GMAT Gurus Speak Out: Don't Underestimate the Importance of Good Nutrition!

We’re back with the next installment in an occasional series on the Veritas Prep Blog, called “GMAT Gurus Speak Out.” Veritas Prep has dozens of experienced GMAT instructors around the world (all of whom have scored in the 99th percentile on the GMAT), and it’s amazing how much collective experience they have in preparing students for the exam. This new series brings some of their best insights to you. Our latest tip comes courtesy of Rich Zwelling, a Veritas Prep GMAT instructor in New York.

If you’re reading this, you’ve likely been preparing for the GMAT for a good while already. You’ve learned all the ins and outs of prime factorization. You’ve worked and re-worked participial modifiers until you’re ready to scream. You’ve agonized over this stupid Integrated Reasoning business and asked “Why now? Why me?”

One thing you likely haven’t been thinking about is how you’re going to feed yourself on test day. After all, that can wait. You obviously can’t devote precious brain power to thinking about food when you’re stressing out about your time management.

So you decide to forgo any worries about nutrition, and before you know it, you’re entering the fourth and final hour of this interminable exam. Suddenly, you find yourself struggling just to focus. You’re on autopilot: you see a question and reflexively start to write stuff down, but you’re not really there mentally. You can no longer make clear decisions, and you find yourself having to guess before you feel you’ve even understood the problems. Everything starts to blur together, and your only thought is getting to the end as soon as possible. And worst of all, you no longer care about doing well, because you can’t even devote energy to thinking about it.

Sound familiar? Sound like something that’s happened during your practice exams? It’s not just you. It’s basic biology.

Marathon analogies are inevitable when talking about the GMAT, and they start to sound hackneyed after a while. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t true. I’m currently training for my first marathon, and on my longer runs (i.e. more than an hour), I make sure I pack some calories with me. Why? I need to refuel my muscles so that I can continue without physical and mental fatigue.

Believe it or not, your approach to test day should not be any different! Sure, you’re just sitting in a chair. But your brain is on overdrive, and just like any part of your body, it needs calories to continue to function at peak performance. Specifically, your brain needs glucose to avoid what is commonly known as “decision fatigue” (which I described in the unfortunate test-day situation above).

So, you might already be in the practice of plowing through a full practice exam with no breaks and no food intake. If this is the case, may I humbly suggest…STOP!! If you’re running a marathon, sure, you have to train for months and months to make sure your body is endurance-ready. But that’s not enough. Would you skip breakfast on race morning? Would you run the race and never take in any fluids or calories? Would you justify such action by saying “I don’t have time to think about it. I’ve gotta focus on technique.”

This is like trying to drive from LA to New York and saying you don’t have time to stop for gas. It just doesn’t work that way. And by the time you get to the latter parts of the exam, your brain is running on empty.

So that being said, how should you approach nutrition leading into test day? The night before the test, make sure you have a healthy, balanced dinner that has a good amount of protein and complex carbs and a minimal amount of fat. Low-fat meat options like chicken or turkey or low-fat beef are good, and if you consume any bread products, make sure they have complex carbs. Foods like whole-wheat bread and pasta work well. Don’t forget green leafy vegetables! By the way, I also recommend that you try making these changes to your diet little-by-little leading up to test day, so you get into a new routine. This might be a pain, but it will be well worth it come test day.

The morning of the test, eat breakfast! And you want to eat foods that will give you sustained energy. Skip the sugary, fatty pastries! They will give you a brief burst of energy, but then you’ll come crashing down soon after. Instead, go for things like whole-grain cereals, eggs, milk, and yogurt. These are rich in protein and/or complex carbs, which ensure that you have sustained sources of energy.

And a word on caffeine: if you are in the habit of having a cup of coffee in the morning and cannot get started without it, then fine, go ahead. It’s important that you maintain that routine. However, don’t overdo it with repeat cups. Caffeine is a diuretic, and if consumed in excessive amounts, it can lead to unscheduled bathroom breaks during the test. And remember, even if you leave the exam room, the clock still keeps ticking.

Once at the testing center, you’ll have to put all your belongings into a locker, but during your two breaks, you’ll want to return to your locker and refuel with quick bursts of glucose and maybe even a small amount of protein. Definitely bring a large sugary beverage of some type. No diet drinks! Your brain is tearing through calories and needs the fuel! Lemonade or fruit juice is a good choice. You could also drink a non-caffeinated full-calorie soda, although the carbonation might lead to some unwanted belching.

Also bring fruit! They have the vitamins and minerals you’ll need to keep you going. I find bananas are ideal in this situation. You could even bring a mix of dried fruit and/or a trail mix that includes fruit and nuts. Energy bars are also good, as long as you wash them down with some fluids to ensure quicker absorption. You could also try things like granola bars, hummus, or even a small sandwich with some vegetables and a minimal amount of meat. All these foods replenish your body’s glucose levels and give you a quick burst to combat decision fatigue. And the small amount of protein will provide a more extended source of energy so you won’t come crashing down.

You don’t need me to tell you that studying is important. But once you’ve gotten your brain into the shape of a high-performance sports car, are you going to feed it low-octane fuel? Or worse…no fuel at all?! Making sure you keep up with good nutrition will ensure that you maximize your performance on test day.

So if you still have some time to take more full practice tests, start experimenting with some of the foods I’ve mentioned. See what combinations work best for you. And also, feel free to do your own research on glucose and decision fatigue for more information on what eating habits can best aid you during the exam!

Bon App├ętit!

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