drill and evaluate. Sunday to create a new plan of attack.
Each time I took a practice test, I would analyze my performance. Were there any particular types of questions I was missing? Did I consistently miss a particular point? Did I do something really well? After each test, and each analysis, I would practice some more to make the next drill even better.
As a dyslexic, this gave me ample opportunities to see exactly where in the tests I was having problems. I noticed that I had issues reading the long paragraphs. It took me so much work to get through it, that I was starting to lose sight of the narrative. I fixed this by using a scrap paper to cover most of the words on the screen. I used another piece of scrap paper to sketch (with symbols) the points of the narrative. I also noticed that I constantly confused the “>” and “<” signs. I had to draw imaginary pac-mans around each sign to make sure that I was looking at it the right way.
The best tip I can give anyone, in particular dyslexics, is to really learn the kinds of questions, and learn to identify them. By knowing the kind of question I was asked, I could tell what information I had to pay attention to. This meant I could save some time so I could use it on the kinds of questions that took me the longest: reading.
Like my husband always says: better living through chemistry. I consulted a physician who suggested I should take (temporarily) some performance anxiety meds as I prepared.
I incorporated taking these meds half-way in my drills and I could see the difference in my performance. They helped me conquer the last remnants of anxiety I was experiencing – even after all the things I had already done.
MAKE A PLAN B (AND C)
Last, just to make sure that I would not be completely devastated by the results, I had a few contingency plans in mind. I took my tests with plenty of time to prep and take them again before applications were due (Plan B).
At the same time, I looked for career opportunities in case Plan B failed and I had to wait another year to try. This also helped reduce the anxiety.
All of my efforts paid off. I only had to take each exam once. When I took the GMAT, I had a high enough score to get accepted to the honors section of the MBA program. When I took the GRE, my score was high enough to get into my first-choice PhD and get a fellowship.
Good luck as you prepare for the GMAT games! May the Odds be Ever in Your Favor!