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How to Stay Focused on the GRE – Both Old and New

An Unnatural Test

We simply weren’t wired to sit in front of a computer monitor for three-plus hours, trying to stay focused on material that, for most of us, is about as engaging as watching paint dry on a wall. For this reason, the GRE is not just a test of logic, vocabulary, or whatever the test writers purport. Rather, the GRE is a test of endurance and the ability to remain focused.

So, how do you stay focused throughout the test so you can avoid careless errors, such as a simple misreading of a question? Below are five ways to keep your energy up and your focus laser-like.

1. Take Advantage of the Break

One of your greatest enemies on the GRE is the simple act of sitting. Scientists have shown that sitting, even for a few hours, significantly lowers our metabolism and causes our energy levels to drop. Think how difficult it can be to peel yourself from the couch after watching two hours of T.V. Now, transfer that pleasant lethargy to an 80-line passage on the way in which plants use different chemicals to transmit information.

While you are not allowed to randomly get out of your seat and whimsically go for a stroll about the testing room—hey dude, how’s the GRE going—take advantage of each one of your breaks by raising your hand (part of testing room protocol), leaving the room and taking a walk outside in the hallways. Short of doing jumping jacks, you want to make sure that your blood is flowing, and that blood is flowing to your brain.

2. Feed your Brain

Speaking of cerebral blood flow—your brain runs on glucose, and you get glucose from food. Make sure you bring a snack or two. And not to get on my diet guru soapbox, but avoid junk food or anything loaded with lots of sugar. While these “foods” will give you a short burst of energy, once you crash, which will be within the hour, even a straightforward sentence completion will seem convoluted.

3. Avoid Coffee

And speaking of crashes…coffee is great for about 45 minutes, and then your energy will come crashing down. Couple a cup of joe with junk food and that passage about chemical signaling in plants will look like the Rosetta stone.

4. Posture and Breathing

I know, I’m starting to sound like a yoga guru/diet instructor. But, so much of your focus relates to your energy level. And, if you are hunched over for two hours, quick shallows breaths accompanying your slog through the GRE, then remaining focused becomes a near-Herculean task.

So, catch yourself if your breathing is too quick and shallow. Instead, take a deep breath (not too many as this will induce the pleasant lethargy we talked of earlier) and sit upright. Your energy levels will return and you will be able to focus better.

5. Prep Hard, Test Easy

If you are used to practicing a few questions and then getting up to take a break, you may want to reconsider. As often as possible, take timed sections while studying. You also want to make sure that the questions are jumbled up, in terms of difficulty and concepts, much like on the actual test. And, about once a week, you want to take an actual test (again, take a break in between sections much as you would on the actual test).

If your body is used to taking a 3-hour simulated test, and the accompanying eyestrain, then the real deal will not be as difficult. On the other hand, if your first, or even second experience with a full-length exam is the actual exam, then your body will be in for an unpleasant surprise.

Finally, don’t do questions in your comfort zone. Always push yourself to try more difficult questions, because on the actual exam, you will get a difficult question early in the test, especially if you are doing well. You must prepare yourself psychologically for a question that you are unsure how to approach. If you don’t, such a question can often frazzle you to the point that your focus becomes compromised.

The Key Takeaways:

  • Keep your energy up with food, movement and good posture.
  • Keep yourself mentally prepared by simulating conditions while prepping.
  • If you adhere to the two above, focus will come far more naturally.

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6 Responses to How to Stay Focused on the GRE – Both Old and New

  1. Jess July 18, 2017 at 9:43 pm #

    Hi Magoosh team,

    I’ve been studying for nearly 7 months now total (December ’16 to March ’17, took my first test. Took a break from March to May, and have been studying since.) Something I struggle with every time I take a practice test (and slightly when I took a real test in March, though adrenaline helped slightly) is stamina.

