Whether you’re studying for a final exam, the SAT, the MCAT, or the USMLE, these last-minute tips and strategies will help you optimize the hours leading up to your exam.
What To Do the Day Before an Exam
Let’s start with what to do the day before the exam.
When to Stop Studying
When preparing for an exam, it is crucial to be efficient with your studying so you can get the most out of the time you have available; however, it is equally important to know when you have done enough and it is time to give your brain a rest.
It’s common for students to spend every waking hour before an exam trying to cram information. The expectation is that seeing the information one last time right before the exam will lead to a better score, but it usually ends up doing the opposite.
Exam preparation is a marathon, not a sprint. If you exert all your mental energy just before the exam, you are bound to gas out while taking it.
This is especially true regarding exams like the MCAT or the USMLE which are more time-intensive and mentally demanding. If you spend months studying for an exam, it is unlikely that you are going to learn any meaningful amount of additional information in the few hours before you take it.
You have already done everything you can. Now the best thing to do is give yourself a rest.
Additionally, reviewing material that you aren’t confident about can end up causing you unnecessary stress and anxiety. In turn, this can lead you to perform worse than you otherwise would have if you hadn’t reviewed at all.
I recommend stopping studying 12-18 hours before the exam, depending on the test. This will give you ample time to relax and decompress, ensuring that you come into the exam fresh and ready to crush it.
Preparing Yourself for Exam Day
Preparing everything you need the day before is another way to minimize exam day stress. Planning out what you are going to wear, what you are going to eat for breakfast, and what time you’re going to leave ahead of time will all decrease any uncertainty on the morning of the exam. You won’t be rushed and are less likely to forget something critical.
If you are taking an exam like the MCAT or USMLE at a testing center, consider driving to the testing center the day prior. Doing so will ensure you know where the testing center is, how long it takes to get there, and where you need to park.
Anything you can do ahead of time to make sure you are well-prepared will pay dividends come exam day.
The last, and arguably most important, thing to do the day before the exam is to make sure you get adequate sleep.
Research has shown that acute sleep deprivation negatively impacts cognition.
It causes drowsiness and fatigue. It reduces attention. It hinders working memory which is necessary for remembering things for immediate use – think passage-based exams like the MCAT or USMLE. It diminishes place keeping, which includes the ability to carry out instructions. It hinders cognitive flexibility and the ability to adapt to uncertain or changing circumstances.
All of this translates into decreased performance on exam day, so the best thing you can do for yourself before an exam is make sure you get some sleep.
Start by establishing a consistent nighttime routine and follow it the night before the exam.
Fall asleep at a consistent time. This will make it easier to both fall asleep and wake up at your intended time. In the week leading up to your exam, get in the habit of going to bed and waking up at the same time that you plan to on exam day.
Next, practice good sleep hygiene and set up your bedroom for optimal sleeping conditions. Lower your body temperature by turning down the AC. Avoid things that stimulate you such as backlit screens and high-intensity music and instead choose activities that help you relax such as deep breathing, meditation, or reading.
Now that you have your perfect nighttime routine, avoid anything that will negatively impact your sleep.
One of the biggest temptations while preparing for an exam is caffeine; however, you need to be mindful of your caffeine consumption the day before the exam. The half-life of caffeine is approximately 5 hours, so if you have it too late in the day, you may have a difficult time sleeping at night.
I recommend avoiding caffeine consumption after 2 PM or sooner to ensure it does not negatively impact your sleep.
The next one should go without saying but avoid alcohol. Alcohol consumption won’t only disrupt your sleep, but also impair memory consolidation. It derails melatonin, human growth hormone, disrupts REM sleep, and will significantly impair your performance.
Sometimes even when you’ve done everything right, you’ll still have nerves and find it difficult to fall asleep the night before. In these cases, there are some things that you can take to facilitate falling asleep. This is not medical advice and is for information purposes only.
Common over-the-counter solutions used by students include diphenhydramine, also known as Benadryl, or exogenous melatonin. However, either can lead to grogginess the next morning. Andrew Huberman, Professor of Neurobiology at Stanford University School of Medicine, instead recommends a cocktail of magnesium threonate, theanine, and apigenin to facilitate sleep onset.
Magnesium helps to regulate neurotransmitters that are directly related to sleep.
Theanine is an amino acid found in tea leaves that promotes relaxation and facilitates sleep by affecting neurotransmitters in the brain such as GABA, serotonin, and dopamine.
