Note: This article contains generic information – not legal or medical advice. If you find yourself in a questionable or problematic situation, seek professional counsel.

In only a couple weeks, most students will sit for their first exams of the semester. Here are some scientifically proven study tips that can increase your chances of acing exams:

Study, Don’t Cram

Studies have shown that cramming simply doesn’t work. Basically, various areas of the brain support different types of memory. As a BBC article summarizes, “many of us think that actively thinking about trying to learn something will help us remember it. Studies suggest this is not the case.”1

Instead of rote learning, memory researchers advise students to uniquely reorganize the information so that is has a structure that can be retained in a meaningful way to them. For example, rewrite the content of what you want to learn in your own words. The overall idea is to make learning associative and active. In other words, be creative and diverse with your studying (e.g., flash cards, white board, study buddy, acronyms and so forth).

Practice Problems, Don’t Just Study

As a premed student, lecture in the classroom is oftentimes comprised of PowerPoint slides containing mostly theoretical concepts. It can be easy to unwittingly mislead yourself into thinking that simply because you understand a scientific idea, you have mastered the material in the context of solving applied problems. However, without practicing a sufficient amount of practice problems this is usually not the case.

For example, you can comprehend the premise of the equation for heat transfer (i.e., q = mc∆T) but fail to solve mathematically based heat transfer problems on a chemistry exam. Remember: practice makes permanent (not perfect) so make mistakes now and practice a ton of problems.

Get Enough Sleep

Researcher Cari Gillen-O’Neel, co-author of the 2013 article, “To Study or to Sleep? The Academic Costs of Extra Studying at the Expense of Sleep,” concluded that, “regardless of how much a student generally studies each day, if that student sacrifices sleep time to study more than usual, he or she will have more trouble understanding material taught in class and be more likely to struggle on an assignment or test the following day.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, an adult needs between 7-9 hours of sleep per night.2 Lack of sleep is correlated to a lower GPA, inferior academic performance, and increased mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. So, be sure to get enough rest before the big test!

As for napping, approximately 30-50% of college students nap.3 The effect is that, “nappers sleep less than non-nappers.”3

Eat Nutrient-Rich Foods

Many premeds heavily rely on energy soft drinks and coffee to power through exam period. However, staying hydrated is essential for maximum brain functioning. Even slight dehydration can cause a variety of negative symptoms including: headaches, tiredness, and decreased concentration.4

As for mealtime or snacks, it’s all too easy to grab sugary items as a source of quick and convenient energy. However, consider eating nutrient-rich foods such as beans, leafy greens, nuts, and unsweetened berries high in antioxidants.5 Also, think about consuming more complex carbs that are high in fiber and slow-digesting for for long-term energy (e.g., oatmeal, brown rice). 

Do Some Cardio

“Cardiovascular health is more important than any other single factor in preserving and improving learning and memory,” says Thomas Crook, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and memory researcher. “You’re working out your brain at the same time as your heart.”6 In fact, as little as 20 minutes of cardio can improve your memory. Whether it’s walking or jogging or whatever your preferred cardiovascular exercise is – get moving.

Switch Study Spots

Speaking of moving, according to a New York Times article, “simply alternating the room where a person studies improves retention.” 7 Try to diversify your study location. As the weather warms, it’s also helpful to study some outside or at least near a window with some natural sunlight.

Overall, the above list provides some scientifically proven tips for potentially improving your exam performance – but a “magic formula” does not exist. At the end of the day, there’s no substitute for giving yourself enough time and practicing a sufficient amount of problems to master the math or science material you’ll be tested on. Remember, it’s always best to push yourself upfront so you can start out the semester academically strong!