The following is an article I wrote on exam prep at the university level. The theory also holds true for preparing for a tournament.
How do you pass an exam? Study. Study. Study. We have lesson notes, study groups, study forums, study meetings, tutorials, classes, and on and on. But would you believe that you can sabotage all of your work in the last 24 hours?
Everyone knows the stereotype of the desperate student, cramming knowledge into a tired brain in the wee hours of the night. Coffee pots are drained, and other forms of accelerants are consumed in an effort to squeeze every possible alert minute out of the final few hours. Students take the day off work to catch up on sleep or to continue last minute preparations. If this sounds familiar, there may be a chance that you’re shooting yourself in the foot. You will if you focus only on your brain and ignore your body.
We might not think of it as an athletic endeavour, but exam writing can be as gruelling as any athletic contest. Exams are periods of intense concentration, worsened by knowing we have a time limit. Why would we prepare any differently than if we were preparing to play a game of hockey or run a marathon? I’ve seen a lot of people walk into an exam who were already running on empty. Here’s how to address the three key areas of the last day.
Go to bed. Sleep for eight hours. Nervousness and anxiety make it difficult, but a solid night’s sleep rests the brain and allows the body’s nervous system to recharge (the central nervous system is outside the scope of this article, but it merits your research).
Coffee is the lifeblood of the student. Regardless if it is truckstop rocket fuel or a Starbucks low fat skim milk frappuccino – they all rush caffeine into the blood stream. That’s useful, but there’s a right time and a wrong time to drink coffee. Caffeine (the accelerant in coffee and “energy drinks”) has a specific life cycle. It perks you up in about half an hour, but there is a crash period after about 6 hours. If you’re going to have coffee on exam day, have it close to exam time or even during the exam. The worst thing is to have coffee 4-6 hours before you start writing the exam - you will bottom out while writing.
The same goes for “energy drinks” like Red Bull, Rockstar, etc. They are formulated with caffeine, sugars, and other chemicals that act to boost energy levels. Unfortunately, they also can lead to crashes. Again, if you consume these drinks during exam week, timing is critical. I’ve seen studies that show the crash cycle can begin in as little as an hour and a half for some people - don’t take them more than a couple hours before your exam.
Both coffee and energy drinks deliver their kick by acting upon the adrenaline system. By tricking the body’s chemistry into releasing more adrenaline, it enables us to perk up for short periods of time. However, every upswing necessitates a downswing, so be careful to time it so your downswing doesn’t come during your exam.
The type of food you eat and the time you eat it also will affect your ability to concentrate during your exams. Heavy carbohydrate-laden meals are harder to digest and can divert a significant portion of your blood supply to the digestion process, sometime up to 40%. This is why a heavy meal can make you feel sluggish. Instead of one large meal before the exam, it’s a better idea to eat several smaller meals throughout the day. Try to stock up on natural food (fruit, vegetables) and try to stay away from heavily processed food.
I always brought a little something to snack on during my exam. Four hours is a long time to go without nutrition, so I would usually bring in a protein bar that I picked up at a supplement store. Taking a break halfway through the exam helped me clear my mind and the snack replenished my energy for the last two hours.