Apigenin is a derivative of chamomile that helps decrease anxiety and initiate sleep by hyperpolarizing neurons in the forebrain.
Remember to consult with a physician before taking any of these supplements.
What To Do the Day of the Exam
You’ve followed all these steps, had a wonderful night’s sleep, and now the day of the exam is here. Now, what do you do?
Good nutrition starts with adequate hydration. The human body is comprised of 60% water, and the brain is made up of 73% water. After sleep, we are particularly dehydrated.
Research has shown that even mild dehydration can negatively impact cognition. The brains of dehydrated adults show evidence of increased neuronal activation when performing cognitively engaging tasks. This indicates that their brains are working harder to complete the same task.
For this reason, making sure you drink water in the morning before an exam is essential. You do need to be mindful of how much water you are drinking, however. Too much and you may find yourself running to the restroom repeatedly during your exam. A tall glass or two in the morning and a water bottle on hand during your exam should be adequate.
The next thing to focus on is breakfast. Your brain accounts for 2% of your total body weight and yet it demands about 20% of your resting metabolic rate. During cognitively demanding tasks, it can demand even more.
It should come as no surprise then that breakfast consumption has been shown to have a transient beneficial effect on cognitive function compared to fasting. More specifically, it has been shown to improve attention, executive function, and memory.
Skipping breakfast on exam day should be avoided, especially if you’re taking a longer exam like the MCAT or the USMLE.
For these exams, breakfast alone isn’t even enough. You should also bring snacks with you to the testing center to eat during your breaks. This will ensure that your brain is adequately fueled to take on the cognitive demands of the exam.
Now the question of what to eat. Although research regarding the effect of breakfast composition on cognitive performance is limited, the general consensus is that a breakfast composed of low glycemic index foods is superior in facilitating cognition compared to a breakfast composed of high glycemic index foods.
This means that things like pop tarts, sugary cereal, and juice or other sugary drinks should be avoided. These foods may make you feel good initially, but they often lead to a crash shortly after.
Instead, try to eat a more balanced meal containing a mix of complex carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Complex carbohydrates and starches will be slower digesting and will provide you with more sustained energy. An example of a balanced breakfast might be something like an omelet with steamed veggies and whole-grain toast.
Your choice of beverage with breakfast is also important. One of the best choices is water. Plain and simple. That being said, for many people breakfast also includes caffeine – more specifically coffee.
Although coffee isn’t necessarily a bad choice for caffeine, it may not be the most optimal. The high dose of caffeine in coffee is isolated and can give you a jittery feeling. For this reason, I believe that tea is a wonderful alternative.
Tea has less caffeine, but it also has theanine which you may recognize from the section on sleep supplements. Theanine has been shown to promote relaxation and facilitate sleep. In your morning cup of tea, however, the concentration is going to be much less than you would find in a supplement.
The combination of caffeine’s stimulating effect with theanine’s relaxing effect in tea creates a calm, focused state as opposed to a jittery one.
Now that you’ve dialed in your nutrition, it’s time to leave for the exam. I recommend getting to the testing center early to minimize stress.
For the MCAT, USMLE, or similar standardized exam, arrive at least 30 or 45 minutes prior to your scheduled start time. This will give you ample time to get to the testing center and respond to any minor issues that might come up.
The final exam day tip is to not stand in your own way. It is normal to feel stressed or anxious before an exam, but you can’t let your negative self-talk get in the way of your success. If you do, your self-doubt will throw you into a negativity spiral.
The key difference between high scorers and low scorers is that high scorers know how to control their self-talk. They transform the negative self-talk into positive self-talk.
The trick to doing this starts with understanding that the physiological response to fear and excitement are nearly identical.
Both stimulate the sympathetic nervous system – the body’s fight or flight response. The difference between the two is that fear is unpredictable and activates the amygdala, while excitement does not.
This is why some people love skydiving, and some people don’t. Those that love it are confident they’ll make it to the ground safe and sound. Those that don’t are not so sure.
When circumstances become unpredictable, excitement transforms to fear. If you can change your perspective and view your physiologic response before an exam as excitement instead of fear, you can make your self-talk serve you.
Take the unpredictability out of it.
Remind yourself that you’ve prepared and you’re ready to rock and roll. Invite the challenge, it’s time to see what you got in store for it.