Tips for Performing to Your Full Potential

Academic Guidance

Tips for Performing to Your Full Potential

Several factors impact your ability to perform to your greatest potential, which is so important to achieving your utmost life goals. In addition to your motivation and preparation, your state of mind matters. Let’s take a moment for some self-reflection: Have you been sleeping well? Eating well? Exercising regularly? Remember, without taking good care of your mind and body on a regular basis, it is hard to perform to your full potential. You have to prioritize your mental and physical well-being, and then you will be able to push yourself to be your best. To help, I’ve put together some tips (backed by science) that promise to get you in the right direction.

It all begins with preparation. My neighbor used to tell me that success is 90% preparation and 10% opportunity. I guess the luck lies in the opportunity, and depends on your ability to capitalize on the moment and perform to your greatest potential!

So, let’s begin by considering your preparation. To prepare for a test, you first need to know what it is testing and why. You need to know its methodology:

Most standardized tests administered by the College Board (i.e. SAT, GRE, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, etc.) are analytical intelligence tests. These exams focus on assessing your fluid intelligence—otherwise known as your ability to analyze and interpret novel information—than your crystallized intelligence, which is the knowledge you’ve accumulated over your years of schooling. Of course, parts of your crystallized intelligence remain an important base of knowledge for the exam. For example, you need to have an expansive vocabulary to do well in some portions, which largely results from reading. The College Board’s tests reward good readers, which may help explain why English majors actually do better than Biology, Chemistry, or Physics majors (or even double majors) on the MCAT (the entrance exam for medical school). But, analytical intelligence, which has more to do with spotting errors and inconsistencies, remains at the center of most questions. MRI brain scans of students studying for the LSAT, which is a very analytical test used in law school admissions, found that the region of your brain associated with error detection and analytical thinking (i.e. your anterior cingulated cortex) grew in size because more pathways were wired.

Of course, to catch these errors and inconsistencies, you have to know the rules being tested well enough to catch them when violated. That’s where the actual process of preparing comes in. Studies out of Harvard Medical School and Washington University in St. Louis show that repeated test-taking is more effective than repeated studying and increases long-term knowledge retention by an average of 50 percent. Testing is an effective way of studying because students don’t know what they don’t know, and testing helps to identify what they do not know. (In other words, the only way to figure out what you don't know is by trial and error, so testing pre-exam helps the process without the risk!) Furthermore, studies have found that students tend to avoid topics that they don’t know or don’t understand and repeatedly study those which they already do know and understand. Testing forces students to confront topics they do not understand and focus their learning efforts on that material. More importantly, repeated test-taking helps because of spaced repetition (or allowing for time to pass between practice tests). This is important too because you never want to cram. Cramming is a sign of poor time management. If you do a bit each day, you don’t have to cram.

Cramming, though, isn’t just a sign of poor time management. Repeatedly studying (or taking tests) spaced over days and weeks is more effective than cramming the night before or two nights before a test because your memories go through phases of consolidation during your sleep. This is why some recent studies claim that going to sleep or even taking a nap right after an intense study session can help you remember the material you went over during that session..

More important than sleep, though, is what lack of sleep can do to your health. Neuroscientists claim that all-nighters deny students the sleep they need to properly consolidate the material they studied, making it that much harder to remember details and facts. . Moreover, though, if you do not get enough sleep, your serotonin levels are lower the next day. Serotonin is a chemical produced by the body that is associated with mood. So, if you don’t have enough serotonin, your mood drops and your stress and anxiety levels rise. (Though you can influence your levels of Serotonin with exposure to sunlight.) Stress and anxiety can interfere with students’ performance because their “fight, flight, freeze” reaction kicks in. It is important to combat students’ stress by addressing their fears and anxieties in order to ensure their peak performance. This can begin by encouraging better sleeping habits.

Finally, the amount of glucose (a carbohydrate found in sugar) available to your brain also affects your serotonin levels (again, the chemical produced by your body that affects your mood,) because your brain metabolizes more glucose than any other organ in your body! Even though your brain only accounts for 2% of your body’s mass, it uses up 20% of your body’s energy. If your brain does not have enough glucose to metabolize, then your mood drops while your stress and cortisol (i.e. the hormone triggered by stress) levels rise. You will also find it a lot harder to focus on a four hour test, and hurt your short term memory, which is already limited to six to eight items at a time. The latter is particularly concerning if you’re taking a test by the College Board, which, as mentioned in the beginning, is not testing your long-term, or crystallized, intelligence as much as your short-term fluid intelligence.

What can you do to avoid the above? Eat a hearty breakfast, which includes carbohydrates and protein. During the test, if you’re feeling a bit sluggish or foggy, eat some simple sugars, but make sure it’s real sugar! Studies out of UCLA show that high fructose foods and drinks sabotage your learning and memory by interfering with areas of your brain responsible for short-term memory and executive control. High fructose syrups literally turn your brain to mush! Avoid them at all costs.

If you consider the above information, you’ll find that sleep, food, and exercise will also help you perform better in school and life. Though it is often hard in the middle of exam preparation and papers to remember to put these things first, making smart choices now can pay off once you receive your scores and after you receive your diploma!