How to Score Higher On Test Day | Evidence-Based Tips18 min read
How do I do the best I possibly can on exam day beyond studying? Are there certain things I should do with my body the day or week before? Should I eat or not eat certain things on exam day? How much should I sleep? Should I drink coffee? How should I sit in the exam chair?
I have used these strategies without fail for the SAT (my most important high school exam), the MCAT (my most important college exam), and my Step 1 exam (my most important Medical School exam), and I will use them for any future big exams. I have tweaked a few of them over the years, added a few, subtracted a few, and have come up with the master list of twelve items. These twelve strategies have allowed me to perform better than I ever thought possible.
In this post, I will tell you twelve strategies I use when taking my most important exams, the exams you prepare months for. Let’s get into it.
THE WEEK BEFORE
1. Dry Run
Practice, practice, practice. We are talking about practice. Practice is easily one of the best ways to perform better on exam day. Why is it so important? When you practice, exactly like exam day, you prepare yourself for that day. You avoid day-of freakouts and get yourself in the mindset of performing well on exam day.
Specifically, it would help to practice everything down to a tee for exam day sometime before exam day. That means:
- Wake up the same time you would on test day
- Get dressed and prepared, as you would on test day; what clothes will you wear?
- Eat what you eat and drink what you would drink on test day
- Walk, drive, bus, or train to where your test location will be
- If you can, try and take the test around or near that location; if you can’t, go back home or to wherever you usually study
- Mimic the test and test conditions: if the people that make the exam release an exam, take that exam. This is important; the timing should be the same, the breaks you take should be at the same time, you should eat the same food you would eat on test day, you should have no access to your phone like you would on test day, you should wear earbuds as you would on test day.
- After the test, relax! I usually like to do that mock test day then review the questions the next day.
I even get crazy about this; for example, if my test is on a Friday, I will do my dry run on a Friday.
Using this strategy reduced my stress immensely when I would actually show up to the exam.
Bottom Line: Try and mimic test day at least once before exam day
THE DAY BEFORE
2. Exercise Outside
Exercising outside accomplishes a couple of things. One, exercise is proven to make your brain better at learning and retaining information. Molecules such as IGF-1 are released during exercise that may be responsible for maintaining brain cells and are also directly related to spatial learning and memory.1,2 Another molecule, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a major modulator of brain plasticity, is also released more during exercise than non-exercise.3 Evidence shows that activity, in humans and mice, increased hippocampal neurogenesis (the part of our brain responsible for memory), cell proliferation, and dendritic branching.4-6
Two, exercise is proven to reduce stress and anxiety, and studies show that stress and anxiety hinder performance when you get stressed past a certain point.7
Three, exercising will make you more sleepy at night. If you go for a hard run, swim, or lift that day, you will fall asleep more quickly at bedtime than if you did not exercise.27 A proper night’s sleep, as we will get to later, is hugely important. We want to do everything we can to ensure we get a good night’s sleep the night before the exam.
Four, if we get outside at a reasonable hour, with the sun shining, we are telling our body, our circadian rhythm, when we should be awake and when we should be asleep.8 A prominent theory in neuroscience now is there are receptors in your eyes that signal to your brain, that signal to another part of your brain, that controls your sleep-wake cycle. Studies even show that exposing people to bright artificial light in the evening before bed can delay their circadian phase. At the same time, bright morning light therapy can advance sleep timing (so they go to bed earlier) for people with delayed sleep-wake phase disorder.9
Five, being outside is a natural relaxer and benefits the mind. One study from Nature showed people who go out have significantly greater reports of great health.10 So, yes, we want to be outside the day before our exam.
I would say, if you can, aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise and 30 minutes of outside time. This can be 30 and 30, or you can combine it with a 30-minute workout outside. I personally would go for a run or lift weights and then go out for a 30-minute walk.
Bottom Line: Exercise for at least 30 minutes and get outside for at least 30 minutes the day before your exam.
3. Eat Relatively Healthy the Day Before
We want to minimize variability on our test day. Depending on your individual body, food can take around 30-50 hours to move through your body completely.11 What if we eat something new the day before and it doesn’t agree with us? So we stay up all night, or, god-forbid, we get food poisoning! Or, it makes us queazy during the test. That would be the absolute worst.
Just eat what you would typically eat on a typical day, don’t overthink it. I wouldn’t decide to try scallops for the first time the day before your exam or something like that.
