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The GMAT, Learning, and Memory

A student recently asked: “Most of the time it happens that, when I keep moving forward in my GMAT studies, I forget some topics I had learned in past.  I need some tips regarding it please.”  This merits a discussion of memory.  Of course, folks who are preparing for the GMAT are trying to learn material, and, of course, what it means “to learn” involves a few cognitive skills, including long-term memory.  If I can’t remember something, even several weeks later, then I haven’t really “learned” it.  What can a GMAT student do to improve their memory?

The capacity for memory

The human capacity for memory is vast, and we often fail to appreciate this.  I think of us modern humans as memory idiots, at least compared to folks in ancient cultures.  In ancient Greece, part of a young man’s education was to be able to recite entire Iliad from memory.  Similarly, in many Moslem countries, folks could recite from memory all or most of the Qur’an, and in ancient India, people could recite most or all of the great Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.  This may be surprising, but genetically and physiologically, our brains are not any different from the brains of humans a couple thousand years ago.  We are capable of the same feats of memory.  It’s just that, with all our modern reminders and memory substitutes (written reminders, electronic alarms, etc.), we don’t exercise memory, and so we have trouble with it.  Memory is like a muscle: if you don’t exercise it, it becomes weak.

Imagine a future dystopia in which nobody walked, and everybody rode around in personal carts.  Of course, everybody’s leg muscles would atrophy, and anyone who could walk even a mile would seem like a demigod.  We would be astonished that, in the then-past, people could run marathons or hike 15 miles in a day.  That’s analogous to our current situation with memory: we have become so accustomed to weak memory usage that we mistake our poor memory as inherent.  The first step in improving memory is to recognize that the norm for which we all settle is far below our potential.


Improving memory — Use it or lose it

What can one do to improve one’s memory?  Like many parts of the body, memory has a “use it or lose it” quality.  If you want to improve your overall memory, start using opportunities to remember things. Force yourself to remember everyday things without writing them down, or use the written record only to test yourself.  Make memory tests for yourself every day, several times a day.  If there is anything that means a great deal to you — a short poem or song lyrics or an inspiring quote — then commit it to memory, so you can recite it.  I have dozens of poems memorized.  My highly literate friend Chris has memorized the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels — he can recite the entire list.  I recommend committing to memory historical aspects of your own country & culture.  For the United States, I would recommend trying to remember all the presidents in order, or the twenty-seven amendments to the Constitution in order.   For someone Chinese, I might recommend remembering, say, all the Chinese dynasties in order. If you are religious, memorize some long passages from your sacred text, passages that you consider particularly meaningful. Every country has a history on which to draw, and every culture has cultural icons one can learn more about.  Consistently exercising one’s memory will bring noticeable progress over time.  If there are lists of relevant GMAT strategies or formulas you need to know, practice reciting all of them from memory.  If you can recite an entire list without any hints or prompting, then you really own it.  Practice remembering as much as you can.  Use it or lose it.


Focus and Attention

Another very important part of memory is one’s capacity for focus and attention.  If I study on automatic pilot, passively letting the information pass in front of my eyes, then chances are very good that I will not remember it.  The more one can bring laser-like focus and unwavering attention to any task, the more one will remember.  How does one develop attention and focus?  Well, the ancient disciplines of mindfulness, especially mindfulness of one’s thoughts, and meditation build attention and focus when practiced over time.  When you’re calm and centered, you remember more deeply than when you’re stressed and distracted.   Many of the lifestyle recommendations that would enhance memory, attention, and focus run counter to the way most people live their lives today.


Repeated exposure

Long-term memory is reinforced by repeated exposure.  This is one of the advantages of mixed practice, because during mixed practice, one sees every kind of problem, and thereby, every topic is regularly given a little bit of review.  It can help to create opportunities for repeated exposure.  Suppose on Monday you reads a chapter or watches some videos on a GMAT topic.  It can helpful to see how much you can recall a few days later without any hints.  Can you remember all the important points of those lessons, without any hints?  The more you drill yourself, trying to remember something cold, the stronger the memory connections.  This is the value of flashcards.


Don’t just memorize

You learn more deeply and remember more thoroughly when your truly remember, rather than simply memorizing.  What’s the difference?  When I memorize a mathematical formula, I am trying to remember that one individual factoid in isolation.  By contrast, when I understand the underlying logic, and am able to follow the derivation of the formula from fundamental principles, then I can more quickly remember the formula. In fact, even if I forget the formula itself, I could re-derive it from the underlying logic. If one can do that repeatedly, then one really understands a formula deeply.  It’s important to strive for that standard in every aspect of math, and as much as possible with verbal information as well.

A huge part of one’s memory is one’s emotionality.  One’s primary memory apparatus is located in the limbic system, the brain’s emotional center.  When events are emotionally charged, we remember them with no problem.  When we are emotionally flat, remembering anything becomes considerably more challenging.  The more you can generate in genuine feelings of enthusiasm and curiosity for your studies, the more effectively your will remember.  You have to get “pumped up” for and excited about studying every single time you return to the material.  If nothing else, let yourself get excited about how much you’ll be able to remember!

Finally, as long as we are talking about the brain, the brain state that is singularly most important for memory consolidation is REM-sleep.  To get enough REM sleep, we need to get eight hours of sleep every single night.  Sleep comes in 90-minute cycles, and the REM phase comes toward the end of that cycle, after deep, dreamless sleep.  Furthermore, the REM phases get longer and longer with each cycle, with the longest phase coming in the last sleep cycle.  If you get 6-7 hours of sleep, you cut off that last sleep cycle with its long REM phase, thus depriving your brain of one its most potent natural opportunities to encode memory.  If you rely on caffeine and energy drinks, those will make you feel awake and less tired, but they do absolutely nothing to replace the lost opportunity of the memory-enhancing function of REM-sleep.  There is absolutely no substitute for eight hours of sleep.



The human capacity for memory is enormous, more than enough you would ever need to learn the information for a dozen different tests as hard as the GMAT.  By following these recommendations, you can improve your memory over time, and, in doing so, learn more deeply and more thoroughly.   Continue to practice this throughout your life, and the relative advantages will multiply over time.  You have the potential to master a skill at which the vast majority of modern people are minimally competent.

If you have some experience with building memory or other exercises that would help build memory, we would love to hear from you in the comments sections below.


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2 Responses to The GMAT, Learning, and Memory

  1. Manish September 13, 2014 at 8:43 pm #

    HI Mike,

    Great article. You could have added few more tips such as meditation and yoga which would help you to memorise and attain concentration during your prep. nevertheless thanx for such invaluable info!

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike September 14, 2014 at 11:52 am #

      Dear Manish,
      You are quite welcome. 🙂 Yes, both meditation and yoga are wonderful for concentration, and I recommend those in some of the linked articles (it’s hard to talk about everything in one place!) My friend, I wish you the best of luck!
      Mike 🙂

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