Are you feeling incredibly stressed out when you sit down to study for the GMAT? (Or maybe I should ask, who isn’t?) Do you find it hard to concentrate on the task at hand?
Researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara recently published the results of a study following 48 undergrads seeking to boost cognitive performance. Jan Hoffman details the research in a blog post over at The New York Times; here’s a summary.
We had already found that mind-wandering underlies performance on a variety of tests, including working memory capacity and intelligence, said Michael D. Mrazek, (quoted from the NYT blog post)
Ah, yes, mind-wandering. We’ve all had this experience. We’re taking a test, the clock is ticking, and we keep finding ourselves thinking about something other than the question we’re supposed to be answering right now. Maybe we’re stressing about our score. Maybe we’re thinking about applications. Maybe we’re 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 one verbal reasoning section from the GRE (fairly similar to the GMAT, except that the GRE emphasizes vocabulary more heavily than grammar). They also completed a task that measured their working memory. These tests are the baseline results.
The students were split into two groups; let’s call them Group M and Group N.
Group M attended meditation classes four times a week; these students learned lessons on mindfulness, which focuses on breathing techniques and helps to minimize distracting thoughts.
Group N attended nutrition classes, designed to teach these students healthy eating habits.
Afterwards, the students were given another GRE verbal section and another task to measure working memory. The performance of students in group N stayed the same; the nutritional studies didn’t make a difference.
Group M students, however, improved their GRE scores by an average of 12 percentile points! Here’s the best part: the study took just two weeks. You read that correctly: these students improved their verbal scores by 12 percentile points in just two weeks.
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.
How did that happen?
The hypothesis isn’t that the students became smarter or learned more in that timeframe. Rather, the mindfulness techniques helped the students to 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 of those distracting thoughts that interrupt you when you’re trying to concentrate!
How can I use this?
That short, two-week timeframe is both good news and bad news. The good news is that you can achieve results without having to study meditation for 6 months. The bad news is that we don’t know whether this provides just 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 aren’t going to make meditation a regular part of their daily life; most will try it for a time and then drop it.
Here’s what to do, then: start learning some of these mindfulness techniques about 8 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’d like to continue after that, great!)
Here’s a resource to get you started: the Mindful Awareness Resource Center at UCLA. They offer free meditation lessons and podcasts. They also periodically offer a 6-week online course (for a small fee, less than $200 at the time of this publication); in addition to the pre-recorded classes, you’ll be able to participate in live chats with an instructor. If you’d rather meet with someone in person, whip out your fingers and run a google search for your local area.
Take a deep breath, exhale, and start learning how to minimize distractions and concentrate on the task at hand. Good luck!