After five years of undergraduate university studies, a four-year medical degree and two years of medical residency training, I think it’s fair to say that I’m an expert on taking exams. Your strategy for the night before, and the day of, an important exam, will determine your success.
Here are my best pre-exam tips, which are scientifically proven to increase your performance:
1) Don’t pull an all-nighter – ever
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 any intense day of learning and studying, as that will help your brain to retain as much information as possible.
2) Avoid caffeine before your exam
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 (see my first tip).
3) Get in a quick workout before 7pm
Aerobic exercise that gets your blood circulating is stimulating to 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 quality of sleep. Just don’t do it too late in the evening, or it may keep you up.
4) Take frequent breaks from your desk
In the final hours when you’re trying to cram in all you can, 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.
5) Drink enough water
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.
6) 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.
When you’re well rested and well fed, you’ll be ready. Good luck in your exam!