Are you feeling overwhelmingly stressed out when you sit down to study for the GMAT? Do you find that concentrating on the task at hand is difficult?
Researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara published the results of a study following 48 undergrads preparing for the GRE. Jan Hoffman details the research in a blog post at the New York Times.
The motivation for the study
“We had already found that mind-wandering underlies performance on a variety of tests, including working memory capacity and intelligence,” said Michael D. Mrazek in the NYT blog post.
We have all had this experience. We are taking a test, the clock is ticking, and we keep finding ourselves thinking about something other than the question we are supposed to be answering at that moment. Maybe we are stressing about our score. Maybe we are thinking about applications. Maybe we are even distracted by work, significant others, family, or other issues that have nothing to do with the test!
How do we stop fixating on other things and concentrate on the task at hand? This study tried to find out.
First, the students were given some “baseline” tests, including one verbal reasoning section from the GRE (yes, the GRE, not the GMAT).
The students were then split into two groups. One group (group M) attended meditation classes four times a week; these students learned lessons on “mindfulness,” which focuses on breathing techniques and helps minimize distracting thoughts.
The other group (group N) attended nutrition classes, designed to teach the students healthy eating habits.
Afterward, the students did another GRE verbal section. The performance of students in group N stayed the same; the nutritional studies did not make a difference.
Group M students, however, improved their GRE scores by an average of 12 percentile points! The students also reported (subjectively) that they were better able to concentrate the second time around; they felt that their minds wandered less than they had before. Here is the best part: the study took just two weeks.
How did that happen?
The students did not become smarter or learn (much) more in that time frame. Rather, the mindfulness techniques helped the students perform closer to their true potential by reducing negative thoughts or habits that were interfering with performance. Think how much better you could do if you could turn off, or at least minimize, all those distracting thoughts that interrupt you when you are trying to concentrate!
How can I use this?
That short, two-week time frame is both good news and bad news. The good news is that you can achieve results without having to study meditation for six months. The bad news is that we do not know whether this provides only a short-term boost—the effects may fade over time.
So let’s speculate that the effects will fade unless you keep up with a regular meditation schedule. Let’s also assume that most people are not going to make meditation a regular part of their daily life; most will try it for a time and then drop it.
Here is what to do, then: Start learning some of these mindfulness techniques about eight weeks before you plan to take the test. Give yourself enough time to learn what to do, and then make these meditation sessions a part of your regular study schedule until you take the test. (If you would like to continue after that, great!)
Here is a resource to get you started: the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA. They offer free meditation lessons and podcasts. They also periodically offer a six-week online course (for a small fee, less than $200 at the time of this publication); in addition to the prerecorded classes, you will be able to take advantage of live chats with an instructor. If you would rather meet with someone in person, run a Google search to find someone in your area.
Take a deep breath, exhale, and start learning how to minimize distractions and concentrate on the task at hand. Good luck!