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Around this time of year, as people recover from the holidays and contemplate winter vacations, I tend to get a lot of questions from students anxious about taking a GRE break. Will a week- or month-long vacation hurt their scores? Will they forget all the new math content they’ve learned? Should they bring their 5lb Book of GRE Problems on the plane with them?
The short answers: no, no, and you don’t need to, it’s available as an e-book.
The longer answer: taking a GRE break might end up being the best thing you can do for yourself as a student, particularly if you feel like you’ve gotten stuck at a certain score and are having trouble seeing progress on regularly-spaced practice tests. (Keep in mind, though, that taking too many practice tests too frequently could also produce these kinds of results! For more on this, check out my colleague Chelsey’s article on practice tests). I’ve seen a number of students reach a score plateau, step away from studying for anywhere from a week to a year, and then, on returning to the test, realize big score increases.
There are a few plausible explanations for this phenomenon. One is that taking a GRE break helps to prevent burnout; time away rebuilds our willingness to work. Another is that rest is an important part of learning. Sleep, of course, helps us to consolidate memory and improves our ability to focus on complex tasks. So if you’ve been working a 40+ hour week and staying up late to study, a week of good nights’ sleep will help improve your attention. But waking rest—time spent conscious but unfocused, e.g. doing a repetitive task, daydreaming, or meditating—is also an important component of learning.
Even when we’re not working on a complex task, our brains use a great deal of energy—nearly 20% of the total energy our body produces in any given time period. Concentrating on a complex task doesn’t increase the brain’s energy requirements by much, meaning that, even when we’re “resting,” our brain is doing a lot of work.
When we don’t focus and instead let our thoughts wander, a number of different regions in the brain will become active simultaneously. These regions, initially discovered through fMRI studies done at George Washington University in the 1990s, are known collectively as the Default Mode Network (DMN). It’s one of several resting-state networks that researchers believe play an important role in learning, memory, and creativity. When we daydream, perform a mundane task, or meditate, the DMN and related networks consolidate memories, review recently-learned skills, and help us to solve problems by integrating information from diverse parts of the brain, making connections that might not be accessible to the conscious mind.
This means that the time you spend NOT studying is, in some ways, as important as the hours you spend sitting with your books or taking a practice test. Achieving a reasonable balance between activity and rest is crucial for achieving peak performance. Studies of artists and athletes who excel in their fields show that most practice in short, intense intervals, often no more than four hours a day, with a long period of rest between sessions. Few among us are able to concentrate on developing a new skill for more than a few hours at a time, and for almost everyone, shorter periods of work punctuated by rest are more productive.
So, as you structure your studies, take into account the importance of downtime. Build short breaks into each study session, like taking a walk or doing a brief mindfulness exercise. Also make sure that you leave sufficient periods of rest between study sessions, with occasional longer breaks as well if you’re studying for more than a couple of months. These breaks won’t undermine your ability to remember or apply complex new topics—they’ll actually enhance it.
If you’d like to learn more about what your brain is doing when you’re daydreaming, check out the really interesting Scientific American article that informed this post. Bonus: it’s good practice for science-themed Reading Comp passages! 📝
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Cat Powell is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in New York, NY. She spent her undergraduate years at Harvard studying music and English and is now pursuing an MFA in fiction writing at Columbia University. Her affinity for standardized tests led her to a 169Q/170V score on the GRE. Check out Cat’s upcoming GRE courses here.