Every college student is all too familiar with the process of studying for a midterm. Many people focus on improving their study habits, sleep schedule, exam techniques, and so on to get a better grade. But what about our eating habits? What should you eat before a midterm to enhance your exam performance? Here is a guide for every college student on what they should eat and avoid eating at each stage of studying for a midterm.

1. Planning

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The cycle begins when you find out you have a midterm and start planning a study schedule. In terms of food, it doesn’t matter too much what you eat. However, since you’re probably not under a lot of pressure yet, avoid caffeine. The more caffeine you consume, the more you will need to reach the same effect, which can lead to an unhealthy reliance on caffeine. Therefore, only drink caffeine if you really, really need to.

2. The grind

Clara Park

This is when you’re spending hours on end studying in the library. You’re consolidating your class notes, doing practice problems, reviewing key concepts, going to office hours, and so forth. This stage is often the longest and most important stage of studying for a midterm, so it’s really crucial that you eat well during this phase.

Even though you might be completely absorbed in studying, make sure you don’t forget about your health! Eat at regular meal times, snack minimally, exercise, and try to balance your diet. Maintaining good hygiene is also a must—the last thing you want is to get sick before an exam. That being said, you should also stray from foods that are likely to cause food poisoning, like raw fish.

Snacking is unavoidable during this stage. When you grab a snack, make sure to serve yourself in small quantities to avoid accidentally eating mindlessly for hours. Dried fruit, nuts, dark chocolate, and popcorn are all classic study snacks. Alternate between the healthy and less healthy snacks for some variation. Drinks that have low amounts of caffeine, like green tea, are also great for keeping your brain awake but not too hyper.

3. The night before

Anna Chang

Complex carbohydrates like pasta and rice are a good source of longer-term energy, which make them a reasonable dinner option. In the same way marathon runners carbo-load the night before a race, you can also carbo-load the night before an exam to give you a lot of energy for any long tests you have the next day.

It is essential to get a good night of sleep before a big exam, although sometimes people are left with no choice but to do some late-night cramming. At this stage, caffeine may be a good idea if you’re planning to get minimal sleep, but try to limit yourself. Consume it in moderate amounts, so you don't accidentally consume more caffeine than necessary to stay focused. Keep in mind that the duration of a caffeine buzz is different for each person, but it generally peaks at 15-45 minutes after consumption.

4. The morning of the exam

Heather Held

It’s exam day: what should you eat for breakfast? Whole grains, fruits, and protein are your best friends. This means something along the lines of avocado toast, oatmeal and fruit, yogurt parfait, or a veggie omelette.

How much you should eat depends on the time of your exam. Right before an exam you ideally want to feel full, but not to the point where you start feeling lethargic. So, for early morning exams, eat a light breakfast. For midday exams, eat a filling breakfast and a light lunch. For night exams, eat well for both breakfast and lunch, and then grab a light dinner. Depending on the time of the exam, it may be better to eat a full meal after the exam instead, but you should still make sure your stomach won’t bother you during your exam.

5. The last few minutes before an exam

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Some people consume sugar or caffeine for an immediate mental boost. Sugary drinks, chocolate bars, coffee, or tea will definitely give you a temporary burst of energy for your exam, but be warned: sugar and caffeine highs work for some people but not everyone. Make sure to experiment beforehand to determine whether this is the best strategy for you. The biggest risk with a sugar high is the preceding crash, so this is more likely to work for shorter exams. Caffeine and sugar jitters may also be distracting in an exam. That being said, sugar and caffeine are still an effective and almost instant source of energy for a brain boost.

If you want to play it safe, you can never go wrong with fruit: apples, bananas, and oranges are great pre-exam snacks. Fruit contains sugar, a source of energy, and is also much healthier than sugary drinks. It may take longer to feel the effects of the natural sugar compared to sugary drinks because fruit takes more time to digest, so aim to eat fruit some time between 30 minutes to an hour before the exam.

It’s also crucial to drink plenty of water before an exam. Research shows that your brain functions faster and you can focus better when you're hydrated. Be careful not to drink so much water that you’ll need to run to the bathroom in the middle of the test. I suggest drinking a lot of water in the last hour before an exam and then going to the bathroom about 15 minutes beforehand. Drinking ice-cold water can be an effective way to wake your brain up.

6. Post-exam

Jocelyn Hsu

It’s finally over. No matter how well you did, you can relax a little bit. Splurge a bit on food. Celebrate the end of your exam with a cupcake, slice of pizza, or whatever you feel like before you have to start the rigorous study cycle all over again.

As you go through this cycle, you can continue to experiment with what foods work best for your study habits until you find your ideal study diet. Happy studying!