Paranoia Runs Deep, Into Your Heart It Will Creep


I know what Statement 2 is telling me; it’s saying ˜Become a carpenter!’

Why is this question here? Why am I here?  When’s the civil service exam?  Garbage men still have a union. . .

gmat paranoiaHave you lived that movie?  Paranoia is only human and the old saying is true: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.  Paranoia is a primal reaction, developed to help protect humans from animals with sharp, pointy teeth.  Unfortunately, it is not helpful when one is facing questions with sharp, pointy teeth.  Even though the GMAT is out to get you.  Failing to control your paranoia is a hidden reason for underperforming on the actual exam.

On this blog, I and others have discussed many factors crucial for success: foundation skills, strategies, timing, precision, and so forth.  And it’s like I say about L.A.—everything you ever read [here] about it is true.  However, after honing these skills, after achieving mastery, too many test takers succumb to their paranoia and thus revert when taking the actual exam, especially for the first time.  Even 99th percentile skills will crumble if undermined by irrational panic and the results will not be gratifying.  (Have you ever watched the Chicago Cubs play a post season series?)   To succeed, folks must understand the difference between dispassionate, objective analysis—I’ve never gotten a combinatrics question right in life, why do I think I’ll have a divine inspiration today?—and irrelevant fear—They’re going to tattoo a scarlet L on my forehead.  Just as folks plan question and timing strategies, they must develop tools to banish their internally generated negative visualizations.

How do you tell the difference?  Objective analysis responds to the stimuli on the monitor.  Paranoia is a response to internal doubts.  (Notice how this is parallel to the nature of the exam—search for the answer on the screen, not in the opinions in your head.)  Sometimes, after you’ve read a question twice (everyone has a sinking feeling the first time), you hear yourself singing, I’ve got the ˜I don’t know where I’m going but I’m going nowhere in a hurry’ blues.  That’s the truth, not paranoia.  Bail out.  As one of my acting coaches used to say, Only schizophrenics don’t react to the reality around them.  Conversely, paranoia is when your thoughts of impending disaster revolve around your supposed shortcomings rather than the material on the screen.  As I’ve said before, if while taking the exam you find yourself thinking about how big a dumb ass you are, check the question—if it doesn’t read, Which of the following best describes how big a dumb ass you are?, you’re thinking about the wrong thing.  That is paranoia.  No kidding—you knew that.

Well then, why do people recognize the difference between analysis and paranoia but still succumb to the latter?  Because they try to do the impossible.  They try not to have thoughts of failure.  That’s impossible—you can’t override human nature.  I have feelings of paranoia, even though I’ve always scored in the 99th percentile.  I still have them”even though I don’t really care about my score anymore.  Instead, you have to recognize irrationality in yourself and laugh it off.  I say to myself, Save some of that craziness for menopause.  Then I giggle, read the question again, and really listen to the words.  And if I still don’t get it, I say, Screw them if they can’t take a joke.  And bail out.

Maybe some of you can’t make jokes to yourself during the exam because you’re worried about your entire future.  That’s part of the problem—if a chunk (or all) of your mind is thinking about things other than the words on the monitor, it will lower your score.  It’s the difference between worrying about being the hero or the goat and just seeing the ball and hitting the ball.  Feelings of failure while taking the exam are like stage fright.  That’s what stage fright is—standing up there thinking you look like an idiot.  You say, No, it’s much different—they give me a piece of paper that says I’m an idiot.  No.  Really.  It’s the same.  So, I’ve got another suggestion for you, if you didn’t like the first one.

In acting school, to combat stage fright, the coaches would say, Put that energy into the doing.  When you’re acting that meant really shake hands, really serve the tea, really ask the question, and really listen to the answer, even though you’ve heard it a hundred times before. . .the last one is the hard part, by the way.  It’s the same on the GMAT—put the energy into the doing.  You want to worry about something while you’re taking the test?  Don’t worry about your score.  Worry about really being specific, not assuming, picking what must follow.  Worry about listening to the words.  Worry about recognizing question types and responding efficiently.  Worry about investing in winners and making good guesses on the losers.  That’s putting the energy into the doing.

And, as in life, it’s really a lot easier if you’re on your own side.  Then you can give your full attention to the problems.  Just believe in yourself.  Banish doubts and self-abnegation—it’s a good idea for life in general but especially while you’re taking the GMAT.  You know what they say, Cornerbacks have short memories.  Your internally generated fears are pointless obstacles.  They are also fantasies and no more likely than most of your good fantasies (fill in your own joke here). . .if I made one, they’d send me to re-education camp.  Here, I’ll sing to you:

Just like Mary Shelley,

Just like Frankenstein,

Break your chains,

and count your change,

And try to walk the line.

gmat confusedOkay, I know some of you are saying, Yeah, right.  Or maybe you don’t think you can do so.  I’ve got one more pitch for you—-worrying about your score while you are taking the exam is crazy on top of crazy.  Because YOU CAN NOT TELL HOW YOU ARE DOING WHILE YOU ARE TAKING THE TEST.  You doubt me?  Well, as a grand finale, I’ve got a hugely obnoxious story to illustrate that point.  Back in the bad old days, before Manhattan Prep reached a concordat with the GMAC, instructors used to take the exam once a month.  So my number would come up about once a year—and it was a day shot to hell for me too.  The last time this happened, I was talking to Zeke, the founder and then CEO, and I said, Zeke, the instructors always score 770,780, 790; I know we send clerical but an instructor should get a 630 to check on that level.  He said, That’s a good idea”you go do that.

My mistake was that I didn’t outright throw it; I just did it the way I tell my classes not to for nine weeks.  In other words—I figure both statements together must work, That one sounds good, I think I remember the passage said that, etcetera.  And the questions seemed to be getting easier and easier.  And, yes, my paranoia reared its ugly head and whispered in my ear, You’re going to get a 490.  This is going to be humiliating*.  And the questions kept getting easier.  At the end, with great trepidation, I clicked the score button: 760.  I’d knocked off 30 points instead of 160.  I know you’re throwing up in your mouth a little now, but the point isn’t how smart I am—that’s just collateral damage.  The point is that I’ve been doing this since the LAST CENTURY and I can’t tell within a hundred points how I’m scoringLet it go!  Everyone feels awful.  You can’t tell how you’re doing.  So it’s crazy to worry about it.  Just keep stepping into the punches. . .you know, like Rocky.  Be cool.  Stay calm.  You know what the Spitfire pilots used to say before missions against overwhelming odds?  Good luck and good hunting.  Say that to yourself.

*I was right about one thing—it was humiliating. . .people in the New York office made fun of me for weeks.



  1. James November 12, 2014 at 11:44 pm


    All of your articles are brilliant and hilarious. They were immensely helpful when I was studying to take the GMAT and I always share them with all of my friends and colleagues whenever they are starting their GMAT journey.

    Bravo sir!

    All the best,