Lower on the Real GMAT than on Practice Tests

This is a scenario I have seen countless times in the GMAT 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

5) Curiosity as a RC Strategy

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.


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  • 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.