We know that sleep is your superpower (thanks Matt Walker!). As a medical student, a good night’s sleep will improve my learning, memory, and test performance. It also improves my immune system, which helps to make sure I don’t get sick before an exam. But quality sleep doesn’t come naturally to me. I used to be a night owl, and I still am a light sleeper. During my undergraduate degree in BioMedical Sciences I would stay up all night before a big test in order to cram for it. Looking back, I don’t know how I kept this up for any amount of time. Read on for my current strategies to get some good sleep before an exam.
At least a week before the exam
For a week or two before an exam, I will adjust my sleep schedule to suit the exam. This isn’t always possible, but it’s helpful for really important exams. For instance, my MCAT took place at 8 am. I made sure to practice getting up at 6 am for 2 weeks prior to the exam so that my body could be accustomed to being alert by 8 in the morning. If your exam is at 8 am and you usually sleep until 9 am, you have a higher chance of being groggy. Preparation is key!
The day before the exam
I’m trying to implement these next strategies into my day to day life, but for now I ensure I do them the day before an exam. First, I don’t ingest anything with caffeine after noon that day. Second, I get some sort of exercise in. I make sure that the form of exercise is one that I’m used to, and that’s easy for me. Exercise improves my sleep quality, but I don’t want to do a difficult workout and then be sore the next day. Or worse, get an injury. I always do some walking, and some sort of cardio workout for 20 minutes. Also, avoid alcohol the day before an exam. It messes with your REM sleep and can wake you up in the middle of the night. Not helpful.
The night before the exam
This is probably the strategy that most people won’t like, but it’s helped me sleep so much better: don’t study the night before an exam! It’s tempting to get last-minute information in, but if your adrenaline starts getting pumped up with studying (like mine does) then it can make it harder to fall asleep. A full night’s sleep will be better for your exam performance than some last-minute studying that makes you get a fitful, short sleep. How this looks for me is that I study until about 3pm the day before my exam, and then I do anything else that’s fun and easy. I cook, I play with my dog, I play some video games, I read some fiction… I just try to take it easy and let all the information sink into my brain.
And there you have it. My top tips for how to sleep better before an exam. I’m sure there are many other tips and tricks out there, and I’d love to hear them over Facebook or Twitter. Let us know what works for you!