Having just started studying again in my late twenties, I am reminded of all the desperate ways we try to overload our brains when exams loom. Record cards, corkboards, exercise books, revision plans, mock tests and lots of sticky notes jostle for space, and while everyone's capacity for learning is different, there are practical things you can do to ensure your brain is ready to absorb all that information.


How to optimise your exam performance

Late nights, stress, missed meals and quick food fixes all play havoc with our ability to concentrate, absorb information and function properly. So, if you're in the midst of a revision frenzy, give yourself the very best chance with our top tips to optimise your performance.

Eat wisely in the lead up to an exam and on the day itself, and you’re more likely to fine-tune your problem-solving capabilities and enhance your overall performance. Foods that supply a steady source of energy (known as low glycaemic foods) are ideal fuel sources for a hard-working brain, as are foods rich in essential micronutrients like zinc, iron and vitamin B12. Don’t neglect your hydration levels either – water is essential for your brain cells to communicate. Even mild dehydration may slow the speed at which your brain processes information. The NHS recommends you drink around 1.2 litres (or six to eight glasses) of hydrating fluid a day, most of which should be water.

The final piece to your exam strategy has to be a good night’s sleep – this improves your brain’s ability to adapt to inputs which helps you learn better, process memories more accurately, and clear out the waste products more efficiently. Lack of sleep will make revising more difficult, and you'll be much more likely to reach for a sugary fix to get you through the learning lulls.

Useful strategies include warm milk and herbal teas before bed – these may have a sedative effect, while a carb-rich snack an hour or so before you head upstairs will clear the way for sleep-inducing amino acids to reach the brain.

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Ditch your phone, tablet or laptop at least 30 minutes before bed. If you must use these devices, make sure they are set to 'night shift mode', and avoid taking your tablet or phone to bed with you. Rather than using your phone as an alarm, try an old-fashioned alarm clock or a body clock that wakes you gently with increasing light – this way, you won't be disturbed by incoming messages or tempted to go online if you wake up in the night.

Read our guide to getting a good night’s sleep for more suggestions to help you nod off.

Students in an exam room

Best foods to eat before an exam

From wholegrains, nuts and seeds to tomatoes and sage, make sure you're opting for brain-boosting foods. In the build-up to the big day, try out a few different foods so you know which ones make you feel your best. Here are our favourite foods to keep your brain well-oiled and your memory sharp:

  • Dark chocolate – thanks to its ability to improve blood flow to the brain, eating dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids) within 2 hours of your exam may help verbal memory and mood.
  • Eggs – one of the best dietary sources of choline, this little-talked-about nutrient is needed for the formation of cell membranes and for brain function, including all important memory.
  • Avocado – rich in healthy, mono-unsaturated fats, avocado is another useful food for promoting blood flow, this oxygenates the brain helping it work optimally, avocado is also rich in protective plant compounds that may boost brain function.
  • Oats – providing a steady source of energy that helps to power you through those long-cramming sessions and will keep your focus and concentration sharp on the day itself
  • Oily fish – studies suggest oily fish, like salmon, sardines and mackerel, may improve brain function and flexibility and help maintain your attention. Not a fish fan? Try chia seeds or flaxseeds.

Best energy-boosting breakfasts for exam day

How you fuel your body on exam day is critical to your success so fill up at breakfast on slow-release wholegrains like oats, these provide a steady supply of energy and don’t forget eggs, for that all-important recall.

