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how to concentrate better on a long exam like the GREThe GRE is a long exam. At a minimum you’ll have to navigate five sections totaling 3 hours and 10 minutes of work time, and you’ll almost certainly get a sixth unscored “experimental” section of 30 or 35 minutes. When you factor in biographical questions at the beginning, breaks throughout, and research questions at the end, it’s a 4-hour ordeal easy.

So how can one be expected to concentrate for that long?

That’s a question I often get from my students, and you may have it as well. Below I’m going to share three proven ways to improve your concentration on the GRE so that you can maximize your abilities on test day.

But first, let me say this. If you need to be motivated on test day, it’s already too late. Remember that you chose this path. You’ve decided that grad school is the next step to get you where you want to go in life, and you should be excited about the opportunity to take the GRE and move the ball down the field. As a golfer, I need maximum concentration for four hours during tournament matches to score my best. One lapse in concentration can result in a bad hole, and that can be enough to lose the tournament. But keeping my concentration up throughout an entire round isn’t difficult because I want to be there. That’s why I’ve spent so much time and money practicing. On game day, I worry more about execution than concentration. Concentration is the easy part because I know why I’m there. The same should be true for you on the GRE.

(Tip: If you need to reconnect with your “WHY,” watch “Learn the Secret Ingredient for Dominating the GRE”).

3 Ways to Focus Better on the GRE

With that reminder firmly in place, there are nevertheless some practical things you can do to maximize your concentration on the GRE. Here are my top three:

  1. Garry Kasparov concentrating playing chess

    Garry Kasparov – intense concentration

    Use your breaks wisely. Physiologically, the human brain can only concentrate for so long without resting. Some people, like world chess champion Garry Kasparov, can think intensely for hours on end without a break. But for us normal people, we need to rest our brains pretty regularly. Fortunately, the GRE builds in breaks throughout your exam. You’ll get a short one-minute break between sections and a longer 10-minute break after the third section, and it’s important that you use those breaks to your advantage — especially the 10-minute one. During your 1-minute breaks, you really only have time to prepare your scratch paper for the next section. But even if you’re feeling anxious to move on to the next section, use the full 60 seconds to clear your mind. There’s no reason to rush. Now for the all-important 10-minute break, you should do four things:

    1. Get your blood sugar up. Your brain largely runs on sugar, so have a sip of gatorade, eat a granola bar, or munch on anything else that will give you some energy for the second half of the test;
    2. Do 25 jumping jacks. Yes, seriously. Exercise gets the blood flowing and delivers oxygen to your brain. It also releases endorphins that can help your overall sense of well-being — a plus on a draining exam like the GRE;
    3. Use the bathroom. Even if you don’t feel like you need to, it’s better to be safe than sorry. There’s nothing worse than trying to concentrate with a full bladder;
    4. Prepare your scratch paper for the next section.
  2. Dial in your sleep and nutrition in the weeks leading up to your exam. Both are crucial for maximum performance not just on the GRE, but in life. Let’s look at each in turn.
    1. Sleep. Scientists measuring sleepiness have found that sleep deprivation leads to lower alertness and concentration. It’s more difficult to focus and pay attention, so you’re more easily confused. This hampers your ability to perform tasks that require logical reasoning or complex thought. Sound like something that would be important on the GRE? Absolutely. Shoot for a minimum of 6 — and ideally 7-8 — hours of sleep per night leading in to test day.
    2. Nutrition. Proper nutrition plays an important role in your energy levels, mood, and cognition. As the old adage goes, “junk in, junk out.” Even if you don’t desire a healthy lifestyle long-term, you should clean up your diet heading in to test day. That means more fruits, vegetables, and lean meats, and less sugar and processed foods. The morning of your exam especially, make sure to eat a balanced, low-glycemic breakfast such as a veggie omelet and banana. That will provide you with a slow release of energy (rather than the quick spike and crash that comes from things like cereal or muffins) that should sustain you until your mid-exam break when you can refuel (see above). Oh, and if you’re looking for an extra edge, consider supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil). They’ve been shown in studies of kids with ADD/ADHD to help improve focus and concentration, and they may help you on test day as well!
  3. Train your brain to concentrate for longer stretches. Your brain is like a muscle in that it can adapt to certain stimuli such as longer periods of concentration. Imagine that every time you sit down to study for the GRE, you only work for 30 minutes before taking a break. How long do you think your brain will get used to concentrating for? You guessed it, 30 minutes. By contrast, let’s say you study for an hour at a time. Now you’re training your brain to concentrate for an hour between breaks. And so on. You don’t always need to schedule 3-hour marathon study sessions, but it is a good idea every once in a while to plan longer periods so that your brain gets comfortable concentrating for longer stretches. For more on this idea of building up your “mental stamina,” check out this short video:

So there you have it. As I mentioned earlier, you shouldn’t need too much external motivation to lock in your focus on the big day. This is what you’ve been preparing for. I have a friend who is a heart surgeon, and on a weekly basis he performs surgeries that require his absolute maximum concentration for as many as 8 hours or more without a break. So it’s definitely possible. I’m confident that you can manage to focus for four hours just this once. And I know that some of the strategies will help you, too. You’ve got this!

Which of these concentration strategies do you like the most? What have you found most helpful in this article? Please share your thoughts below. I’d love to hear from you!