What is your park screen ritual?: taking care of your mental stamina

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 stellargre.com. And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

Alright, this week we have another listener question that reached out to us via email. Caitlyn, thank you so much for your questions. We’ll address one question in this episode and will follow up with another episode for your other question.

So, for question one that Caitlyn posed: She says, “In Episode 19 of GRE Bites, you mentioned having a whole mental recharge ritual during what you call the ‘park screen’ that allows you to let go of what you previously did and to prepare yourself for what is to come. What specific steps do you use or recommend? Do you have some favorite self-talk statements that you repeat? Do you have a favorite breathing exercise you recommend? I play competitive softball and golf. This park screen ritual would probably be helpful between pitches and innings, as well as between golf shots or rounds, to stay mentally fresh for the entire game. Any tips on how to cope with making an error or hitting a bad shot and not letting it affect the next play or shot?”

This is a fantastic question. Caitlyn, I’m glad you brought up sports because I think we can think of the park screen as a type of focusing ritual. What is the park screen, just to be clear?

Orion: Oh, yes. A park screen is an untimed portion of the GRE. Most screens on the GRE have a timer in the upper right-hand corner that automatically progresses the test when it counts down to zero. However, there are screens between the timed sections of the exam that do not have timers. Typically, these screens don’t contain any significant information, so students often skip over them quickly. However, they could use these park screens for a reasonable amount of time to create de facto breaks during the test. This is beneficial because, otherwise, you officially get only one-minute breaks between most timed sections and a 10-minute break about halfway through. Utilizing the park screen evens the odds and creates some breathing room as you navigate this marathon of an exam. It’s important to know how to identify the park screen and how to use it responsibly. I believe I mentioned in that episode, which Caitlyn is referencing, that I have my own ritual for dealing with this.

It’s much like performance in sports. Consider what a batter does between pitches in baseball. Every batter has a unique ritual that he performs between pitches. It’s something developed over years and might not always make rational sense. Still, it serves as a comforting, grounding, and refocusing routine. The batter will go through that ritual regardless of the outcome of the previous pitch, whether he swung and missed badly or almost hit a home run. This ritual helps to shake off the previous pitch. The last pitch might have been a fastball, but that doesn’t mean the next one won’t be different. On some level, it encourages the player to treat each attempt as an independent event.

Similarly, it’s common for students to not perform well on one section of the test and then let that feeling linger for the rest of the exam. Whether or not they actually performed poorly isn’t certain at that point, but their perception affects their subsequent performance.

So, whether you felt you didn’t do well or believed you excelled, you don’t want to become complacent. You need to move on to the next section as if it’s an entirely new opportunity, just like in baseball.

Davis: That makes a lot of sense. So it’s not only the previous instance, whether it’s a pitch or a section on the test, but also how you prepare for anxiety about the future, like the next batter who’s coming up. What’s involved in that recharge, and how does an individual create their own mental recharge ritual?

Orion: Yeah, like I said, it’s very unique and idiosyncratic. I’ll share what I do because I think Caitlyn had that question. You can adopt some or all of this, or use it as inspiration for your own ritual. Between sections on the test, I lean back in my chair, close my eyes, and take 10 paced breaths. A paced breath is one where the exhale is longer than the inhale. So, it’s like breathing in for two counts, holding for two, and then exhaling for four counts.

This technique from yoga activates the parasympathetic nervous system. If your exhale is longer than your inhale, your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s relaxation response, gets activated. This is beneficial because it raises your baseline level of calm every 30 minutes during the test. If you’re already feeling anxious and high-strung, the first time you come across something unfamiliar, or if something doesn’t go as planned, you might lose focus and become sidetracked.

However, if you’re calm, you can maintain your strategy longer, even if things don’t immediately go your way. So, it’s essential to keep investing in our ability to remain calm. One way to do that is through paced breathing exercises.

I also do things in as many different ways as possible, opposite to what I had been doing for the last 30 minutes. When I’m taking the test, my eyes are open, I lean forward, I’m tense, and I’m focused. During the break, I lean back and close my eyes. So, I shift from seeing or sensing to feeling. I change my posture on as many levels as I can, giving the neural networks associated with my test-taking behavior a break. This allows my mind to recharge.

A significant part of this ritual is letting go. For better or for worse—and I might have gotten everything right and shouldn’t second guess—it’s done. That section is in the past. As part of this breathing exercise, I visualize wrapping up that section in a little box with a bow and sending it off into the universe. It’s gone. That was then. Near the end of the break, I begin to reorient myself toward the future. If the next section is, for example, the verbal section, I remind myself of my general strategies: I’ll tackle the vocab-based questions first, then the reading comprehension, followed by any logical reasoning questions.

On a vocab-based question, I’m going to look for synonym pairs in the answer choices. First, I’ll eliminate those that have synonym pairs in text completions and those that do not include equivalents. Then, I will look for key and trigger words. I know all this by heart, but what I’m doing is sort of like warming up the approaches, the process that I’m about to use, to sort of rev the engine before the green light signals the beginning of the race. So that’s the ritual I’ve hit upon. It helps me; it grounds me, relaxes me, revitalizes me, and reorients me to what is to come.

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 stellargre@gmail.com. And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at stellargre.com. You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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