When you think about studying for the GMAT, how do you feel? Determined, excited, and curious? Or anxious, exhausted, and resentful? Do you avoid studying, then beat yourself up over it later? Are you getting less and less out of each study session? Are your practice test scores in a downwards spiral? You might be struggling with GMAT burnout.
Your GMAT Burnout Brain
“Burnout” is a state of chronic stress. When you study for the GMAT, you’re putting your brain under stress, and that stress accumulates over time.
Studying for the GMAT is like training for a marathon. If you go for a brisk five-mile run, you might feel fantastic afterwards. But if you go for that same five-mile run every day for three weeks, you’ll gradually become more and more fatigued. If you keep pushing yourself, you’ll eventually reach a breaking point. Your muscles will fatigue and your pace will slow down, regardless of how determined you are.
Burnout isn’t just a bad mood. It’s a complicated physical and mental state. Some of us are more susceptible to it than others, just like some of us would fatigue more quickly if we tried to run five miles every day. Being burned out doesn’t mean you’ve screwed up, and it doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to fail at the GMAT. But in order to recover, you’re going to have to take a few steps backwards.
Stress and Memory
Chronic stress keeps you from learning and remembering. (Here’s a great Wikipedia article, if you want more specifics.) That implies something that might be tough to hear: you can’t study your way out of GMAT burnout. If you study while you’re already burned out, you aren’t learning nearly as effectively as you would be otherwise. In short: take a break.
Walk away from the GMAT completely for at least a couple of days. I don’t care if you only have a few weeks to go until test day. If you’re really burned out, forcing yourself to study is like continuing to run while injured. Sure, your marathon is in just a couple of weeks, and sure, you need the training. But training while hurt is much worse than taking a little time off to heal.
Maybe you’re worried that you’ll forget what you’ve learned so far. That may be true! But the weird thing is, forgetting is actually good for your brain. If you forget something and then learn it again, you’ll end up with a stronger memory the second time around. There’s even a whole study method based on this principle.
Respect your Stress
Studying for the GMAT isn’t solely about learning facts and rules. Anything that helps you get a higher score on test day counts as studying. You might already know that perfecting your GMAT timing, building good guessing habits, and learning alternative Quant strategies are part of a strong study plan. Stress will hurt your score, and staying relaxed and positive will help it. So, managing stress and preparing yourself psychologically should be part of your study plan.
How you approach this depends on what works for you. A lot of our students have had success with mindfulness. But you might prefer meditation, exercise, or a good bubble bath. I once had a student who used hypnosis to cure her GMAT burnout and anxiety. The takeaway is that you shouldn’t just ignore the GMAT burnout and hope it goes away. Stress isn’t “fluffy stuff”; it has serious and measurable effects on your cognitive abilities. Tackle it just like you would tackle any other weakness in your GMAT prep.
Make a Change
When you’re ready to tackle the GMAT again, bear in mind that burnout is easier to prevent than it is to recover from. Changing something about your study plan might be the key to avoiding a second episode. There isn’t a single magic bullet that works for everyone, but here are some ideas you might try.
- Change where, when, or how often you study. Try shorter, more frequent sessions, or studying at a different time of day.
- Change what you do when you study. Doing tons of problems? Try creating some flashcards instead, or adapt one of the exercises from this GRE article.
- Give yourself an upper limit on how long you’ll study for, and stick to it. If you know you’re only going to study for an hour, you might find yourself working more efficiently.
- Focus on your strengths instead of your weaknesses, or vice versa. A lot of people burn out by exclusively studying GMAT Quant. Points on the Verbal section count just as much.
It’s Okay to Stop
I recently read this fantastic article from our GRE blog, written by instructor Céilidh Erickson. You should go check it out as well, since everything there applies to the GMAT. Long story short: it’s okay to stop before hitting your goal score. The GMAT is just one part of your business school applications, and your applications are just one tiny part of your life. There’s nothing wrong with deciding that you’re done with the GMAT, and in some cases, it might be the right strategic choice when it comes to getting into schools.
If you’re feeling GMAT burnout, don’t despair. You’re not alone, and you’re not doomed to be miserable forever. You’re experiencing a roadblock, but it’s a roadblock that you can overcome, just like you’ve overcome many others in the course of studying for the test. And if you’ve fought GMAT burnout and lived to tell the tale, add your own advice in the comments! 📝
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Chelsey Cooley is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170/170 on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GMAT prep offerings here.