Here are our five favourite pre-exam breakfasts and why they may help fuel you to success:

  • Poached eggs with smashed avocado and tomatoes – designed to keep you full all morning, this breakfast provides a winning combination of carbs, protein and fats. With eggs for memory, avocado to support blood flow and wholemeal bread for a steady supply of fuel.
  • Banana oat pancakes – who doesn’t love pancakes? The combination of oats with their slow-release energy as well as banana for its natural sweetness makes our pancakes perfect for energising you from the start of the morning until lunchtime.
  • Overnight oats – no other breakfast beats it for convenience, overnight oats are the ‘go-to’ choice when time is short. Supplying a steady energy combined with protein – you can take your pick from PBJ or carrot cake.
  • Dark chocolate and pistachio porridge – optimise the brain benefits of dark chocolate and oats in this deliciously indulgent start to the day. Finish with a handful of brain-healthy nuts, like pistachio.
  • Superfood scrambled eggs – packed with brain-boosting ingredients, including salmon, pumpkin seeds, turmeric and eggs this is a breakfast of winners.
  • Omelette roll-up – can’t face much first thing? These roll-ups are super quick and portable and an ideal protein booster that are especially good for smaller appetites. We’ve used salsa to fill our roll-ups but why not raid the fridge and use what you have to hand? Other tasty options include leftover vegetables like boiled potatoes or tomatoes, or add some ham, smoked or poached salmon, cheese or even pesto works well.

Is it good to have caffeine before exams?

A low to moderate amount of caffeine might be your secret weapon to exam success because it appears to boost your concentration and mood during sub-optimal times of the day, like early morning. This may be helpful for those stressed out by their exams and especially if the exam is scheduled to take place in the morning. Don’t forget though, caffeine is a stimulant to which we all react differently – this will depend on your genetic make-up and your age, so be sure to understand how you react to caffeine before adding it to your pre-exam routine.

Whether you’re drinking coffee, tea, caffeinated soft drinks or even hot chocolate, low doses of caffeine may make you feel more alert and mentally sharp. Don’t be tempted to increase your caffeine intake to higher levels though – caffeine in excess may work against you causing agitation and anxiety as well as dizziness, tremors and an inability to sleep well. This means you should avoid energy drinks because their caffeine levels are typically high (and much greater than the maximum 150mg caffeine per litre permitted for regular fizzy drinks), energy drinks are not suitable for children, young people and certain other groups.

Walnuts and pumpkin seeds

Other tips for a strong performance

Swerve the sugar

Tempted to reach for something sweet to get you through? Sadly, that’s not the answer – the brain needs a steady and consistent source of energy to function optimally. The temporary high you'll get from sugary treats will be quickly followed by a crash in blood sugar levels, this is likely to lead to fatigue and muddled thinking.

So, ditch the sugar and prepare some tasty snacks instead – check out our healthy snacks including our lemon & coriander hummus and our healthy cookies, or enjoy blueberries, strawberries and other berries – they're full of vitamin C, which is thought to improve mental agility. Vitamin E and zinc are also believed to have a positive impact on the brain, so have a handful of pumpkin seeds or walnuts the next time hunger strikes.

Try these 10 healthy snacks you can make in minutes.

Stay calm

No matter how close your exam is, keep calm. Stress can have an adverse effect on your appetite and skipping meals or eating the wrong foods won't do your concentration any favours.

Discover our top diet and lifestyle tips to help manage your stress levels.

Keep active

Studies suggest physical activity promotes blood flow to the brain including the parts of the brain that control our thinking and memory. Keeping active also appears to help us be more creative and perform better academically. Even 20 minutes of exercise before you sit down to study may be enough to improve your concentration and help you focus on your learning.

Support your immunity

If you've been suffering from stress or sleepless nights or had a poor diet during revision, your immune system will likely need a helping hand. Avoid having your hard work scuppered by a cold or worse, instead be sure to fill your plate with the foods you need to stay well including fruit, vegetables and wholegrains.

Check out these immune-friendly recipes.

Enjoyed this? Now read…

How much sugar should children have?
Healthy eating: what school-aged children need
Healthy eating: What teenagers need
Top 5 foods to boost your child's brainpower
10 foods to boost your brainpower
Foods that improve memory

What are your top foodie tips for exam success? Leave a comment below...

This article was last reviewed on 26 April 2024 by Kerry Torrens.


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