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Lower on the Real GMAT than on Practice Tests

This is a scenario I have seen countless times in the forums. Some student has been preparing for months, diligently doing practice questions and taking practice GMATs (whether GMAT Prep or some other practice tests). The student felt the scores on the practice GMAT were either acceptable or pretty good. Then the student sits for the real GMAT, and scores maybe 50 or 100 points below the average score on the practice tests. The student, of course, is disappointed, bewildered, shocked.  Many times, this student wonders whether this is a unique occurrence, and asks, “Has anyone else experienced this??”  Again, I and other experts who frequent the forums have seen this exact scenario play out more times than we could count.

Of course, it’s ironic that the student, falling into this predicament for the very first time, typically has absolutely no idea how frequently it happens.  In my mind, the even sadder part is how avoidable this would have been:  had that student been properly appraised of this possibility, she could have take concrete steps to avoid it, but these steps must be taken consistently for the months leading up the GMAT.  All this may do little to console the person who has already experienced a disappointing GMAT, although perhaps that person will benefit from applying this advice in a retake attempt.

First, let’s talk about why this happens.


More stress

It’s great to make the conditions of your practice test as “GMAT like” as possible, but no matter how successful you are at this, something deep in your psyche just knows: this isn’t for real.  A failure on a practice test may be disappointing to you, but it’s entirely a private failure: nobody else has to know about it.  You may pretend that it “counts,” but it doesn’t really count.

By contrast, when you walk into the real test, every cell of your body knows that it’s for real.  You know without a shadow of a doubt that scores recorded on this GMAT will go on record and be communicated to adcom.  Your real GMAT score can impact where you wind up going to school, which in turn can influence what kind of job you get after business school.  The potential impacts of a good or bad score on the real GMAT are huge.  No amount of practice can replicate the seriousness of the real thing.  This creates stress.  What exactly is stress and exactly how does it impact test performance? First, we have to look at the brain.


The brain

The brain has parts that are under our control, and then parts that run on their own, almost entirely independently of our conscious decisions.  This latter part is called the Autonomic Nervous System, and it controls digestion, immune function, and many aspects of the body’s metabolism.

The Autonomic Nervous System has two complementary halves: the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS).  The SNS revs us up, into excitement, high energy, and stress.  The PNS is the “relaxation response”: it calms us down and makes us warm & fuzzy & comfortable.

We have an SNS because, evolutionarily, we needed it.  For most of the history of our species, we lived in the wild, when we might suddenly encounter direct threats to our physical well-beings (e.g. lions & tigers & bears).  If you encounter a larger predator, you will need either to fight or to flee: for either one, you need a lot of blood directed toward the outer musculature.  If you are facing a tiger, the SNS does just what you need: your breath becomes shallow & rapid, for lots of oxygen; heart rate soars; blood is directed toward outer muscles, and muscle tension increases; blood is directed away from digestion and immune function, because these don’t matter at all if you are about to be eaten by a tiger; thinking becomes rigid and simple and practical, and the mind’s capacity for imagination, creativity, abstract connections are significantly diminished — none of that would matter either if you are about to be eaten be tiger.

The PNS is for when the tiger is gone and you can relax.  It does the exact opposite: breathing becomes long, slow, and deep; heart rate slows down to normal; the outer musculature relaxes, and internals processes such as digestion and immune function are enhanced; the mind expands and becomes subtle and creative.  A life lived most of the time in PNS arousal would be a life high in physical and emotional well-being.

What does this have to do with taking the GMAT?



Stress is the inappropriate activation of the SNS to something that is not actually a physical threat, a direct physical threat to your life.   I am going to guess that most of the folks who read this blog and prepare for the GMAT live under circumstances in which they do not face daily threats to their lives and their physical well-being.  In the modern world, many folks live under conditions of relative safety, but we still have the SNS wired within us.

