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GMAT Prep & Math Anxiety: Practical Tips for Defeating the Beast!

GMAT prep

Read time: 5 minutes

Is “math anxiety” throwing off your GMAT prep? Thinking you might abandon the exam altogether because of those dreaded quant sections?

You’re definitely not alone. Studies show that math-related stress is on the rise. In fact, a recent survey commissioned by Change the Equation (an education advocacy group), found that a whopping 29% of Americans say, “I can’t do math.”

Survey participants reported strong feelings of inadequacy and fear when faced with everyday math problems.  These feelings run so deep, that a full 30% said they’d rather scrub a dirty bathroom then attempt a simple calculation! This might be funny if it wasn’t so worrying.

Math anxiety is a formidable beast. It feeds on avoidance, negativity, and a grievous miss-judgement of your own quantitative abilities. Low confidence in math takes out many smart, capable GMAT challengers every year.

So how can you defeat the beast, uncover your true math skills, and achieve your best possible score on the GMAT’s quant sections?

Here are a few proven strategies to get started.

1. Start With Basic, Non-threatening GMAT Math Topics

If math stresses you out, don’t pile on the pressure by tackling advanced GMAT topics like quadratics, probability, and exponents, right out of the gate. Set those aside for now.

Go back to the basics. Build your confidence by reviewing simple, foundational GMAT math, such as fractions, decimals, and percents.

Professor Paula Sloan from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business works with GMAT candidates who show potential, but are weak in math. She advises them to go back to when they first lost their way in math, and start with those basic concepts.

Sloan says, “I don’t believe that there is a math gene that can be turned on, but you can go back and then build up from there…go back to what you’re comfortable with and then go forward. This always seems to work.”

2. Don’t Isolate Yourself: Seek out GMAT Prep Support

A big part of Professor Sloan’s strategy involves talking through students’ past struggles with math. Not only is this process therapeutic, it also helps identify bad habits and potentially helpful study techniques for each student.

You may not have access to Professor Sloan, but that doesn’t mean you can’t seek out some personalized help from other sources. Ideas include:

  • joining a GMAT forum, like BEATtheGMAT or GMATclub (there are many discussion threads on math anxiety, which offer tips from test-takers, admissions experts, and prep coaches)


  • attending a free Pre-GMAT Math Refresher, hosted at local business schools by test prep companies (these are great for math-averse students who need help creating a study strategy)


  • signing up for a professional GMAT course or private coaching (you’ll work through hundreds of practice math questions with an expert, and build an arsenal of strategies for tackling tough problems)

Methodical practice, scaled up over time, combined with export support, is ideal for defeating math anxiety. As you begin nailing more and more difficult practice questions, this idea of yourself as “math incompetent” will shrink away.

Using this technique, Sloan has seen GMAT scores improve by as much as 100 points.

3. Demystify the True Source of Your Math-Panic

Are you plagued by sweating palms, darting eyes, and a racing pulse every time you sit down to try a few GMAT math questions? Drawing a blank when faced with challenging problems?

Many students believe these responses are rooted in some complex psychological problem—like a math “phobia” it could take years to get over. This is generally not true.

Your math-panic has a very simple source: lack of familiarity with the topics and question-types you are attempting.  Uncertainty mixes with low self-confidence and sets off a chain reaction, leading to total math meltdown.

What can you do about it? Consider the following:

1) Make sure you set aside enough time to prepare. Plan to study for 150-200 hours, and aim to complete 8-10 practice tests. Inadequate prep leads to uncertainty and panic, because you’re left with gaps in your knowledge.

Check out this post to avoid other, stress-inducing GMAT study mistakes.

2) Don’t just blindly do and re-do practice math questions. You need specific strategies for each topic and question-type. The way you’re approaching tough questions could be the source of your errors—and your mounting frustration.

We all have bad study habits. Flush yours out with some expert help. Sign up for a free GMAT workshop to get the ball rolling.

3) Don’t forget simple stress-reduction techniques, like deep-breathing during practice sessions, making time to burn off anxiety with exercise, and guarding against negative (self-deprecating) thoughts. These are good strategies for anyone tackling the GMAT, not just the math-averse!

Remember, you are likely far better at math than you currently realize. Don’t give up on the GMAT. Follow these tips and you’ll be well on your way to taming the math monster, once and for all.

Check out the links below for some truly helpful (and free) resources.

Click here to see a list of FREE GMAT Math Refreshers happening near you

Click to here to browse all FREE GMAT workshops and events




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