Bottom Line: Eat your regular diet the day before the exam
4. GET A GOOD NIGHTS SLEEP
This is the number one best thing to do before your exam. Multiple studies show getting a good night’s sleep improves exam performance.12 This is the most-backed piece of advice by scientific articles I could find for improving test performance. These are covered in other articles and even in this article, but here are some tips I have for getting a good night’s sleep:
- DO NOT sleep in the day before your exam; if anything, set your alarm earlier than you would typically wake up
- DO NOT nap the day before your exam
- Get sunlight as early as you can in the day, for at least 30 minutes
- Exercise during the day; make sure it’s at least 5 hours before bedtime
- Don’t eat anything 3 hours before bed
- Don’t use any technology one hour before bed, no screens, reading with a light, meditation, a warm bath (great option), are things you could do
- Have a hot shower or hot bath before bed; this signals again to our body that it’s sleep time. Our bodies seem to drop about 1-degree celsius as we sleep. When you go into a hot shower, I know it doesn’t make sense, but your body cools itself down in the shower, then, when you step out of the shower, your body is still cooling itself down, kind of like a delayed “off” switch. This will bring your body temp down and make it easier to get to sleep.
- Make sure your room is dark, cold, and quiet.
Bottom Line: Get a good nights sleep in a cold, dark and quiet room.
5. EAT BREAKFAST
This is sneakily important; we want high protein and low carb. Foods with a low glycemic index. Why? Well, have you ever eaten a pint of ice cream, three slices of cake, a whole pizza, and an hour or so later felt the slump? Sleepy, tired, nap time. Well, when you go crazy on the carbs, your glucose levels spike and your body jumps into insulin overdrive, trying to store all those food molecules away. Eventually, the problem is that those food molecules run out and your body is still in store-overdrive mode. Dropping your blood glucose a little lower than usual, you get sleepy; this is called reactive hypoglycemia. If you have diabetes, you are all too familiar with these feelings.
If you look at my poorly drawn graph above, you can see when you eat those high glycemic foods; you get the dip; we don’t want the dip.
So, what do I recommend? Oatmeal is excellent (don’t add too much sugar), eggs, breakfast meat, avocado, some fruit. Avoid cereal, pancakes, waffles, yes, all the good stuff.
JOKE VIDEO PART BAD ZACH EATING PANCAKES AND STUFF
Bottom Line: Eat a high-protein, low-carb breakfast; oatmeal and eggs are perfect.
6. Stay Hydrated
Dehydration is a hugely dumb way to lose points on test day. You know you, drink enough water for you. I usually drink at least 1 liter before 12 o clock. Depending on how well you can control your bladder, I would drink two large glasses of water in the morning; that should be sufficient.
Again, evidence shows that we perform worse physically and mentally when we are dehydrated. Of course, this makes sense.13, 14 One study posits decreased cognitive performance with just a level of 2% dehydration.13 This makes sense. Our bodies are made up of 75% water (interestingly, as we age, that number decreases, with infants being 75% water and the elderly having only 55% of their body weight as water).15,16 We need that water to keep our body alive to perform metabolic activities. Guess what the most metabolically active part of your body is? The brain! Accounting for 20% of our total oxygen metabolism.17 So please, for your brain’s sake, stay hydrated.
Bottom Line: Drink at least 500 mL of water when you wake up.
This is a tricky one, some studies indicate a small amount of caffeine (40 – 300 mg) may improve cognition.18 However, depending on your tolerance, this milligram number can change, and if you go overboard, it can be disastrous. In my opinion, you should drink the same amount of coffee that you usually do; if you want to tap this potential extra caffeine benefit, I would add 1/2 cup of coffee to your average amount of coffee. THAT’S IT. We do not want to be a jittery mess on test day.
Bottom Line: Drink your regular coffee + 1/2 cup. If you don’t drink coffee or caffeine in the morning, add a 1/2 cup of coffee or a cup of tea.
7. Arrive 30 Minutes Early
Anxiety on the morning of the test is expected. However, we want to do everything to reduce that anxiety to a manageable level. Arriving late to the testing center could make you unable to take your test, have less time to take the test, or, the most likely scenario, stress you out extra. The extra stress is not needed on what will already be a very stressful day.
Remember, we want to be in the middle of that upside-down U-shaped curve for stress. Too far to the right and our cognitive performance suffers.
