Tunnel Vision


Monday, March 5th, 8:00 a.m.

The woman at the desk had a thick Russian accent.

”Papers, please.” I complied. “Place your left palm on the scanner”. I waited as an image of the veins in my palm was taken, praying she wouldn’t notice my hands slightly trembling.

Was I infiltrating a hostile country, Jason Bourne-style? (Nope.) Did she actually say "papers, please"? (Ok, maybe not.) Would anyone mistake me for Jason Bourne? (Actually, I once was told I looked like Matt Damon - a memory I unsurprisingly treasure.) 

In reality, I was just at a testing center to take the GMAT (the traditional business school standardized test). Next week, I’m headed to Santa Barbara to record a GMAT course, and I wanted to actually take the thing first.

Can you solve this GMAT question? I will shake your hand if so.

(If you've never taken a computer test at a testing center, it's intense. Palm vein scan, metal detectors, the whole nine yards. Not exactly good for anyone with test anxiety.)

Now, I’m not a complete GMAT expert, but I’m pretty good at the test (after all, I teach standardized tests for a living). But once I got to the math section, I noticed something strange happening.

When a new question would pop up on the screen, I sometimes wouldn’t quite let myself read it fully. I would often quickly latch on to the part of the question I thought I could work with and ignore the rest. Yep - I had tunnel vision.

Of course, what I should have done, and what I teach students to do, is to take a few seconds to look at the big picture of a question. The idea is to see if there are any reasoning opportunities, think about the best strategy, etc. 

But when you’re inexperienced, worried about finishing, trying to score really high, and, as a result, rushing, it’s tough to follow that advice.

When students are taking the SAT and ACT, it’s quite common for them to lack experience. They not only need to DO practice tests, but they need to REHEARSE performing under the same conditions as the real test.

This means that proctored, official practice tests, or at least having someone time them when they take tests, are essential. This helps create the same emotional state as they'll experience during the real test. When students time themselves, it's just not the same.

Of course, doing lots and lots of different questions to build experience is important, too. This will make it easier to see the big picture of a question, or at least to increase their comfort level with it to the point that tunnel vision is less likely to happen. 

The Bottom Line

If you’re serious about test performance, you need to be serious about test rehearsal. Suit up, make the conditions realistic, and practice like you want to play, so you don’t get tunnel vision during those crucial test-day moments.

Questions For Discussion

1.. DO I look like Matt Damon? Even slightly? 

2.. When’s the last time you experienced tunnel vision?


P.S. We have summer SAT and ACT classes scheduled! Check them out here.

Also: If you (yes, you) happen to know of any high schools in need of an on-site SAT or ACT class, please tell them we're available!

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