Scientific Hacks for Making It Through Exams

Ryerson has dealt me the grizzliest exam schedule, ever, in four years of an otherwise warm relationship. My first exam is on the 9th of December, at 8 AM. Biochemistry. The biggest hurdle I have to maintaining my GPA this semester. My next exam is four hours after the end of the first. My next exam is 24 hours after the second exam. I have this unfortunate set of three exams twice in the space of a week.

But I shouldn’t complain, because my neighbour has four exams in 24 hours. And under the Ryerson Examination Policy, there’s nothing to be done but accept our sorry fates and begin studying.  

I have become very fond of life hacks during my post-secondary career – I like to think of them as noble shortcuts. Below is a list of some of my favorite brain hacks that have made an enormous difference in how I perform not just on tests, but how well I learn in class and retain what I’m studying:

Drink water.

The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a sub-publication of scientific journal Nature (which is like the New York Times of science – if your science is published in Nature, you’ve made it), found that, in addition to short-term decline in cognitive function, mild dehydration (1-2% water loss) may even cause long-term damage to the working parts of your brain cells, potentially contributing to the overall decline in brain function with age. How thirsty you actually feel also affects how long it takes you to solve problems and respond in new situations.

The average adult should be drinking at minimum 8 cups of water a day (2L), and more if you exercise.  

Sleep is an absolute.

Excessive sleepiness decreases your alertness and ability to concentrate, and impairs your judgment and memory recall, all skills required to study and perform well on an exam.

Forgo the pre-exam all-nighter for a minimum six hours of sleep. Chances are, you’ll be able to work through the questions much more efficiently if you’re well rested, and do better on the exam overall.

In the weeks leading up to finals, make it your priority to get at minimum six hours a night, and squeeze in a power nap midday if you’re feeling sluggish.

Make time for exercise.

Scientists published a meta-analysis in Brain Research, meaning that they took all of the previously published data about the effects of exercise on brain function, and put it all together for a “big picture” understanding of the connection. What they found is that exercise and short-term cognitive function are positively connected, although the connection isn’t a strong as previous studies had reported.

What this really means it that it’s probably beneficial for you to briskly walk to your exam from Union, or go for a short jog or bike ride before a long study session at the SLC; realistically, you don’t have to work out an hour each day to boost your brain function. I try to bike to all of my exams, because the activity has always seemed to wake my brain up — now we know why! 

Make time for things that make you happy.

However, aerobic exercise (ie. cardio) definitely improves your mood, releasing a flood of endorphins into your system that make you happier, while inhibiting pain signals. Researchers have found that the way the brain is affected by a positive mood also increases problem solving abilities, allowing you to approach problems more creatively, and make unconventional semantic associations.

Exercise is one of the ways I keep my mood elevated, and I know from experience I handle the stress of school with more finesse when I am happy (meaning, I don’t burst into tears in the library if I’ve made time for a couple runs that week).

Identify the little things that make you happy, and make time for them, especially when you’re stressed. If your happy doesn’t look anything like exercise, but looks a little more like an episode of Scandal, make it happen, so you don’t go back to studying afterward feeling like your entire identity is school.

Not scientific, but still important:

Obviously, all of these tips can only really be implemented into your routine if you don’t procrastinate – so, plan. As soon as the exam schedule was released, I needed to know how I was going to finish all of my assignments, do well on my last three midterms, and be 85% prepared for all of my finals by the end of the semester. Laying out all my deadlines and writing out a strategy really helped me focus.

So, create goals. Set deadlines. Try to stay ahead of the curve. Don’t tackle things as they come.

Your mental and emotional health always come first.

You are a person. Your GPA isn’t the defining element of you and your future success. Your mental wellness is more important than passing a course or getting an A+. Be open to accepting when it’s time to step back from school and practice self-care.


Do you have a particularly nasty exam schedule? If so, share with us @RUStudentLife, so we may all take comfort in solidarity.