I like to arrive to my Monday evening classes a good half hour early so that I can spend some time talking to my students about how they spent their weekends. It helps me to get to know them, and it allows me to get a sense of the rhythm of their days. Some of my students do interesting things. They travel. They ski in the winters. They rock-climb when it’s warmer. But, unfortunately, they’re a minority.
The most common response is some variation of: I studied for the GMAT. Of course, they should be doing some studying, and I hope that this studying is at times enjoyable. But if an unusually satisfying Data Sufficiency problem is the highlight of your weekend, something is profoundly out of whack in your study-life balance. And yes, at times comments about studying all weekend are exaggerated for comic effect, but I think there is a distressing truth captured in these exchanges: people are so busy and overwhelmed during the week that they end up spending an unhealthy amount of time cramming for the GMAT on the weekends.
This isn’t good.
It isn’t good for the students’ physical or psychological wellbeing; and research is beginning to show that over-studying might be bad for performance as well.
According to one study performed by Stanford University, academic performance for high school students began to deteriorate once the students’ workloads exceeded two hours of homework per night. Now, there’s nothing magic about the figure of two hours – one imagines that people vary in terms of stamina levels, motivation, etc. – but this notion, that doing too much work not only will fail to help you, but also will actively stymie your efforts, is one well worth considering. And though this study involved high school students, there’s no reason to believe that this phenomenon wouldn’t hold for adults preparing for the GMAT. When we overexert ourselves in any capacity, be it physical training, work in the office, or studying, our performance tends to suffer.
I suspect that the most important factor is that if we’re studying too much, there are other beneficial things that we’re not doing. Put another way, if the benefits of additional studying begin to decrease once you’ve been at it for a few hours, wouldn’t it make more sense to use this time to engage in other activities that would not only be more enjoyable but could actually boost your score beyond what more study time could accomplish?
The first, and most obvious consideration is that when we study, we’re typically inactive. (My apologies to anyone who is reading this at their treadmill desk.) The research on the benefits of aerobic exercise on academic performance is unambiguous. Aerobic exercise prompts the brain to generate, not just fresh neural connections, but new neurons, a phenomenon that was considered a physical impossibility as recently as 20 years ago. Students who exercise do better, on average, than those who don’t. We’ve been touting the benefits of exercise at Veritas Prep for years. There’s no reason not to have exercise be a part of your routine. (This is to say nothing of the whole feeling better, being healthier, and living longer perk).
The second, and perhaps more surprising finding, is that socialization can boost intelligence. One study, conducted by the University of Michigan, found that as little as 10 minutes of conversation can boost working memory. Moreover, they found that the total amount of socialization in one’s day was positively correlated with performance on a variety of cognitive tests. (If you’ve been studying for Critical Reasoning, hopefully, you’ve taken a moment to object that correlation isn’t necessarily causation. Yes, you say: it’s possible that socializing causes our brains to work better; but isn’t it also possible that when our brains are functioning optimally, we’re more likely to seek out opportunities for socialization? Not to worry. The experiments were designed to see what happened to a given group that socialized before taking a test, and what happened to that same group when they hadn’t socialized. When controlling for extraneous variables, socialization still had a robust impact on performance.)
Of course, one shouldn’t take any of this research to mean that preparing for this test won’t require a significant time investment. It will. But if you study so much that you stop taking care of yourself and neglect your personal relationships, you will not only make yourself unhappy, you’ll be artificially limiting your intellectual potential. So yes, do those few hours of Data Sufficiency questions. Take a four-hour exam on another day. Just make sure that you’re also taking time to go for a run or to play tennis or to see friends. You’ll be happier and less likely to burn out. And the fact that you’re also likely to do better on the exam with this approach is about as good an ancillary benefit as you’re likely to find.