I’ve talked to a ton of students recently who were surprised by some detail of test day”and that detail affected their performance. In most of these cases, the surprising detail was actually exactly what should have happened, according to the official rules. So let’s talk about what’s going to happen when you finally get in there to take the test.
When you arrive
There will be some kind of outer waiting area, followed by an inner office containing the biometric equipment and finally the inner sanctum: the testing room.
When you first arrive, you’ll be asked to read (and digitally sign) a bunch of legalese. Basically, you’ll promise not to share anything that you see with anyone else and you affirm that you’re only taking the test for the purposes of applying to business school. You have to sign this document or you won’t be allowed to take the test.
You’ll also be asked for your ID. Check the guidelines to determine what kind of ID you must bring. Further, when you’re registering for the test, make sure that the name and birthdate you enter into the registration system match exactly what’s written on the piece of ID you’ll use to enter the test center.
But wait! You’re not done with security yet. They’ll take a digital photo of you. You’ll also have the veins in your palm digitally scanned”turns out our palm veins are even more unique than fingerprints. Who knew?
Finally, before you enter the inner sanctum, you’ll be asked to place all of your belongings (except for your ID) into a locker to which you will have the key. Everything goes in this locker: your wallet or purse, your money, your mobile phone, your keys, everything. Do not bring any study notes into the test center with you; your test will be cancelled immediately even if you simply leave these in your locker! Don’t use any electronic devices at any time”not your phone, not your iPod, nothing. Do not write anything down during the breaks, even if you’re just writing down your grocery list. Don’t give them any reason to think that you might be cheating.
Starting the test
You’ll be given a 5-page booklet of laminated paper on which to take notes. If you use up the booklet, raise your hand and a proctor will come to see what you need. He or she will give you a new booklet in place of the used one.
If at all possible, try to plan your scrap work such that you need no more than those 5 pages during one section. Then, ask for a new booklet at the end and you’ll start the Quant and Verbal sections with a fresh booklet each time.
During the test, you are allowed to request a new note booklet at any time, even if you haven’t finished using up the last one. I have heard reports of some proctors refusing such requests; if this happens, ask again (politely). Tell them that you specifically asked ahead of time and that GMAC (the organization that owns the GMAT) confirmed that you do not need to use up a test booklet in order to request a new one. They know that it’s an advantage to be able to switch the booklets at the breaks rather than in the middle of a section and they don’t want to prevent you from having that advantage.
You’ll also be allowed to take some tissues into the room with you, but not your own tissues. You’ll have to use the tissues provided by the test center. If you need more, raise your hand and the proctor will bring you more. Note that you aren’t allowed to have an unlimited supply; someone could conceivably write information on tissues and conceal them.
If you’re concerned about noise, you’ll also have the option to use earplugs or noise-cancellation headphones. You can’t bring your own; the test center will provide these.
Now, here’s one of the things that I’ve heard surprised some recent test-takers: you are not permitted to write down notes or set up your scrap paper before the test starts. When you sit down, the proctor will start up the test. There is a short sequence at the beginning where you read some test instructions and select the schools to which you plan to send your scores.
You can try to jot down some timing benchmarks or a few formulas while these pre-test sections are up, but the proctors may tell you to stop. If so, listen to what they say. Don’t plan to be able to spend any time at all writing things down ahead of time. Strip your desired notes down to the bare minimum needed”and practice writing efficiently!
When break-time rolls around, you have a choice: you can take the break or you can continue on with the test. (I strongly recommend that you take the break.) And here’s the second item that I’ve heard people express a lot of surprise about lately: you cannot stay in your seat during the break. You either take the break, in which case you must leave the room, or you keep going with the test.
The break is 8 minutes long”but, wait, you don’t have your watch! It’s in your locker. The testing center is required to have a clock on the wall in every room; when you first arrive, check for a clock in the outer waiting area. If no clock is visible or if the clock has stopped working, say something to the proctors right away!
As soon as you get out to the waiting room, look at the clock. Plan for about 6 minutes (because it takes about a minute to get out of the room and another minute to get back in).
Then open up your locker and have something to eat and drink. Walk around. Stretch. Touch your toes and do a few jumping jacks. Use the restroom. Don’t sit down, don’t start reading a magazine, and don’t start thinking about well, anything really. Not the test, or how you’re doing on the test, or what you’re going to do after the test is over. Just try to empty your brain and think only about what you’re actually doing: stretching, eating, drinking. If you have a favorite song, play it in your head.
When you head back into the testing center, they’ll scan your palm again and also match you against your digital photo. This takes a minute”plan for it.
How else can I get ready?
GMAC has posted a short video showing how the test center works; I highly recommend watching this video ahead of your test date. The mba.com site also contains other resources about what to expect on test day (follow the link in the previous sentence). If you are even a little bit nervous about the test (and most of us are!), read through everything. The more you know about what to expect, the better prepared you’ll be to handle your nerves on test day.