GMAT Tip of the Week: Making the Most of Your Mental Stamina

GMAT Tip of the WeekOne of the most fascinating storylines during the current 2015 NBA Finals is that of LeBron James’ workload and stamina. Responsible for such a huge percentage of Cleveland’s offense and a key component of the team’s necessarily suffocating defense, James needs to parcel out his energy usage much like an endurance athlete does in the Tour de France or Ironman World Championships. And it’s fascinating to watch as he slowly walks the ball up the court (killing time to shorten the game and also buying valuable seconds of rest before initiating the offense) and nervously watches his teammates lose ground while he takes his ~2 minute beginning-of-the-4th rest on the bench. At the final buzzer of each game he looks exhausted but thus far has been exhaustedly-triumphant twice. And watching how he handles his energy can teach you valuable lessons about how to manage the GMAT.

At the end of your GMAT exam you will be exhausted. But will you be exhaustedly triumphant? Here are 5 things you can do to help you tiredly walk out of the test center with a championship smile:

1) Practice The Way You’ll Play

The GMAT is a long test. You’ll be at the test center for about 4 hours by the time you’re done, and even during those 8-minute section breaks you’ll be hustling the whole time. Think of it this way: with a 30-minute essay, a 30-minute Integrated Reasoning section, a 75-minute Quant section and a 75-minute Verbal section, you’ll be actively answering questions for 3 hours and 30 minutes – a reasonable time for someone your age to complete a marathon (and well more than an hour off the world record). If you were training for a marathon, you wouldn’t stop your workouts after an hour or 90 minutes each time; at the very least you’d work up to where you’re training for over two hours at least once a week. And the same is true of the GMAT. To have that mental stamina to stay focused on a dense Reading Comprehension passage over 3 hours after you arrived at the test center, you need to have trained your mind to focus for 3+ hours at a time. To do so:

-Take full-length practice tests, including the AWA and IR sections.
-Practice verbal when you’re tired, after a long day of work or after you’ve done an hour or more of quant practice
-Make at least one 2-3 hour study session a part of your weekly routine and stick to it. Work can get tough, so whether it’s a Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon, pick a time that you know you can commit to and go somewhere (library, coffee shop) where you know you’ll be able to focus and get to work.

2) Be Ready For The 8-Minute Breaks

Like LeBron James, you’ll have precious few opportunity to rest during your “MBA Finals” date with the GMAT. You have an 8-minute break between the IR section and the Quant section and another 8-minute break between the Quant section and the Verbal section…and that’s it. And those breaks go quickly, as in that 8 minutes you need to check out with the exam proctor to leave the room and check back in to re-enter. A minute or more of your break will have elapsed by the time you reach your locker or the restroom…time flies when you’re on your short rest period! So be ready:

-Have a plan for your break, knowing exactly what you want to accomplish: restroom, water, snack. You shouldn’t have to make many energy-draining decisions during that time; your mind needs a break while you refresh your body, so do all of your decision-making before you even arrive at the test center.
-Practice taking 8-minute breaks when you study and take practice tests. Know how long 8 minutes will take and what you can reasonably accomplish in that time.

3) Use Energy Wisely

If you’re watching LeBron James during the Finals you’ll see him take certain situations (if not entire plays) off, conserving energy for when he has the opportunity to sprint downcourt on a fast break or when he absolutely has to get out on a ready-to-shoot Steph Curry. For you on the GMAT, this means knowing when to stress over calculations on quant or details on reading comprehension. Most students simply can’t give 100% effort for the full test, so you may need to consider:

-On this Data Sufficiency problem, do you need to finish the calculations or can you stop early knowing that the calculations will lead to a sufficient answer?
-As you read this Reading Comp passage, do you need to sweat the scientific details or should you get the gist of it and deal with details later if a question specifically asks for them?
-With this Geometry problem, is it worth doing all the quadratic math or can you estimate using the answer choices? If you do do the math, are you sure that it will get you to an answer in a reasonable amount of time?

Sometimes the answer is “yes” – if it’s a problem that you know you can get right, but only if you grind through some ugly math, that’s a good place to invest that energy. And other times the answer is “no” – you could do the work, but you’re not so sure you even set it up right and the numbers are starting to look ugly and you usually get these problems wrong, anyway. Practice is the key, and diagnosing how those efforts have gone on your practice tests. You might not have enough mental energy to give all the focus you’d like all day, so have a few triggers in there that will help you figure out which battles you can lose in an effort to win the war.

4) Master The “Give Your Mind A Break” Problems

Some GMAT problems are extremely abstract and require a lot of focus and ingenuity. Others are very process-driven if you know the process – among those are the common word problems (weighted averages, rate problems, Venn diagram problems, etc.) and straightforward “solve for this variable” algebra problem solving problems. If you’ve put in the work to master those content-driven problems, they can be a great opportunity to turn your brain off for a few minutes while you just grind out the necessary steps, turning your mind back on at the last second to double check for common mistakes.

This comes down to practice. If you recognize the common types of “just set it up and do the work” problems, you’ll know them when you see them and can relax to an extent as you perform the same steps you have dozens of times. If you recognize the testmaker’s intent on certain problems – in an “either/or” SC structure, for example, you know that they’re testing parallelism and can quickly eliminate answers that don’t have it; if a DS problem includes >0 or <0, you can quickly look for positive/negative number properties with the “usual suspects” that indicate those things – you can again perform rote steps that don’t require much mental heavy lifting. The test is challenging, but if you put in the work in practice you’ll find where you can take some mental breaks without getting punished.

5) Minimize What You Read

The verbal section comes last, and that’s where focus can be the hardest as you face a barrage of problems on a variety of topics – astronomy, an election in a fake country, a discovery about Druid ruins, comparative GDP between various countries, etc. A verbal section will include thousands of words, but only a couple hundred are really operative words upon which correct answers hinge. So be proactive as you read verbal problems. That means:

-Scan the answer choices for obvious decision points in SC problems. If you know they’re testing verb tense, for example, then you’re looking at the original sentence for timeline and you don’t have to immediately focus on any other details. On many questions you can get an idea of what you’re reading for before you even start reading.

-Let details go on RC passages. Your job is to know the general author’s point, and to have a good idea of where to find any details that they might ask about. But in an RC passage that includes a dozen or more details, they may only ask you about one or two. Worry about those details when you’re asked for them, saving mental energy by never really stressing the ones that end up not mattering at all.

-Read the question stem first on CR problems. Before you read the prompt, know your job so that you know what to look for. If you need to weaken it, then look for the flaw in the argument and focus specifically on the key words in the conclusion. If you need to draw a conclusion, your energy needs to be highest on process-of-elimination at the answers, and you don’t have to stress the initial read of the prompt nearly as much.

Know that the GMAT is a long, exhausting day, and you won’t likely get out of the test center without feeling completely wiped out. But if you manage your energy efficiently, you can use whatever energy you have left to triumphantly raise that winning score report over your head as you walk out.

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By Brian Galvin