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.

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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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  • Chris Lele

    Chris Lele is the Principal Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh. Chris graduated from UCLA with a BA in Psychology and has 20 years of experience in the test prep industry. He's been quoted as a subject expert in many publications, including US News, GMAC, and Business Because. In his time at Magoosh, Chris has taught countless students how to tackle the GRE, GMAT, SAT, ACT, MCAT (CARS), and LSAT exams with confidence. Some of his students have even gone on to get near-perfect scores. You can find Chris on YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook!