Smokers Beware!

I smoke. That’s right, one or two of us, despite all the research and lecturing and (often) revolting anti-smoking campaigns, still exercise our free will and engage in a behavior we know is bad for us, and against which we’re too addicted or stubborn or ignorant to revolt.

I’m okay going outside to smoke, in the cold and wind and snow. I’m totally for not smoking around kids. I’m even okay with the constant “Tisk-tisk, don’t you know how unhealthy that is” and the “You should quit” and the looks of indignation, mortification, or disdain on the faces of passersby (not to mention my mom).

But before you ask what’s this got to do with the GMAT, let me go ahead and answer: Not too long ago I took the GMAT. I went in with a couple other Bell Curves instructors during the research study for the new in Integrated Reasoning section, and it didn’t go exactly according to plan. Why? Cigarettes. Or rather, the lack thereof.

I get to the testing center around 12pm for my 12:30 appointment. I’ve taken the GMAT a number of times before – most recently in Munich, Germany and Marquette, MI (I blogged about both experiences here and here) – and since I teach prep courses for the GMAT I’m fairly familiar with the test. The breaks are short – now 8 minutes – and as I wait for all the security procedures associated with check in, I roll myself a couple of cigarettes (yes, I’m one of those).

Naturally, I come in for a bit of ribbing from my colleagues there with me. Then, from the Pearson rep at the check in desk, I hear something that leaves me nearly gasping for breath: “You can’t leave the premises at any time. For any reason.”

She wasn’t talking to me, but might as well should have been. A moment before, I was happily anticipating my run down to the street at the first break. You see, I smoke more or less one cigarette every couple hours. Moreover, I’ve become conditioned to want a cigarette after (or during) stressful events. The GMAT, even for me, involves more stress than sitting at the office. Moreover, during the practice GMAT I took beforehand I took a few minutes to smoke a cigarette during each break. Moreover, all the other times I’ve taken an official GMAT was able to go out and indulge my habit, er addiction, er desires.

Here though, it was not to be. Having happily rolled my cigarette (Exhibit B), I went into the test, breezed through my AWA Essays with sarcastic aplomb, and figured I might as well burn through the Quant too because I might only get one shot at smoke break.

Wrapping up the Quant I was taxed, and jonesing for a smoke. I went through the required procedures. At my locker I was putting my cigarette case in my pocket when I heard a familiar voice, “You can’t use your cell phone, sir!”

I look up to find the Pearson agent grilling me like Sgt. Slaughter, sans Aviators. “I’m not,” I say, taking my phone from the locker as proof.

“Then what did you just put in your pocket?”

Is she kidding? It’s not my phone, what the hell business is it of hers? I should have just said it’s my insulin (I’m not diabetic), but I was fried and really not on my clandestine game. “My cigarette case,” I say. I know it’s lost as soon as the words escape my mouth.

She reiterates that I can’t leave the premises. So now I’m fried and furious and even more in need of a smoke. Seems like a great time to rock some Verbal and a practice IR section.

Or not. My focus was shot. I couldn’t concentrate, found myself rereading questions two or three times just for them to make sense. By the time the IR rolled around I was a complete mess. My brain felt like putty getting kneaded by some little kid’s hot, sweaty hands. It felt so bad I actually feared GMAC might think I hadn’t taken the research IR section seriously and would withhold the $25 rebate promised to all those who took it “in good faith.”

I finished up, got my scores, staggered through security and out into the street, where I chain smoked the two cigarettes I’d rolled nearly FIVE hours before. I often go without smoking cigarettes for stretches of 5 or more hours…every night when I go to sleep that is. I routinely go three hours without a cigarette, but usually when I’m engaged in something decidedly not stressful, and usually athletic. But over three hours of GMAT without a cigarette? Harsh. Nearly five hours without? Cruel and unusual punishment as far as I’m concerned.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t carp about this, but there’s a reason: it’s quite unfair to prevent people from smoking if they smoke. It’s an unfair advantage for those who don’t. Let me explain. GMAC makes a big deal of ensuring that everyone’s testing experience is fair. They vet questions religiously. They research and implement security procedures that leave you half-expecting a strip search – bend, cough and all (they even make you pull out your pockets like some common criminal every time you enter the room). They have procedures in the the testing room to ensure no distractions. They have phone and email reps on stand-by for test-takers to report

Addiction - Exibit B

suspected “unfair testing conditions.”

And yet, they sub-contract another company to conduct all the tests. Worse, this company inconsistently operates their various facilities. Keep in mind that I’ve left for smoke breaks for every other Computer Adaptive Test I’ve ever taken. Keep in mind that GMAC says procedures are dictated by the respective facilities, yet nowhere can you find a list of what these “procedures” are. Part of a “fair testing environment” is consistent application of procedure. Essentially, a segment of the testing population has an UNFAIR advantage at centers that aren’t Herald Square in NYC.

I tried to call the so-called “Fair Testing” hotline. You can guess what they told me. Just another place where smokers get the short end of the butt.

All kidding (and whining) aside, the simple existence of these inconsistencies engenders an unfair testing experience. Simply universalizing the conditions, then making those conditions available to the public, would make it level for everyone. As it were, my verbal score dipped about 7 points from my average (49/48 –> 41), and the total score fell as a consequence. I still scored over 700, and I really couldn’t care less what the final score was since I’m never going to apply to business school. But what if, like so many of my students, I was primed and ready to take my 1st, 2nd, or 3rd test, had been studying hard for months and was ready to show my stuff in time for Round 2 applications. What if, instead of the score I should have gotten, I got a score that knocked me from “full scholarship” to hello $150,000 debt? Or from ‘you’re accepted!!‘ to ‘sorry, thanks for you $250 application fee‘?

So, what’s the moral of the story here? The takeaways if you will?

1) Plan for all anomalies and all contingencies – I should have recognized that smoking was/is an integral part of my test-taking approach (the prudence or health of such a circumstance is irrelevant here). Given that, I should have considered the possibility that I might not be able to leave. I could have taken steps to minimize the potential impact of not being able to smoke during the test – from practicing without smoke breaks to (the more unsavory) procurement of a nicotine patch or chewing tobacco (see photo: Addiction – Exhibit C). Instead, I was caught unawares, and my score suffered for it.

Addiction - Exhibit C

2) As always, practice like it’s the game (in all facets) – As alluded to in 1 above, practicing without smoke breaks could have prepared me for the situation I faced on test day. We often fail to realize how much variance can exist between practice tests and the real test. When practicing, do you have a perfectly austere environment in which to take tests? Guess what? The testing environment is anything but austere. Conversely, are you annoyed by the deadened silence of earplugs or the bulkiness of noise-canceling headphones? Guess what? Those are only two options to cancel out the annoying guy/girl next to you who sighs incessantly, drums on the table, or reads aloud at a level just noticeable enough to throw you off your game but not enough to alert the overseer assiduously studying your visage on his video feed. The more you know about the test environment, and the better you can replicate it during practice, the better your score will be.

3) Don’t Smoke – Just kidding. Smoke’em if you want to. It’s your life. If you do, just be sure you plan accordingly for GMAT test day. Your score is likely a lot more important to you than mine was to me.

Until next time…

Editor’s note: SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, And May Complicate Pregnancy.

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