What To Do 1hr Before An Exam: Cram Or Chill?

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If you’ve got an exam coming up and you’re trying not to go into last-minute panic mode, you might be wondering what the most productive use of your time is. 

We’re going to look at what you can do to boost your score as the clock ticks down and you have only a few scraps of valuable time remaining. 

In that 1hr before an exam should you cram until the last second? Or refrain from trying to take on-board new information and simply focus upon state of mind?

It’s really not ideal to be revising in the final hour before an exam begins. You are very unlikely to truly learn anything significant in this short period, and if you are trying to cram, it’s probably an indication you’re existing in a mild state of anxiousness.

In stressful situations it’s common for simple memory recall to become jumbled, so you  would be better off taking time to calm yourself before the exam starts. This way you’ll be more likely to better recall and apply what you have already learned. 

If you are confident in your studies, there is no harm in glancing over your revision cards one last time, but don’t try and absorb new material

You may send your mind into a panic if you identify a gap in knowledge you hadn’t realized was there, and this area may not even come up in the exam – so don’t risk it!

Let’s look at how to prepare for an exam counting down from the night before right up until the last available minute. Talking points are broken down into….

  • what should you do the night before an exam?
  • what should you do on the morning of an exam?
  • what should you do in the last hour before the exam?
  • when should you cram if you absolutely feel the need to?

Whilst this post looks into how you should approach the final moments before an exam, you might be interested to ways you can bio-hack your brain to make studying easier. 

What to do the night before an exam?

You are probably already familiar with the advice to get a good night’s sleep, but this is definitely not a throwaway comment like many others.

Do not stay up really late trying to take in information; you will complete your exam much better and have superior recall if your brain has had sufficient rest.

After all, sleep deprivation impairs working memory and your attention span. It’s also necessary to consolidate memory and make newly learned information “stick”.

You may find that it helps to do some exercise the night previous to your exam (not the morning of the exam, but the one before) as this may make you more physically tired and better able to drop off in the evening. It may also improve your sleep, and could help with revision that you do during the day.

The key to sleeping well is knowing that you are prepared for the exam, and while that is often easier said than done, it is a good idea to cover some of your core subjects on the last evening.

Do not set a study schedule that requires you to look at new material just before dozing off. It likely won’t stick, or in the worst case you might end up misunderstanding a concept that will have knock on effects later on.

Instead, select some of the core but simple concepts, and look at these as you are winding down for the night (assuming you wish to study, rather than doing something different and distracting). This will help to reassure your brain that you do know the key material for the course, and will help promote restfulness.

What to do on the morning of an exam?

You should aim to wake up at least a couple of hours before the exam, and not try to catch up on lost sleep right up to the last moment.

Being real, it’s unlikely you’re going to have the best night’s sleep in your life the night before a big exam, so all your actions should be put towards minimising potential stress points.

If you’re interested, the actual amount of sleep which has been linked to optimal cognitive performance is 7hrs. 

Cutting it too fine may lead to poor sleep (as you may feel anxious about oversleeping and missing the exam) and could result in you being groggy during the exam.

Eat a good breakfast so that your brain has plenty of fuel to work with. You may want to include some fruit, as this will give your brain access to sugar, which is a preferred fuel for it. 

Fruit juice is not such a good option; it lacks fiber, which could lead to you burning through the energy reserves quickly and experiencing a slump during the exam.

If you have time, you may want to run through some more notes, but you should stop doing this around an hour (or more) before the exam. Anything you haven’t learned by this point probably isn’t going to be absorbed.

It is better to go into an exam with a rested brain than to set your head spinning with facts and dates you should have absorbed in advance and find that you can’t focus when you sit down with the paper. Stop studying and take a break!

Check you have everything you need, and leave for the exam with plenty of time to spare.

Getting stressed because your transport might make you late is not a recipe for success.

What to do during the hour immediately before an exam?

The last hour before the exam should not be designated as revision time. 

If you are anxious to do something, look once at your key notes, and then put the subject down and take a rest. 

Do something different.

Talk to your friends, watch something funny on your phone, read a book, or otherwise distract yourself. Have a bit to drink to make sure your brain is hydrated (just don’t drink so much you’ll need to go to the toilet every five minutes).

Have a slow energy release snack, like a nut bar or dried fruit. This will provide your brain with fuel and prevent any hunger cramps during the exam. Do not eat a lot, as this could make you sleepy and will divert energy into your digestive process, but have something light to give yourself energy.

Some people suggest writing down a worry list before the exam, and if you can’t distract yourself, this is a great option for unloading your concerns so you can focus once you hit the exam hall.

Make a list of all the exam related things that worry you, and consider adding an action plan for how you’ll handle them if they become a reality (i.e.what will you do in the last 10 minutes of the exam if you know not all the questions will be answered fully). 

This might not be a strategy for everyone, but if you can’t get the exam out of your head, it is more productive than just sitting and stressing about it. 

Don’t chat with your friends about the exam. You will probably end up stressing each other out. If someone brings up something you have forgotten to look at or someone has done a lot more studying than you, this won’t help to soothe your exam nerves.

Talk about any other subject or separate yourself and do something calming. Some people find that meditation techniques, stretching, or deep breathing can help.

Stretching releases endorphins which give you a high that is also known to help to boost confidence and make you feel more positive.

When should you do “last-minute” cramming?

Hint: not at the last minute! 

Any cramming you need to do should be completed a day or two before the exam.You really don’t want to be working on “new” (or previously unrevised material) the day of the exam, and certainly not at the last minute.

Your study plan should ideally have you covering all fresh material by about two to three days before the exam. The last couple of days can be used to run over difficult areas and shore up your knowledge, but should ideally not include areas you haven’t looked at.

If you do discover something you have missed, make sure you are looking at it during the day before the exam – not even the evening before. You are likely to be stressed by the sudden realization that something new has come up, so make sure you have time to cover it in a more relaxed fashion if possible.

Conclusion: So, to chill or to cram?

The hour before an exam is definitely time to chill, not to cram. 

“Chill” may not be the exact term as you probably aren’t feeling too relaxed, but it should be your goal to unwind, know that you have done your best so far, and that there is no time for more.

Don’t sit with your books and try to frantically memorize more facts. Your mind will no longer be in a state to absorb the information, and trying to force it will significantly hinder your ability to complete the exam when the time comes.

You are far more likely to perform well if you take a break and step into the exam hall with a clear mind. Being calm and confident and telling yourself that you are ready is a far better recipe for success than making yourself feel unprepared with frantic cramming – even if you don’t know everything you should.

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