It’s as if the extraordinary pattern-matching capabilities of the mind implicitly takes all the potential bad consequences of a poor GMAT performance and carries them to their most absurd dismal conclusion (I will fail the GMAT, and won’t get into any school, and won’t get any job, and will fall into poverty, and lose all my family and friends, and die drunk and alone in a gutter.)  That level of the mind perceives a direct threat to one’s physical well-being, so it fires up the SNS, and there you are, shallow breath, tight muscles, all ready to fight a tiger or flee from one, but there’s no tiger.  There’s just the frustrating test on the screen, and the SNS has your brain partially or fully shut down.  Some students express the feeling of being “brain dead” on the real GMAT: that’s precisely what the SNS does to higher thought processes.   When you are faced with a tiger, things get very simple in a hurry, and simple direct practical thought is all you need, so probability questions or parallelism are far more than you can handle, even if you excelled at these topics before your SNS was activated.

Notice that the activation of the SNS is very subtle: it may be almost fully activated, and one may not “feel” stressed.  Sometimes students will say: “I don’t understand.  I wasn’t stressed at all, but I didn’t do well.”  Well, I would say to that student: you probably didn’t “feel” stressed, but your SNS was probably quite activated.

Part of the problem is that, for entertainment, many people pursue high excitement activities: that is, activities that activate SNS (e.g. carnival rides, action movies, video games, etc.).  In essence, this is a kind of practice: if you practice excitement, you are also practicing stress, because they run on much the same wiring, the SNS.  It’s a sad fact that many modern people live almost their whole lives in SNS arousal, and this accounts for numerous poor health consequences found only in materially and technologically advanced cultures, as well as the high rate of emotional dissatisfaction despite relative material comfort.  If you are accustomed to a certain level of SNS arousal in everyday life, then the rise when you sit for the real GMAT may not feel that out of the ordinary, but this rise will still have a huge impact on your performance.  This is precisely what causes the 50-100 drop between practice tests and the real test.


Reducing stress

Suppose a student preparing for the GMAT said that he was studying in great detail all the other questions, but for some bizarre reason, he had decided simply to ignore Sentence Correction.  “I’ll just figure it out when I sit for the real test.”  Anyone who knows anything about the GMAT would see: this is an exceptionally poor strategy!! Obviously, every content area and question type on the GMAT deserves considerable attention well before one walks into the test.

Well, of course, it’s hard to imagine any real student preparing for the GMAT who would say that.  BUT, many folks give absolutely no attention to stress reduction techniques; implicitly, they are precisely like the benighted student in the previous paragraph, because they are in essence saying they will figure out how to deal with the stress of the test once they sit for it.  Of course, that is often as spectacularly unsuccessful as learning nothing about an individual question type and trying to figure that out from scratch on the day of the test.  As with many important things, we can’t figure it out just in the moment that we need it: we need to practice beforehand.

The responsible thing to do is to practice stress reduction techniques as consistently and as assiduously as you practice all the content & strategies for the GMAT.  You need to practice stress reduction for at least three months, if not more.  Ideally, you will be reading this article many months before you plan to take the GMAT, and you can start practicing stress reduction right away.

Precisely what does one do?  Here is a series of four articles that introduce stress reduction techniques:

1) The Breath and Mindfulness

2) Mindfulness of One’s Thoughts

3) Mindfulness of One’s Stories

4) Many Practical Suggestions for Stress Reduction

Two other blogs that give suggestions in a similar vein:

5) Curiosity as a RC Strategy

6) Getting a Good GMAT Score

At first, it may not be obvious what the skills recommended in those articles have to do with performing well on the GMAT, but the skills given there have been shown, both in many ancient traditions and in scientific research, to foster greater attention & focus & mental flexibility under conditions likely to induce stress.

If you continue to practice stress reduction as part of your life beyond the GMAT, it will make you more attentive in business school, and more perceptive of fleeting opportunities to seize the initiative in the business world.  Many people can follow rules and procedures, but few people can be creative and insightful under pressure, and the rewards for these skills are great.  This practice will also bring more balance to your interpersonal relationships and a deeper sense of intrinsic satisfaction.  Compared to other tips for doing well on the GMAT, this one is by far the most valuable in the great scheme of things.



If you practice all the skills and perspectives discussed in those six articles, you are much less likely to be impacted by a huge drop between your practice tests and the real GMAT, because you will be able, through practice, to moderate the impact of stress.   If you are finding out about all this long before you ever take your first GMAT, even better!

If you have any experience with using these practices to reduce stress, we would love to hear your stories.  Please let us know in the comments section.


By the way, sign up for our 1 Week Free Trial to try out Magoosh GMAT Prep!

