It’s Not About The Content
While exams can incite anxiety in many test-takers, I like taking computer-based standardized tests. They’re like video games where you win with vocabulary words, math tricks, and good reading comprehension.
As a GMAT teacher, I won’t pretend that finding the area of a regular hexagon or knowing when to use “which” and when to use “that” is going to make or break your career. It’s not the content of the tests that will help you in your job but rather the practice of studying effectively for these tests that can build capabilities that will make you a mental (and even emotional) superhero.
Here are 5 test-taking skills that will help you in your career.
Fulfilling Arbitrary Requirements EXACTLY as Stated
There's very little open to interpretation on a standardized test. In fact, math word questions are often so wordy for the exact reason that all ambiguity has to be eliminated.
In real life — and on the job — people can often do 80 percent or so of a job and conclude, “Oh, you get my point.” Sometimes they communicate unclearly and assume others know what they meant. Sometimes they miss a Monday deadline and assume that Tuesday 9 am is “basically” the same thing.
There is no partial credit in test-taking.
If you solve a system of equations to find out that an apple costs 40 cents and a banana costs 60 cents, and the question asks for the banana, but you answer for the apple, you're wrong. Period. You can't argue "You know what I meant!"
Oftentimes, students studying for a test will miss a dozen questions but dismiss half those errors as “just silly mistakes.” This mistake will kill your GMAT or GRE score. You need to root out the source of those silly mistakes. Oftentimes they’re not so silly — they actually represent small knowledge gaps.
On a standardized test, wrong is wrong. You don’t get the benefit of the doubt. You can’t explain yourself later. You need to train yourself to execute with precision.
As it turns out, someone who executes with precision is exactly who I — and most managers — want to work with.
GMAT and GRE problems need to be solved in about two minutes each. That might seem impossible when it takes more than a minute just to read and comprehend a problem involving two different trains moving at two different speeds.
You don’t work faster by just acting fast. If you try to do something the same way but faster, you tend to tense up your shoulders and flood your system with stress hormones. Congratulations! You’re now 100 percent more uncomfortable and only about 10 percent faster!
You discover early on in your studies that you can't just will yourself to be faster. Instead, you simply need to practice and analyze a wide breadth of problems and create stored routines for each one. You become faster by analyzing many tasks, generalizing, creating mental algorithms and practicing those algorithms until you can execute them while still feeling pretty chill (and without giving yourself a neck cramp).
Applying this approach to work means creating documentation for repeated tasks and finding ways to automate and systematize so you aren't always reinventing the wheel. If there’s a task that makes you cringe every time it lands on your to-do list, how can you automate it, make it more pleasant, break it into manageable steps, or base future iterations of the task on the version you’re doing now?
Better Task Switching
When Kiko flips a coin six times, and you determine that the probability of getting EXACTLY two heads and four tails is 15/64 — and then you look at your timer and discover you've done this in one minute and 50 seconds (victory!) — it's normal to breathe a sigh of relief, take a mental break, and look back over your awesome work.
OH WAIT — that just ate up twenty seconds that you needed for the next problem, and now you're behind. If you do that repeatedly, you will run out of time before answering all the questions (a big no-no on the GRE and much moreso on the GMAT).
Being able to task-switch on a dime is a very important skill for test-taking, for productivity on the job, and even (this might sound crazy) for your emotional health.
If you can go from "I have no idea, oh well, I'm going to guess" to "Next problem: Pablo walks to school at x + y miles per hour..." with no mental break, then you can also go from "It sucks to get such negative feedback from my manager" to "Let’s get a fresh start on this exciting new project" without wasting hours in emotional turmoil.
Getting Back Into the Habit of Deliberate Learning
Some of us can feel like we're getting dumber the longer we've been out of school. Sure, people sometimes say they're "learning constantly," meaning that they are encountering new ideas and gaining new experiences. But that's the easy stuff.
Few of us have memorized anything, or practiced something difficult hundreds of times or struggled for hours to understand something that seems impenetrable, if we didn't have to. While it's great to learn on the job, most of us are out of practice at the kind of learning that involves real struggle.
Regain this skill and you're not only improving your mental acuity (use it or lose it), but you'll now have a model that fosters intense learning into adult life.
When I was studying for the GMAT, I sometimes literally gave myself a headache from thinking, and then I had to take a nap. That’s a very different kind of learning than, say, hanging out with people from different countries and learning their perspectives. Studying for the GMAT broke my brain down and remade it into a better, stronger brain that can beat people at things. (And impress people with math tricks at parties! Okay, maybe only certain kinds of parties.)
Performing Despite "Game Day" Stress
You can spend months preparing for the GMAT — or weeks preparing for a big presentation at work — only to blow it on game day.
You need a personal strategy for making sure that doesn't happen.
The book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To by Sian Beilock offers numerous techniques backed by scientific studies.There’s one technique from the book that I’ve been sharing with students for years now, and I always preface it with, “I’m really not a touchy-feely, kumbaya kind of person, but this is backed by science!” As summarized by Beilock:
“...when a female college student is asked to describe several different facets of herself — to give a complete description of herself as a woman, athlete, friend, family member, artist, and actor — she is less likely to screw up on a high-stakes math test than if she weren’t asked to think about all those complexities.”
To put this into practice, Beilock recommends that you “map out your complexities” by “drawing a diagram of everything that makes you a multifaceted individual.” For instance, I write “Jennifer” in a circle at the center of my page, and then I create some lines going out to other circles that say things like “strong sense of justice” and “kind to cats.” (Beilock also recommends writing about your interests, and even writing about your worries, but the diagram is easiest to complete in a couple of minutes.)
Why does this silly-seeming technique work? Basically, any strategy that minimizes the importance of the test and instead places emphasis on your values and worth as a person will have a similar effect.
If you have a performance review coming up, or a big presentation, try the diagram technique to help reaffirm your view of yourself. You’re a good person and your boss’s feedback can’t change that; you don’t need to fear speaking in front of people because you’re fabulous and making great contributions, so most people want you to do well.
Jennifer Dziura has worked in the test prep industry for a decade and is author of or contributor to over a dozen educational books. She has a perfect GRE score and a 780 GMAT. She runs a GRE Meetup group in NYC, where she is nice to people.