“Participants who spent four days in the woods away from all technology reported a fifty percent gain in reasoning skills upon their return.” – Sheldon Cooper (Fictional theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate), The Big Bang Theory
In many ways, the GMAT, GRE, and SAT/ACT are gateways to the peak of academic achievement. They are designed to test your reasoning skills rather than just your knowledge. As such, they assess the clarity and flexibility of your thought in a variety of different formats. Working hard to prepare for these exams is obviously important, but striving only in a purely standard scholastic manner may not be enough.
In fact, students frequently develop a variety of negative habits over the course of their academic lives. These habits can reduce the very clarity and flexibility tested by these standardized exams. Mental and physical fitness are related to issues such as poor time management and careless mistakes. Therefore, neglecting these foundational aspects of test preparation can negate all of one’s hard work.
As a professional test-prep consultant, one of my initial tasks is to help test takers appreciate the cause/effect relation between bad habits and poor performance. This helps them strategically cultivate new, healthier habits by the time of their examination. In this article, I want to focus on habits you can adopt during your preparation timeline and things you can do on the exam day in order to optimize your fitness.
1. Sleep Habits:
If you have a habit of studying all night before the exam day, now is the time to change. Lack of adequate sleep is actually dangerous throughout your preparation period. While you are asleep, your brain reviews what it experiences while awake. Accordingly, adequate sleep is vital for any tasks requiring memory recollection. Insufficient sleep exacerbates confusion and faulty reasoning.
2. Physical Health:
A healthy body is a harbinger of a healthy mind. When you are preoccupied with the exam, it’s easy and convenient to ignore your general health. However, maintaining good physical health does not have to be difficult. I suggest simple habits. Eating wholesome foods, exercising, maintaining proper posture, taking a walk, and drinking enough water can improve your health significantly and set a great foundation for your mental fitness.
Adequate exposure to sunlight helps release serotonin, a hormone associated with mood boost and feeling of calmness. Techniques such as mindfulness meditation and breathing exercises can improve your concentration and rejuvenate your mind for a new study session.
Since studying continuously can be tiring, consider incorporating a relaxation routine after an arduous study session. Most people start losing focus after two to three hours of studying, so take a short break. Treat yourself with a quick snack. Maybe watch something funny or just take a stroll.
4. Endurance Training:
I suggest working for four hours without a break twice per week. This may sound contrary to what I said above, but I promise it’s not. If you were preparing to run a marathon, you would want to ensure you can run that distance several times without crashing. The GMAT and GRE are three to four hours long, and the SAT and ACT are both about three hours. You want to make sure you can comfortably endure the pressure of the test for at least that long without getting tired or hungry or angry.
Endurance is a skill, so it improves naturally with repeated conscious effort.
5. Avoid Over Studying:
Out of desperation to get a certain score, one can easily fall into the unhealthy habit of studying “too much.” There is no magic number for the number of study hours per day, so do some trial and error and check your individual limits. If you are feeling tired and sluggish, then stop studying and do something else. If you are too sleepy to study, just take a nap or go to bed.
In particular, a few days prior to the test, over-studying can be counterproductive. Instead, spend some time in nature or around greenery. I advise my students to stop studying 24-48 hours before exam day and do something fun to relax their brains.
Constant distractions can make training slow and inefficient. You may be more productive studying 3-4 hours in a quiet place such as a library than 6-7 hours at home if the environment is distracting.
7. Digital Fasting
It’s no secret that digital fasting is helpful. It not only improves your focus and productivity, but also helps you relax and sleep better. Consider spending some time once a week (or more often) away from phones, computers, and particularly social media. This serves as a detox for your brain and resets your mind to a more organic state.
The Sheldon Cooper quote is quite relevant here, and bears repeating: “Participants who spent four days in the woods away from all technology reported a fifty percent gain in reasoning skills upon their return.” While he may be fictional, the message is quite real.
If mismanaged, test prep can be a long and potentially stressful journey, so it’s important to be focused on your goals. One way to motivate yourself is to visualize your success. Just think about how amazing your life will be once you get admissions to your dream schools. Then think about what you need to do now, and let your dreams motivate you.
In the beginning, a huge pile of tasks can seem overwhelming. Of course, having an overall plan for your prep is essential, but breaking the material into small more manageable projects will make the process significantly easier and reduce anxiety. As many spiritual gurus say, focus only on the task at hand.
10. Just do it!:
Many have the bad habit of waiting for the perfect moment to get their test preparation started. They look for easy reasons to justify their procrastination. GMAT, GRE, SAT or ACT test prep is a marathon, not a sprint, so starting earlier is better. You will see better results if you spread out your prep over many months. There is no perfect time to start, so start now.
If you are having a hard time getting started, just start reading the official book from page one. You can also take a set of 10 practice questions or a diagnostic test. I promise that once you get started, it’s much easier to continue. In a week or two, you may actually start looking forward to more…
On The Exam Day:
Getting a good quality eight to nine hours’ sleep will tremendously improve your concentration, something absolutely essential for standardized tests. Going into your test feeling fresh and rested can provide a psychological edge by increasing your confidence.
2. Foods that provide energy for a long period:
Since GMAT, GRE, SAT and ACT tests are all long and energy consuming, it’s advised to eat a healthy diet and a balanced proportion of slow burning carbohydrates, protein and fats. There are plenty of resources online addressing pre-examination diets.
Also, carry snacks to eat during the 10-minute break. You will have access to your backpack during the break. Hydrating yourself is also important. Just be careful not to overdo it right before the exam. You don’t want to lose time taking bathroom breaks in the middle of a section.
3. Relax with light exercise/yoga, shower, tea, meditation:
Different people have different ways to relax, but the aforementioned techniques are effective for most people. Many of my past students reported that a short stroll before a practice test improved their focus. Apparently, chewing gum before the test may help reduce anxiety, and there is empirical evidence to support that claim. There is nothing to lose from chewing gum, so you can consider trying it.
I have worked with several students who have had test anxiety. Some even had to seek professional assistance. If you feel that you may need help, find out earlier in the process what works best for you. Consult an expert if you are seeking a temporary solution for this one day, especially if you are considering medications.
4. Warm up, just a little:
Although studying too much is discouraged on the test day, it’s a good idea to warm up a little. Maybe solve one or two questions of each type, but no more.
This may seem like obvious advice, but breathing consciously when you are nervous can be magical. Science agrees that deep breathing helps reduce stress and anxiety by signaling the central nervous system to calm down.
You can even start every single question with a deep breath.
6. Stay calm and let go:
This is easier said than done, but it’s not worth losing your temper over one or two problems. No test is ideal, even for near perfect scorers. If you make a mistake, just forget about it and focus on problems that follow. Move on quickly to fight the next battle.
Finally, DO NOT overthink the test. Believe in your training. If you have done your part, there is a great chance that you will get the score you deserve. Make sure you have reviewed the list of all your recurring careless mistakes. Remember important things such as time-management plans, and be aware of the pitfalls throughout the test.
I wish you good luck with the exam. You can do it!