Mike MᶜGarry

Beating GMAT Stress

In the last post, we learned about the breathing and its ability to stimulate the relaxing effects of the PNS, as well as a little about mindfulness, and its ability to reduce stress and enhance your performance on the GMAT.  In this post, we are going to take on directly the juggernaut of your stress: your thoughts.

Your Thoughts vs. You

Folks like us, who take tests like the GMAT, are generally successful: we’re college graduates and proficient in careers.  Our heads have gotten us far, and that’s great.  In a way, though, that’s precisely the problem.  There are certain times when we need to think hard about something, but the mind creates thoughts 24/7 regardless of whether thoughts are needed.  The mind continuous “secretes” thoughts much as, say, the saliva glands continuously secrete saliva. 

Not every thought that passes through our heads is true, and in particular, the more charged thoughts often are based on scanty evidence and/or wildly improbable scenarios, and yet these are the ones that can deeply drive our emotions.  Often the difference between feeling confident or defeated walking into a situation has to do with the thought-cycle that is spinning at the moment.  How does one bring discipline and conscious choice to bear on one’s thoughts?

Creating Space

Just as one can be mindful of one’s body or one’s breath, one can be mindful of one’s thoughts.  This means simply watching the thoughts as a stream, as a passing parade.  When one feels one’s self starting to get engulfed in the rollercoaster of a particular thought-pattern, one simply steps back and labels it “thought.”  By that label, we are not saying it is true or false, simply a thought, no more.

Improve your GMAT score with Magoosh.

If this is new to you, then at first, it will seem next to impossible.  Much more than other forms of mindfulness, mindfulness of thought requires tremendous perseverance and conscientiousness.  One might find visualization and related tricks helpful—for example, imagining an unpleasant scene in your head getting smaller and smaller, or imagining turning down the volume on a troubling voice in one’s head.  

At first, one simply realizes in retrospect, “I had that thought, and then I went on that whole emotional ride when I didn’t have to!”  With practice, though, one creates space: space between one’s self and the entrance to the rollercoaster, space to insert a more positive thought—or space simply to be mindful and breathe deeply.  Imagine being able to walk into your GMAT with that kind of inner spaciousness!  Imagine being able to approach your career like that!

See also Mindful Test Taking.


Moments when the mind is apt to be idle are the best times to put effort into this practice: in the shower, commuting time, standing in line, waiting for an appointment, etc.  Of course, the very best practice would be a full-blown daily meditation routine.  Many of the stress-reducing benefits of meditation simply have to do with enabling folks no longer to ride the thought rollercoasters they don’t want to ride. 

In addition to the myriad health and psychological benefits of meditation, such a practice would enable you to approach the GMAT, or any analogous challenge, with one-pointed clarity and balance.  If you can commit to daily meditation, you will see some benefits even in the GMAT a month or two away, and you will see more and more benefits in both your personal life and career as the practice deepens over time. 

Improve your GMAT score with Magoosh.

Short of developing a full daily mediation practice, if you just practice mindfulness of thoughts consistently, in the odd empty moments of each day, you will make significant progress derailing the thought rollercoasters that don’t serve you, thereby becoming that much more calm and confident at the moments when you need to be “on”—for example, when you take your GMAT.

Don’t forget to check out my last post on dealing with GMAT exam anxiety.


  • Mike MᶜGarry

    Mike served as a GMAT Expert at Magoosh, helping create hundreds of lesson videos and practice questions to help guide GMAT students to success. He was also featured as “member of the month” for over two years at GMAT Club. Mike holds an A.B. in Physics (graduating magna cum laude) and an M.T.S. in Religions of the World, both from Harvard. Beyond standardized testing, Mike has over 20 years of both private and public high school teaching experience specializing in math and physics. In his free time, Mike likes smashing foosballs into orbit, and despite having no obvious cranial deficiency, he insists on rooting for the NY Mets. Learn more about the GMAT through Mike’s Youtube video explanations and resources like What is a Good GMAT Score? and the GMAT Diagnostic Test.

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