Beating the GMAT one yoga pose at a time

September 21, 2007, 5:41 PM UTC
Fortune

This month, a conversation with someone who’s actually making a difference in a lot of young lives. (Though maybe not in the way you’d think!) Hope this interests some of you GMAT-takers, GMAT-contemplaters, and GMAT-haters. And if you want to share your own tales of GMAT woe and triumph, we’d love to hear them. Have a great weekend!

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When I first heard of Bara Sapir, she had the unenviable task of getting my sister hyped about the LSAT. When I first realized how good Bara Sapir was, she had talked my sister out of law school altogether. Sounds strange — especially considering that Sapir’s tutored hundreds of young people for the LSAT, GMAT, and other major standardized tests with great results — but Sapir isn’t exactly traditional. The founder of Test Prep New York and creater of the Full Potential audio test-prep series doesn’t go in for the standard self-flaggellation. In fact, her holistic methods focus as much on personal wellness — through techniques such as hypnosis, guided visualization, and “neuro-linguistic programming” (i.e., changing your vocabulary to effect a change in your performance) — as test questions. And with B-school becoming a hot topic for many of us as we shake off the summer, I thought some of you might like to hear from her about the GMAT. (Just because those hedge fund guys from that New York Times story last weekend don’t care about MBAs anymore doesn’t mean we don’t, right?)

If you’re laughing, I hear you. Normally, I might be inclined to call this New Age tomfoolery, too. But it’s hard not to think differently once you start hearing Sapir’s stories. Of course, there’s my sister, whose professional life since abandoning the LSAT has been so much better I had to write about it. But there’s also the guy who, despite scoring fine on diagnostic tests, would just go blank every time he got to the GMAT. Turns out he was worried about what his high-powered colleagues were going to think of him if he didn’t score well, and that stress was enough to cripple him. Sapir spent five hours doing centering exercises with him — not focusing on content at all — and his score improved by a couple hundred points. Then there was the young woman who couldn’t focus and couldn’t figure out why. Sapir stopped by her place, took one look at the chaos, and got her into a sublet for a few weeks where she could actually study and ultimately succeed on the test. (There’s a story for yesterday’s spaces post!) “This isn’t New Age,” Sapir says. “There’s nothing New Age about it. In fact, a lot of it is ancient stuff. We all know that if we’re in a crisis, we have to slow down and get centered. The New Age movement didn’t discover that; they just put unicorns and rainbows on it.”

Sapir emphasizes being relaxed. “Oftentimes,” she says, “it’s just about who you are when you go in to take the test. There are lots of students whose memory of school is more social than academic, so they’re faced with the test and suddenly think, ‘One, I haven’t taken a test in a gazillion years. Two, I hated math. Three, oh my God, it’s a test!’ But they need to just stop and say to themselves, ‘If I learned this in seventh grade, and I’m better now than I was before, then this really is about remembering who I am without the baggage of puberty’.”

The best advice? Take a cumulative approach that includes proper sleep, diet, and downtime — so that your brain can absorb and access what you’ve learned — in addition to serious studying. And remember, it’s just a test. “The most self-defeating aspects of test-taking are the easiest to overcome,” says Sapir, laughing. “Mastering the holistic stuff is way easier than memorizing Latin roots! But once you’ve accrued the knowledge, you just have to figure out how to access it, and these holistic aspects are the key.”

And to get you started, Sapir put together a few quick tips on making your GMAT experience short, sweet, and successful.

  • Get a plan and stick to it. Life is full of tests and pop quizzes that you don’t get to study for, so take advantage of studying for this one. Particularly since your score’s usually one of the most important factors in deciding your candidacy. Schedule your test six to eight weeks ahead of time, and make sure you can focus on serious studying during this period. If you can’t, your brain won’t maintain optimal performance, and it’ll just be a waste of your time.
  • Create and follow a routine. The brain is a machine that works in cycles. It needs focused time to take in information, then downtime to process and integrate it. For optimal mental processing, study in blocks of 45 minutes to an hour and take 15-minute breaks. During that six to eight weeks of preparation, dedicate at least two focused hours a day to studying during the week, four to six hours over the weekend, and give yourself one day off completely. And no one wants to — or needs to! — study beyond three months. Longer than eight weeks and many people lose momentum and focus.
  • Find the best study places. It’s ineffective to study in cafes, on the subway, in moving cars, and during meals. Also, avoid studying at home, where distractions are rampant. Your ideal study setting should be a well-lit, quiet room as close as possible to test-taking conditions. Private libraries and quiet conference rooms are among the best. Lying under an umbrella at the beach or on a blanket in the park are great for downtime to complement your hard-core study, but they should never be a locus for learning. Do you want a higher score or a better tan?
  • Attitude is everything. Hate the test, not the task. Don’t be resentful about taking the test: It’s a lot easier to achieve success on the test (and in life) by being positive and feeling good. Toughen up, realize that this a finite period, commit and make the best of it. Put it on the calendar, and if your energy starts to wane — or you start to ask yourself why you care about, say, logical reasoning and data sufficiency — remind yourself that this test will help get you into a school of your choice, which will give you the credentials and edge to succeed in your desired field. That way, instead of getting tangled up in the actual math or grammar you’re studying, you’re thinking about where it’s going to take you.
  • Address the whole person. For many people, studying doesn’t consistently translate into great scores. This is because tests don’t only measure what you know or how well you know it; tests also measure how well you take tests. So to optimize your test-taking potential at TPNY, we combine traditional academic and skills-based training with well-researched human potential techniques, such as neuro-linguistic programming, hypnosis, guided visualization, meditation, and sound healing. For example, if you find that you were having trouble preparing, we might suggest guided visualiztion. Get yourself into a comfortable state and visualize going into the test feeling amazing, visualize the score you want to get appearing on the screen, and create a whole movie for yourself. Putting your mind through the steps of beating the test really helps. Or we might ask you to think about the words you use. Instead of talking about test “problems,” call them “questions.” Because questions have answers. This way, you’re reframing, taking away the thrust these words have. Some of the core aspects of test success — retention and recall, focus and concentration, confidence and relaxation — often aren’t discussed at all in the study process, but they can make a huge difference in your score.
  • Be realistic. You don’t need the perfect score, just a score that will get you into school. So don’t kill yourself. And don’t rely on books alone: Speak to admissions consultants and counselors to find out what score you need, then work toward that.
  • Get a study group. There are always other people studying, so network and put the word out that you’re looking for study buddies. A little support goes a long way.
  • Live deep, rest hard. This may be a time of hard-core, hit-the-books, hands-on study, but that’s precisely why you have to maximize your playtime, too. Think quality and quantity. Lots of study with minimal but meaningful personal downtime — along with seven to eight hours of sleep, eating well, drinking lots of water, and getting exercise and sun — and you’ll be your best self when test day comes around.