How to prevent studying burnout: a sustainable approach to test prep

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

Alright, let’s get to it. So today we actually have another question from a listener. It’s always fun. Please always send your questions, and we’d love to do an episode on them. So you can get a little tailored, you know, you can participate and get a tailored response.

So our question from Tony today is, “My question is, how do I prevent or overcome GRE studying burnout? I’ve been studying for a few hours daily for the past month. This is more than I’ve ever studied for any test. Although I’m currently enjoying the time I spend studying. In fact, I enjoy it so much that I listen to GRE Bites while I work out. Do you have any advice on how to reduce the chances of burnout? Or what to do when it happens?” I think that’s a good question, don’t you?

Orion: Yeah, well, I think it’s probably safe to begin with the fact that it’s always better to prevent burnout than to try to deal with it after it appears. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure here. It’s very difficult to resolve burnout efficiently once it presents itself. So I think our best avenue of approach here is to try to reduce the chances of burnout with respect to studying for the GRE.

Davis: So let’s just start real quick. What specifically do you consider burnout? What does that mean to you?

Orion: For me, burnout from studying for the test is when it becomes a grind. I start to lose my motivation and enthusiasm for the work. And this also begins to lead to cognitive consequences, like it becomes more difficult to concentrate, more difficult to memorize. My recall becomes slower. Everything associated with test-taking behavior becomes sluggish and more difficult, which obviously is non-ideal with respect to a time-standardized test. Does that make sense?

Davis: Yeah, that makes sense. And would it be fair to say also that with these effects, maybe they stem from — and you can speak more about this — but in my experience, burnout often comes with a fundamental disconnect from the motivation to do something. Like the gas in the tank for me to actually do it, be motivated, and want to see results, to having done it for so long that I have no connection with that motivation anymore.

Orion: I think that’s certainly true within the subjective experience of burnout, what you described. Motivation is tricky, because to me, motivation is kind of more emotional, and emotions ebb and flow. We can’t always expect to be highly motivated with respect to a long-term goal, something that might take months to accomplish. Expecting a consistently high level of motivation during that time, and predicating your practice on that high level of motivation, is probably not conducive to success and achievement. On some level, discipline needs to come in to compensate for the natural ebbs and flows of motivation. Would you agree?

Davis: I would agree, I would agree. And then it would help me to understand, you know, you’re saying that the best prevention, or the best solution to burnout is prevention. And so for me, it would help to have, yeah, a framework in place. Yes, of the timeframe in which I’m doing something, of discernible results that I’m shooting to achieve within that timeframe. So then everything’s in context so that I know my effort over that given timeframe is not just going on and on. I’m not just going to be going on and on forever, and then subject to the mental idea that like, “Oh, man, this is just never-ending.”

Orion: Okay, that’s actually a great idea. So I think two very concrete and actionable things that you can do to prevent burnout are one, give yourself enough time. Sometimes people want to cram for the GRE, and that’s not really possible. They think, “Well, I could take a month off of my work, I’ll just study for eight or 12 hours a day, because I want to get this done as quickly as possible.” And in general, success in the GRE is not about knowing certain things, like memorizing the right formulas or all of these vocabulary definitions.

So that is part of the process. Success in the GRE is more like procedural; it’s like understanding, like mastering an approach to the test. It’s like a series of behaviors that have to be reinforced over time. And the best way to do that is through spaced repetition, as opposed to massed practice. Spaced repetition is so much more conducive to efficient mastery than trying to just do it 100 times in a weekend, right? So a lot of folks set themselves up for burnout because they’re trying to cram too much into too short of a time.

Davis: So let’s give a concrete ballpark. What is, in your experience, the best daily practice for the GRE, and then over how many months?

Orion: Sure, I mean, everybody is different. In general, I think a good window of time to plan for is about three months. And in the StellarGRE self-study product, there is a three-month timeline that walks you through what you can do or should be doing on every given week throughout that 12-week period. And I think that’s important because it balances the fact that your skills will grow on each other over time.

So they will build on themselves over time, you will have enough to do to prepare against that three-month timeline without becoming overwhelmed in the process. I think it’s also important to talk about a daily thing. I think, at most, you can expect to spend two hours a day on the GRE. Anything more than that is asking to be burned out. Because if you’re listening to this, and you’re preparing for the GRE, you’re probably in many other respects a fully functioning adult. You probably have a job, you probably have relationships, you probably have friends and hobbies. And this is probably the least important thing in your life. Because it doesn’t make you money. It doesn’t make you happy, it doesn’t make anybody else happy. And it’s about a longer-term goal that may not bear fruit for years after the fact. So it’s very hard to artificially prioritize that over what needs to be done today or in this week. Prioritizing something that’s only going to bear fruit years from now over something that needs to be done today just is unsustainable in the human animal.

