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Before an Exam: 6 Do’s and Don’ts for the Final Hour

You’ve studied all you can … now it’s go-time. Two experts share tips to help you make the most of the last 60 minutes before you walk into the exam.

The countdown has begun. You have one hour to go. You either paced your studying at regular intervals for weeks. Or you crammed like crazy last night. But now, all that’s behind you. Ahead of you is the important milestone that’s lurked in your subconscious since the first day of class.

“The last hour before the exam can be the most anxiety-inducing time,” says Dr. Leslie Klein, a psychologist with Georgetown Psychology Associates and a member of the clinical faculty at the George Washington University. “The trick is to stay focused and positive, and engage in activities that promote memory, retention, and positive moods.”

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So, what does that mean for you? Of course, we all have our go-to “relaxers” — those activities that center and calm us. So the best options vary by individual. But if you’re looking for smart ways to spend the last hour before your exam, here are six do’s and don’ts to help you cruise through the challenging time right before a big test.

1. DO break a sweat.

jumping rope before exam
If the thought of finals makes you perspire, head for the gym or take a brisk walk. “Cardio exercise, such as jogging and jumping rope, is especially beneficial for reducing stress and anxiety,” says Dr. Maggie Wray, a neurobiology and behavior specialist who focuses on mentoring and coaching teens and young adults. “Working out can also help improve focus and problem-solving abilities. If you don’t have time for a full workout, even 10 to 20 minutes of brisk walking can have positive effects.” And yes, walking to the exam site counts!

2. DO unburden your brain.

journal writing to reduce stress
Well-meaning friends and family may tell you that your test worries are all in your head. But isn’t that the worst place they could be? “If you want to reduce your test anxiety, one of the best things to do right before your test is spend 5 to 10 minutes writing down your worries about the test,” says Dr. Wray. “Research shows that this can substantially increase anxious students’ test scores. I like to imagine this as emptying your brain of worry before the test.”

So, get those thoughts out of your head and onto paper where you can confront them and move on. Also make sure to write down what you’ve done to prepare well for the test. This may put you in a more positive frame of mind.

3. DO watch what you eat.

Just say no … to high-fructose corn syrup and simple-carb foods that will make you want to hibernate instead of concentrate. Research indicates that what you eat before an exam can improve focus, memory, and mood. “Eat a nutritious meal containing various superfoods — high-fiber, slow-digesting foods such as oatmeal — and a healthy snack like fruit, yogurt, and nuts about an hour before the test,” says Dr. Klein. You may not know what questions you’ll face on the exam, but food intake is one thing you can control to keep energy levels steady while you craft your answers.

4. DON’T cram.

Most research about what to do immediately before your exam suggests that you avoid cramming. For example, a study by Will Thalheimer, a learning-and-performance consultant, spotlights the science that shows why optimal learning takes place over time. And a UCLA study found that it’s not worth sacrificing sleep-time for cram-time (so don’t get up earlier than normal for that 8 a.m. final), and that “cramming tended to be followed by days with more academic problems.”

But there’s a difference between cramming and reviewing your notes. While frantic, last-minute immersion in the test topic probably won’t do anything but stress you out more, research suggests that getting excited for a test boosts performance more than attempting to calm down. Even doing something as simple as saying to yourself, “I am excited” can help you view your anxieties in a more positive light. And if looking over your notes pumps you up, puts pep in your step, and gets you in a winner’s mindset to ace the test, by all means spend a few minutes reviewing them.

5. DON’T be late.

Sixty minutes before “game time” is no time to putter around your room or lose track of time. “Use part of that hour to make sure you get there early,” says Dr. Klein. “In order to avoid any unforeseen stressors, get to the exam location ahead of time, scope out the spot in which you will be working, make sure it feels comfortable to you, double-check that you have all of your [testing] materials, and engage in positive self-talk, such as reminding yourself how much you know, reflecting on how hard you studied, focusing on a reward after the test, and telling yourself to be confident.” Once you’re settled into the exam location, stretch a little, take a few deep breaths, sip from your water bottle to stay hydrated, and relax. You’ve got this.

6. DON’T psych yourself out.

Since exam time is likely to be stressful, don’t be overly critical of yourself right before the test. Say, for example, you ended up cramming the night before, you overloaded on sugar and caffeine on a midnight coffee run, and now you’re feeling the ill effects. Well, who hasn’t done that?

“Don’t dwell on these moments,” says Dr. Klein. “Negative thoughts have a way of amplifying, and self-critical thinking can quickly become a downward spiral into larger doubts about your abilities, which can then make it even more difficult to stay positive and confident during the exam.” Before you head into that classroom, focus on what you’ve done right, how hard you’ve worked, and how much you know. “While certain strategies are helpful leading up to the exam, you need to grant yourself kindness and grace if you slip up,” says Dr. Klein.

Bottom line: Your biggest pre-exam goal is to stay positive.

How exactly you do that will depend on your personality and interests. You might want to work off stress with a workout, get in the zone by listening to your favorite playlist, or laugh with friends for a few minutes before you settle into your seat.

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