    After the AWA, I’m excited to get started. I take two sections after the AWA- hypothetically, let’s say one verbal and one quantitative section. In this following section, the 3rd section following the AWA, I hit a wall. I know that after this section, there is STILL 2 more to go, yet I’m exhausted at this point already. Luckily, by the 4th section I tell myself “only one more after this!” And by the 5th, I can see the finish line. What can I do about this middle part of the marathon? I tell myself at least I’ve identified my weakness…

    Part of why I get discouraged is I tend to run out of time on the first quant section I took, which I tend to encounter by that halfway point. Then I’m convinced I will have been sorted into the easier second quant section and I no longer dream big about my potential score. But also, my mind wanders in general: paragraphs seem long. Just choosing an answer is tempting. Data interpretation seems too complex to grasp.

    What can I do?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert July 26, 2017 at 4:26 pm #

      Hi Jess,

      The GRE is certainly a marathon of concentration, and I understand your issue! The mid-exam slump is definitely difficult to get through, but I can definitely give you some advice to help you out 🙂
      1. Take as many practice tests as possible! You need to work on your concentration and stamina, which requires training just like what you would need to do for a marathon. Take several tests under realistic testing conditions to train yourself to concentrate through the long middle section.
      2. Eat a healthy and energizing snack during the break. Stay away from sugary or dense foods, and try something light but fulfilling like nuts and dried fruit. Try different snacks during your practice exams to find one that works for you!
      3. Practice a good pacing strategy. It sounds like you have already identified some general test-taking weaknesses, but identifying your specific weaknesses can also help you to succeed. For example, we recommend that you go through each section twice–focusing on ‘easy targets’ in the first and leaving more difficult questions to the end. That way, you use minimal effort for maximum reward! For example, it
      might be best to leave the long RC passages and dense DI questions to the end–these are the most time-consuming and focus-depleting question types, and it’s better to answer the easier questions first. See this blog post for more information: https://magoosh.com/gre/2012/pacing-on-the-gre-math-sections/
      4. Try out some different focus tricks like breathing exercises, stretching or posture changes. When I find myself dozing off, I usually try to fix my posture, stretch in my seat, and take a few deep breaths. This can help get the blood flowing and increase your focus.

      And finally, try to focus on the test while taking the test! There is really no way to know, for example, if you will get an easier or more difficult second section, so try not to even think about this during the test. When you find your brain wandering, try one of the focus tricks and bring yourself back to the test. I hope this helps 🙂

  2. Madhavi July 21, 2015 at 8:48 am #

    Hi Chris, I recently took the GRE, and ended up scoring really bad in both sections (152-152) except for the writing section, in which I scored a 5. The exam completely drained me, I got three sections for verbal, and having to read endless passages simply exhausted me to the level that as the test neared end, I literally started trembling (my fingers were actually trembling). The inability to focus for a long time really gave me big trouble. The writing section went great, my mind was fresh and I was mentally active. But the rest of the test, specially the last three sections drained me so bad. I am planning to retake the GRE, since I scored way better in verbal in all my mock tests (I gave mock tests by skipping math sections). Can you please guide me as to how long should I take a break before the next test, and what strategies should I use to score better?

  3. Olga June 24, 2013 at 12:53 pm #

    Hello, dear Magoosh GRE team! I appreciate what you did for us with all your helpful tips and tricks.
    But I have an actual question about focusing. It is really hard to stay focused. I have 4 days before my test, and I am feeling completely demotivated and strangely relaxed. I simply can’t do anything about my preparation (I’ve been studying for the last ten months with some breaks).
    Is it normal? Do all of your students experience the same thing?
    Thanks for the answer in advance!

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele June 26, 2013 at 11:15 am #

      Hi Olga,

      It sounds like you’re burning out — which is totally understandable. Ten months is a long time! To motivate yourself take a practice test, in which you remove all possible distractions from your testing environment. Make sure to do both essays as well!

      The idea is that if you force yourself to focus, then you are more likely to not only focus, but to also know that you CAN focus. Again, be very strict while taking the test, and only get up during your scheduled breaks (don’t worry — you won’t have to raise your hand the way you do in the testing center :).

      Conversely, just doing a passage/question here and there is not going to be much motivation.

      Let me know how it goes, and good luck on the test :)!


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