Davis: Alright, so we’ve got about three months, and we’ve got about two hours a day. And if you have a good outline of how to progress week on week, a structure, that’ll be a blueprint, as we provide in the StellarGRE self-study program. And that’s great, okay, so we’re investing, it’s so important. Like that, you should know what you’re doing every day, every week of your process. A lot of folks are just out there doing their best on their own. And, you know, God bless you, you’re doing the best you can. But it can be really helpful to surrender to a protocol that has been demonstrated to be effective in getting what you want. And that helps with the mental aspect of like the feeling of spinning your wheels and the grind you mentioned earlier, because if you have a direction you’re going and you have clear checkpoints that you’re passing through towards, you know, a complete program that you’re, like you said, a protocol you’re fulfilling, that can also, you know, be the light at the end of the tunnel, just getting through this.

Orion: Sure. I mean, it’s the difference between going to a gym and just saying, “Well, I’m going to lift some weights,” versus hiring a private trainer, or at least researching a protocol. Like if I want a regimen, I ran a half marathon last year. It’s not like I just decided, “Well, I’ll think I know what distances I should run at each step of the way,” I did some research and it’s like, “Okay, if I start two months before my date, I have to run six miles this week, seven miles the next week,” and I surrendered to that protocol. And when I actually got to race day, it was easy. It was the most enjoyable long-distance run I’d ever done in my life because I had prepared appropriately for that. So that’s one thing.

Davis: No, that’s great. And so we’re talking still about, you know, preventing burnout. And, you know, you mentioned building on the knowledge of other people, researching how other people have done it to find those protocols, those regimens that have demonstrated over time to be efficient and work well. Is studying with a partner or being in a group setting an efficient strategy for preventing burnout?

Orion: I mean, it can be. I think it depends on what kind of learner you are. Sometimes you get people together and it’s just an excuse to kind of goof off and socialize. So you know, it is helpful to have accountability towards your goals. And so you have to share your goals with folks who actually can hold you accountable, and some people are better at doing that than others, and you should know yourself, what kind of studier you are. I’m like studying in a group, I get distracted, I want to have very focused, effective time. And that requires me to be in the zone, and other people are just going to get in the way of that. That’s just me personally. But other people are different.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: Now, another practical thing that students can use to prevent burnout. You mentioned a little bit earlier, Davis, which is, you need to know when it’s going to act. Like, if this is an open-ended process, it could go on for months and months and months. And why is that? Because no one ever really feels ready to take the GRE, you’re probably not consistently performing perfectly every single time. So there’s always some measure of improvement that’s possible. And so some folks, especially if they have perfectionistic tendencies, or very high targets, they can get into a, like a rabbit hole where they’re chasing smaller and smaller gains, and putting in more and more time and effort to achieve them.

So I think it’s much better to set a reasonable deadline for your test date, and plan backwards from that day than it is to well, “I’ll just keep studying until I feel ready, or until I’m consistently scoring at that level.” Of course, we want you to be consistently scoring at your target score when you go into the test. But it’s better to set that deadline and work and get yourself prepared against that than to have the open-ended, “Well, I’ll just schedule the test when I’m at that point.” Does that make sense?

Davis: That makes perfect sense. I think that’s a really good tip. So we’ve talked a lot about preventing burnout. I want to use the last time here to address the latter half of Anthony’s question here, which is what to do when it happens. Do you have any suggestions for that that we can address?

Orion: Yeah, it’s tough when burnout occurs. So, for me personally, having experienced burnout before, I just had to take a knee and really have a full and complete rest from whatever I was working on. The lie that burnout is subject to telling people is that you don’t have time to rest, you know. And so, it’s like forcing you to continue to work, even when your mind or your body are screaming for a respite. And that just delays the resolution and increases the difficulty. So, if burnout does appear, I understand that it’s inconvenient to your timeline potentially to take a full and complete break from your process. But forcing it at that point is probably like trying to dig yourself out of a hole; it’s not going to work.

So, it will likely push back your timeline to recover from burnout. But that’s, in my opinion, preferable to trying to force your performance under very ideal conditions. You’re probably not going to get the outcome that you’re looking for, which is going to make you feel even more disincentivized and demotivated to continue. So, it’s sort of like, you know, spiking the ball in football; you’re going to lose your down, but you’re going to keep your field position.

Davis: That makes a lot of sense.

Orion: And then, during that break, like you said, a total kind of step back.

Davis: That’s good. I think that’s all we have time for today. I think, though, there are a lot of rich topics in here that we could continue exploring in future episodes.

Orion: Definitely.

Davis: Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another bite-sized episode of GRE Bites. If you have a topic you’d like discussed on a future episode, let us know at And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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