GMAT Tip: Take a Deep Breath

Modern folk know how to stress and, if they’re lucky, also know how to veg, but neither of those is the Jedi state of mind Photograph by Lucasfilm Ltd Courtesy Everett Collection

The GMAT Tip of the Week is a weekly column that includes advice on taking the Graduate Management Admission Test, which is required for admission to most business schools. Every week an instructor from a top test-prep company will share suggestions for improving your GMAT score. This week’s tip comes from Mike McGarry, lead GMAT content creator at Magoosh.

We all know that studying content, strategies, and time-management techniques is crucial for the GMAT. Let’s call that the “cognitive” dimension of preparing, very much like what you cultivated in standard American education. There’s a whole other dimension, potentially hugely important, yet almost completely off most people’s radar. For example, what would it be like to take the GMAT with less anxiety? More focus? Greater attention to detail? Better memory? For shorthand, I’ll refer to these as the “Jedi” dimension.

These “Jedi” skills are often neglected entirely in favor of attention to academic skills. In fact, post-modern electronic culture seems designed to mitigate against their development. Modern folks know how to stress and if they’re lucky, also know how to veg, but neither of those is the Jedi state of energized, yet relaxed awareness. What does it take to develop that?

Here are some suggestions for accelerating the development of your Jedi mindset for optimized GMAT performance:

1. Excitement and stress feel different, but both draw on the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response). To have less stress—to lower sympathetic arousal—requires less excitement. This is precisely why Yoda says: “Adventure, heh. Excitement, heh. A Jedi craves not these things.”

2. Lowering sympathetic arousal means: no TV, no video games, no action movies, and no thrilling adrenaline-rushes.

3. Deep, slow breathing is the “on” switch for the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation response). Practice deep, slow breathing in every waking moment, especially in any “in between” times (sitting in traffic, on the elevator, in line, etc.).

4. Get adequate sleep. Use caffeine sparingly—and no energy drinks. Also avoid “high fructose corn syrup” like the plague: Think of it as ADD juice. Drink eight or more glasses of water a day.

5. Exercise regularly: healthy body, healthy mind.

6. Every day, challenge yourself to become curious about any topic that you have always taken for granted. For example, what is the life of your grocery checker like? When the world is inherently interesting, you are more awake.

This is hard medicine, I realize. The formula for mediocrity is: Do what everyone else does. Extraordinary results, by contrast, require extraordinary steps such as these. If you can implement these steps consistently, you will not only improve your GMAT performance but also improve in almost every other endeavor in life—and you’ll be happier.

Mike McGarry scored in the 99th percentile on the GMAT. He is an expert in standardized test preparation, and has been a teacher for over 20 years. McGarry earned both a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s in comparative religion from Harvard University.

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