16 Responses to Lower on the Real GMAT than on Practice Tests

  1. Faizan Ahmad Beig September 16, 2016 at 6:30 am #

    I took my first mock and got 560. Then, after two days, I took the second mock and got 620.Read the official guides for two and a half months and got 640. Now, almost one year after my first attempt, I have scheduled my second attempt, on October 8, 2016. I hope that I get a good score!

  2. KD August 6, 2016 at 6:38 pm #

    Hi Mike!
    Well it was my second attempt today and that “some student” you mentioned in the article is me!! I have always had examination fever. As a result, my exam anxiety started last night. I couldnt sleep all night and had an upset stomach. 🙁 I got a 620 in my first attempt and a 610 in my second! After getting 680-700 in all my mocks. I couldnt believe my eyes when the score screen popped up.
    I know I can do much much better than this but I also know that this fear of exams wont let me. 🙁
    I dont know what to do. I am disheartened. I was hoping to get a 700 at least.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 14, 2016 at 2:29 pm #

      That sounds very frustrating, KD. To beat test stress, you may need to take some approaches that are physical as well as psychological. Mike has written another good post about understanding the physical aspects of test anxiety and overcoming them: Overcoming GMAT Exam Anxiety: Breathe! Mike explores the more psychological aspects of GMAT test anxiety (and what to do about them) in his post “Beating GMAT Stress.” And then there’s Jennifer’s tips to overcome test anxiety on our main blog. These posts should help you and other anxious Magooshers get pointed in the right direction. GMAT stress- and the GMAT itself– can be beat!

  3. Eilon August 2, 2016 at 11:47 am #

    Hey Mike,
    (Non-american student).

    I’ve been studying for both the GRE (complacently with MAGOOSH) and GMAT (unfortunately not with MAGOOSH) for more than a year and a half. (GRE for only 4 months).
    I never score as high as I do on my prep tests, exorbitantly. I actually scored a month ago 770 on two prep tests (they were not ‘virgin’, yet I saw the questions about 10 months ago, so I did need to really answer the questions, and saw some new ones because of the higher level).
    Than, I took prep 5-6 for the first time and scored 720 on both.
    Went with a smile on my face and a honed attitude to the GMAT for the 6th time–scored last year 640, 610, 640, 670, 570, in THAT order–and scored 610 this time: 44/30/8.
    Although a test-taker, who entered after the IR–a section proving my abilities, in my view–kept incessantly coughing and severely hindered my concentration, I have probably been constantly experiencing the SNS syndrome. I also failed to deliver, twice, on the GRE a month ago; scored twice 320 on the real GRE, with different splits. Pulled 326-333 on MAGOOSH.

    I have only 13 days until my next GRE, and 28 days until the GMAT, and yes, the stress is much, much bigger. HBS deadline is on SEP.7th.

    I will sedulously try to consummate these few weeks / days left and tweak 3 months of stress management to two weeks. (My every-day job has been full with stress, so the insidious effect must account in my case).

    I intend to share my performance, hoping the performance would be as good as I can, and the insights, conducive to other fellow SNS-ers.

    Thanks for the expatiated (in a good way) and informative post; pragmatic explanations (and science in general) help me alleviate the obscurity of my, permit me to aggrandize, poignant experience with standardized tests.
    Unfair is an understatement.

    btw, Magoosh rocks. 🙂

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 7, 2016 at 1:39 pm #

      Hi Eilon,

      First, thanks for the kind words! 🙂

      Now, more importantly, we wish you the best luck on your test day! You clearly have the right mindset at this time and appropriate experience, so I look forward to hearing that you have dominated the exam!

  4. Fabio May 12, 2016 at 8:57 am #

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for the article. I wish I could have read it before. I’ve taken a first GMATprep mock exam in Jan (640). Soon after I stareted to study with Magoosh. I’ve then taken one mock (GMATprep as always) in Feb (650) and, after buying the extension pack (so I would not re-do the same exams) a third one in April (660) and a last one two days ago (730).

    Today I took the exam. 630. I was in disbelief. The verbal part which has always gone so well (lowest scored I’ve ever taken before today was 41) dropped to 37. The quant part that (mainly thank to Magoosh) had progressively moved from a pathetic 38 in the first mock to a more decent 46 in the last mock, went back to 39.