Bottom Line: Arrive 30 minutes early to your exam
8. Maintain Good Posture
In one study out of San Francisco, 125 students were asked to do mental math. One half of the class had to sit erect, while the other half slouched. The students who sat erect rated the test on average as a 4.9 difficulty (out of 10) while the slouched students rated the test on average as a 6.2 difficulty (out of 10), now, we can’t interpret performance from this study, but we can certainly see how confidence is correlated to posture.19
Have you ever seen this TED talk? Posture matters, Amy Cuddy, posits people who perform specific postures, like hands on the hips or the “Y” pose, actually are more confident after just two minutes of holding these postures. I would recommend pumping yourself up just outside the testing center or in the bathroom between sessions with one of these poses.
We know that there is a strong correlation between an individual’s self-efficacy, that is, their belief in performing well, and their actual ability to perform well.20 So, improving confidence may improve performance. I am creating this link between posture and performance (from posture to confidence to performance). I could not find any direct evidence relating to posture and performance; however, what’s the harm? Try it out and see what you think, especially if you suffer from test anxiety.
Bottom Line: Hold the “power pose” for two minutes before the exam starts and during the exam and sit up with your back straight during the exam.
9. Snack Smart
The central points will be the same as the breakfast tip, high protein, low carb. A slow-burn, low glycemic index is much better than a fast-burn. Try protein bars, granola bars, fruit, yogurt, something small. Eating a full-blown lunch or meal mid-test is a big mistake as, again, that creates that large spike of glucose, which eventually will lead to a crash. Avoid the crash—snack smart.
Bottom Line: Bring a protein bar and some fruit to the exam.
10. Take Mini-Meditation Breaks
I started implementing this when I was preparing for the MCAT, and it feels hugely helpful, it takes about 1-minute, tops, and I think it provides significant benefit. Unfortunately, I have no evidence for this tip as I don’t think anyone is researching one-minute mini-meditation breaks mid-test. So, feel free to try this and see what you think. However, the evidence is abundant for meditation and its positive effects on mental health and well-being, especially for those with anxiety.21-23
At the end of a large section, or at the end of working for an hour, I close my eyes and take three deep breaths using the 5-2-7 technique, which is breathing in for five seconds, holding it for two seconds, and breathing out for seven seconds. While I’m doing this, I just focus on the feeling of the breaths going in and out at the top of my nose, the surface of the seat on my butt, the sense of my feet on the ground, and the temperature of the room. Seriously, at least try this once; if anything, it can calm some nerves and refocus you during a challenging exam.
Bottom Line: Close your eyes and take three deep breaths every hour or between every central test section.
11. Use all given breaks and time
I learned this early in high school. During a history exam, I remember that I had finished about thirty minutes early and was sitting doodling on a piece of paper in the classroom. One student went up to the teacher and quietly asked a question; the teacher scowled, looked at the test, then announced to the class, “for question number eight, I want you to remember what we talked about when we were learning about the revolutionary war…” He then proceeded to basically answer the question! But I had already handed my test in!
From that moment on, I vowed to never turn in my test until the very end of the time, no matter what. Another reason to use the whole time is that sometimes answers will pop into your head. Occasionally, I will finish a test early, like 30 minutes early, and I’ve already reviewed all the questions, and I’ll retake a mini-nap or doodle. I’ll also have the page turned, or computer screen on, to one question that I think I remember studying but forget the specific point. Sometimes, that piece of knowledge will pop into my head, it often doesn’t, but I am SO glad I waited when it does.
Otherwise, you can take a certain amount of break time during most exams. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t use it all that time? Think of your poor brain, working working working, with no breaks! Imagine sprinting around a track for four laps. Do you think you will be able to go faster on the fifth lap if you took a break or if you went right into it? I bet you would go faster if you took a break. Please, take all the breaks, use all the allotted time.
Evidence-wise, we can reference what we talked about previously: during your breaks, you can go for a walk outside (exercise and sunlight), have a snack (keep glucose up), drink some water (stay hydrated), or do some deep breathing (relax anxiety).
Bottom Line: Use all given breaks and time.
12. Relax afterwards
You did it! Well done. Now, this tip will not improve your exam performance but will enhance your mental well-being. Focusing on the exam, what you answered wrong or right, looking up correct answers on the internet, talking to friends about it, is an easy trap to fall into. Could you not do it? Instead, reward yourself for all of your hard work! Go out with friends, grab a milkshake, watch a movie, play video games, chill out.
Bottom Line: Don’t obscess, have recesss.
Ok, that’s it! I hope this post was helpful. I wish someone had told me these strategies when I was in high school. Best of luck, and if you see anyone eating a Big Mac during the exam, please send them this post.
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