Tag Archives | test anxiety

The Growth Mindset and the MBA Leadership Essays

MBA leadershipI am not a very good athlete, so you can imagine everyone’s surprise when I decided to pick up a new sport. I decided to learn to row – not in a traditional rowboat, but in a long skinny shell with two 10-foot oars. It isn’t that hard, except you’ve got to do a few things right or you end up in the water.

But to really enjoy it, at least for me, I had to accept the fact that I was a novice.  And that meant not expecting myself to get it perfect from the very beginning.  As I found myself cursing my inability to square my blades, I realized that my mind was not allowing me to enjoy what should be a serene, zen-like experience.

I was guilty of what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls the “fixed” mindset instead of the more constructive “growth” mindset.  Dweck is an authority on things like brain science and learning. In her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” she describes the growth mindset as a far superior method for transforming effort into success.  The growth mindset allows you to focus on self-development, self-motivation, and responsibility for results.  A growth mindset keeps you from saying, “I’m a natural-born loser,” and instead saying, “I need to work harder at this.”  In a growth mindset, people are not afraid to make an error, look silly, or show a deficiency.

The growth mindset represents a key leadership characteristic.  It’s no surprise that since 2015, Kellogg’s MBA program has this preface to one of the application questions: Pursuing an MBA is a catalyst for personal and professional growth. How have you grown in the past? How do you intend to grow at Kellogg? 

Dweck’s decades of research are particularly relevant for people aiming for business school.  The growth mindset resonates on a strategic level, considering the personal leadership attributes sought by admissions officers of most business schools. It also resonates on a tactical level, in studying for the GMAT or GRE.


The Strategic: Leading
Business schools seek out people with attributes that will make them leaders who will change the world for the better. They are looking for people who don’t give up and see hurdles as a challenge. They want people who can learn from others to improve themselves and their environment.  I worked with one student, now on his way to Wharton, who appeared on the surface to be an all-or-nothing high achiever. At first, he looked like the “typical MBA,” never a good sign. But later, in his application and interview, he mentioned something both disarming and revealing: he never learned to swim. So as an adult, he decided to jump in.  When discussing his recent lessons in swimming, he said “It is never too late for a fervent beginner.” That’s the growth mindset.

The Tactical: Testing
Standardized tests demand a growth mindset. The computer-adapted tests, which give you harder questions if you answer right and easier questions if you score wrong, can send the fixed-mindset student into a failure spiral that will ruin any chances of a decent score.  The growth mindset, however, allows the student to work toward mastery. To put the time and the effort into learning the material and the process.   The growth mindset allows the student to embrace the possibility that skills can be learned (they can), and that sustained effort (and a good coach) leads to accomplishment.  The person with a growth mindset loves to conquer a challenge, while the person with the fixed mindset demands perfection right away.

There may have been a time when business schools were looking only for people with natural-born talent.  But as the world has changed and management science has evolved, MBA  programs want growth-mindset types in their classes. They want people who are willing to try new things, and are prepared to not be perfect the first time out.  They want people who think of themselves as works in progress.

And that’s why learning a new sport (or skill, or technique, or trick) isn’t so bad. I know I was clumsy and got it all wrong with my first attempt at rowing. But no harm done.  I’ll just keep trying until I get it right.

Whenever that may be.

Why You Should Take a Test Prep Course

I’m surprised that so many students who want to go to graduate school don’t feel the need to take a test-prep course. Most of them are well worth the investment.

I can’t stand standardized tests. They test only one thing: test-taking ability. But they are here to stay, and students who want to earn their MBA , or other top professional program from a top school, should get really high scores. Especially in quant.

Both the GMAT and the GRE, the former being the primary business school entry hurdle, are computer adaptive tests.  That means that more correct responses will lead to harder questions. So those who suffer even the slightest anxiety about the test are faced with another layer of uncertainty. First, there’s the voice that says, “I am afraid I don’t know the material.” Then there’s the voice that says, “I don’t have enough time to answer” and now there’s the voice that says, “this question is easier than I had expected…so I must be doing badly!” It’s exhausting.

This is Your Brain on Anxiety
The brain doesn’t like these conversations. Neuroscientific research has taught us that such anxiety hijacks our ability to think. In very simple terms, limbic system, (the part of the brain that tells the body to breathe, pump blood, and run away from predators) disrupts the “working memory.”

A test prep course, or, if you prefer, a one-on-one tutor, can help you reduce that anxiety, and at a minimum, improve your ability to recall information.

Let’s look at the benefits one-by-one.

1. You will learn the material – the test looks for analytic ability, especially in the quantitative section. You need to brush up on your math. Certainly you can do it from books on your own, but the test is designed to trip you up. Call it mean-spirited. The knowledge itself is important, but you want somebody to walk you through the way to think about the problem.

2. You’ll improve your timing – It’s a timed test, so you need to be very efficient in your responses. You cannot skip a question and you cannot go back. At a minimum, a course or tutor can help you become familiar enough with the material so you can use your precious minutes figuring out the answer rather than figuring out the question.

3. Focus – Standardized tests are about the process of taking the test as much as they are about the material. A good course and a good teacher will teach you how to approach your studying and your test taking. You should take advantage of the prep coach or company’s resources to learn how to master the process.

4. Discipline – You cannot cram for a test like the GMAT. According to Doug Barg, a former master GMAT teacher at Kaplan and a very smart guy, you should study for at least three months, preferably six. Check out his classic blogpost here. If nothing else, a course will help you break up the studying so that you will not only learn, but retain more. A course will also encourage you to take more practice tests than you will on your own. It just works that way.

5. Confidence – A course will help you be more confident. It will help you practice, which should help you feel more confident.  And the more genuinely confident you are, the better you’ll score.

It’s possible that you do not suffer from anxiety; not everyone is that high strung. In that case, a course can only help you improve even more dramatically by familiarizing yourself with material and test process. And you are being measured against all other test takers, many of whom will have taken a course.  You are competing; why wouldn’t do whatever you can to get the edge?

A formal training program with a teacher or coach is worth the investment. There are lots of classes, online courses, tutors, coaches, and more. I know trainers at Manhattan GMAT, Kaplan, Veritas, Test Prep NY (good for test anxiety), Knewton, and new players like Magoosh (interesting! worth checking out) I also know some awesome individual tutors. I can get you discounts on some of them, introduce you to others, or just talk it through. Just email me at betsy@masteradmissions.com for a chat.


GMAT tests how you take a test

In recent weeks, I’ve heard from disappointed GMAT test takers that they scored well on the practice tests, but bombed out during the actual test.  That usually means they have to study all over again, retake the exam, and spend time worrying about data sufficiency when they could be refining their essays or making sure their recommenders are in line.

An admissions officer gave me this GMAT tip: do your practice exams in a really noisy place.  The test center has a lot of distractions, and it is different from your cozy home.  A student the admissions officer knows knows tested well at home but not as well in the test center. The student  was a frequent flyer, so each time he had to travel, he went to the airport several hours early and practiced in the boarding lounge.

He nailed the GMAT.

The test center can be noisy and annoying. It’s just one of the distractions you need to deal with.

Here’s another case — one student, who is a decent writer, obsessed about mistakes she may have made on her AWA while she was doing the quant section.  An “A” student in calculus, she was disappointed by her first quant results, but ended up getting a 5.5 on the AWA.  Her worries definitely led her astray.

If you have test anxiety, consider learning some techniques.  Dr. Ben Bernstein, a performance coach, has written a book called <i>The Workbook for Test Success.</i>. Look for it on Amazon Workbook for Test Success. Or his own website http://workbookfortestsuccess.com.