    I feel like I’ve wasted 4 months of my life with sacrificies to study before and after work. I will repeat it obviously, but I will not deny that it has been a big hit to my self-esteem.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert May 18, 2016 at 11:13 am #

      Hi Fabio,

      On behalf of Mike, you’re very welcome! I’m sorry to hear that you not do as well as you had expected on your exam. In addition to this blog post, I recommend that you check out Mike’s other posts on dealing with test stress and the larger picture of maintaining the right mindset, if you haven’t already 🙂

      * Overcome GMAT Exam Anxiety: Breathe!
      * Beating GMAT Stress
      * Zen Boot Camp for the GMAT

      Now, as you plan your retake, I recommend that you take a look at our study schedules to help you organize your prep time 🙂

      Now, for all your GMAT practice, analyzing your practice and learning from your mistakes is extremely important!

      Basically, studying your mistakes gives you maximum improvement. If it were possible to never make the same mistake twice, you would become an absolute master of the test in a very, very short time. So be sure to take the time to go over every question you get wrong, study very carefully the related concepts, research methods, or material you’re not comfortable with but are mentioned in the solution, and really analyze the questions.

      To help you do so, I recommend keeping an error log of your mistakes. For each question you get wrong, write down the question number, the source, question type, and concept tested. Then write down answers to the following questions:

      1. Why you missed the question?
      2. Why your answer is wrong?
      3. Why the correct answer is correct?
      4. What will you do to avoid this next time around?

      Review your log frequently. You will start to think more like test makers and avoid wrong answer patterns. This is key to success.

      And most importantly, stay positive! While you may be disappointed with your current score, you can definitely improve 😀

      Happy studying!

  5. Pronz January 21, 2016 at 8:09 pm #

    Thank you for your words. Especially this part:

    If you continue to practice stress reduction as part of your life beyond the GMAT, it will make you more attentive in business school, and more perceptive of fleeting opportunities to seize the initiative in the business world. Many people can follow rules and procedures, but few people can be creative and insightful under pressure, and the rewards for these skills are great. This practice will also bring more balance to your interpersonal relationships and a deeper sense of intrinsic satisfaction. Compared to other tips for doing well on the GMAT, this one is by far the most valuable in the great scheme of things.

    I’m getting there- armed withe the knowledge of the wherewithal required to score a perfect 800!

  6. Karan Bahadur Shrivastava August 14, 2015 at 6:41 am #

    Hi Mike,

    You have no idea how helpful this article would have been for so many people.

    At least for me 40 % of the battle is already won just by reading the article & actually
    knowing what this stupid brain of our’s actually does .

    very helpful article hope to read more whatever u write !!

    Excellent work thank you sooo !! much !
    Keep it up !!


  7. Umang Mathur October 6, 2014 at 12:53 am #

    A blog par excellence.

    You wrote, “Some student has been preparing for months…” shouldn’t that be, HAVE BEEN ?

    Correct me if I am wrong.

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike October 6, 2014 at 10:21 am #

      Dear Umang,
      I’m happy to respond. 🙂 Thank you for your kind words. Unfortunately, my friend, you are not correct on the grammar proposal you make. The subject is singular — I am talking about one individual unknown student, “some student.” Singular subject takes a singular verb.
      Some student has been preparing …
      Some students have been preparing …

      Does all this make sense?
      Mike 🙂

      • Umang Mathur October 6, 2014 at 10:43 am #

        Aaaaahhhh…. I thought I had my moment of pleasure but you caught me off guard. I accidently read it Some Students and not Some Student.

        Once again thanks a lot Mike for correcting me.

        • Mike MᶜGarry
          Mike October 6, 2014 at 10:49 am #

          Dear Umang,
          You are quite welcome! 🙂 Best of luck to you, my friend.
          Mike 🙂

  8. Pedro July 21, 2014 at 1:23 pm #

    Thank you for the article!

    I have also seen a 100 points drop myself.. and I think the stress got me to think about what my final score would be during the verbal part of the GMAT.

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike July 21, 2014 at 2:52 pm #

      You are quite welcome. 🙂 I hope you find the suggestions here helpful in your retake. I wish you the best of luck, my friend.
      Mike 🙂

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