6 Tips for the Night Before an Exam
5 min read
Last Modified 17 January 2024 First Added 24 April 2015
Are you studying for your GCSE or A-level exams this year? Or are you an ambitious university student? You may have heard this from your teachers, lecturers, and parents before; preparation is key. After months of hard work and studying, there is one last thing to prepare for: the night before the exam.
Taking a step back and planning a nightly routine can help calm your nerves. Research has found that students are commonly affected by test anxiety which can influence the ability to retain information, and this is predominantly because of a lack of preparation. Don’t let this worry you, here are the best pre-exam tips, scientifically proven to increase your performance:
If you do just one thing, this is it: get enough sleep the night before your exam. Sleep, particularly deep sleep, is critical for memory formation. New connections between brain cells form while you are sleeping, creating memories from your day. In order to reach the optimal number of cycles of memory-promoting deep sleep, aim to get a full eight hours before the big day. Make it a practice to get a good night’s rest after an intense day of learning and studying, as that will help your brain to retain as much information as possible.
Caffeine early in the day can improve focus and productivity if you’re used to it (the day of an exam is not the time to experiment, as it may make you nervous and jittery). Just one cup of coffee in the evening can make it harder for you to fall asleep, reduce the total time spent sleeping, and affect your ability to reach deep stages of sleep.
Aerobic exercise that gets your blood circulating is stimulating the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in memory and learning. Consider taking some kind of moderately strenuous exercise, such as a brisk walk, in the days leading up to your exam (and even all term), as regular exercise can actually increase the size of the hippocampus. Exercise also decreases pre-exam stress and anxiety, and improves the quality of sleep. Just don’t do it too late in the evening, or it may keep you up.
When you’re stressed, it’s easy to forget to drink water (especially if you’re drinking a lot of coffee). Dehydration decreases alertness and impairs concentration. Keep a water bottle at your desk, to remind you to drink from it regularly. Taper this off as you get close to bedtime to decrease the likelihood of having to get up in the middle of the night.
Set your alarm for 2 hours before your test, this will give your brain enough time to fully wake up and get yourself dressed. According to science, the brain takes 30 minutes to wake up; this period is known as “sleep inertia,” and it is distinguished by a significant decrease in attentiveness, increased tiredness, and poor mental performance. After an hour, you may find it is gone, however, the more time you give it, the more alert you become.
Next, pack your bag for the test, this will help to avoid unnecessary stress in the morning trying to find a pen and pencil. You could even set an outfit out ready to wear. Anything that’s going to save you time and worry in the morning, is always a good idea.
Cramming is the process of packing as much information as you can into your short-term memory in preparation for a test. It may be tempting if you feel as though you haven’t done enough revision. However, it is shown to elevate stress levels and cause panic and anxiety, making it much more difficult to absorb information. You can combat this by planning a revision timetable way in advance. This way you’ll feel confident and be able to focus on relaxing the night before the big day.
If you are studying last minute, set a timer to remind you to get up every 20 minutes and walk around briefly. Prolonged sitting decreases blood flow and oxygenation of the brain, and can impair cognitive performance. Studies show that regularly sitting for too long without breaks also increases rates of depression and insomnia.
Eat a ‘power breakfast’. Breakfast is the meal we’re most likely to skip, yet it’s the most important. Research shows that students who eat breakfast do significantly better in exams than those who don’t. A high-performance breakfast has a good source of protein for alertness (think eggs or Greek yoghurt), whole-grain carbohydrates for sustained mental energy (porridge is great), as well as fruit or vegetables for maximum brain power. Make a quick protein shake or smoothie if you’re pressed for time.
And that’s not all you can do, here’s a list of things you can do in the morning to make sure you ace that test:
When you’re well-rested, well-fed, and organised, you’ll be ready. Good luck with your exams everyone.