If you’re about to take the SAT or the ACT, or a final for a class, or the LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, or GRE exam—this article is for you.
It was my happiest phone call of the day. “Guess what!?!” said the excited voice on the other end of the line. “I did it! I got my scores back–and I got a 514 on the MCAT! The 91st percentile! Better than 91% of the population! I am ecstatic!”
“Whoo hoo!” I almost shouted. “I knew you could do it! I’m not surprised one bit!”
This happy phone call was a far cry from the call this same girl and I had had the previous April, when she’d contacted me in tears to ask for my professional help with her med school application. On that day she’d told me in a quavering voice that even though she’d done the best, most thorough MCAT prep she could and had scored high on multiple practice tests, she’d pretty much bombed the actual MCAT exam. “Now I’ll have to pay a ton of money to take another MCAT class,” she said, trying not to cry. “It’ll take me months to prep for the MCAT all over again. My med school application won’t be in until late–”
“Hold on,” I said.
“What did you eat before testing?”
“Eat?” she’d said, bewildered.
“Yes,” I said. “What did you eat that day? Do you remember?”
“Well,” she said, “I don’t usually eat breakfast–but I think I had a plain bagel, and some orange juice. Why?”
Over the next 30 minutes I explained to her how what she ate and what she didn’t eat before testing likely affected her testing experience. I suggested that she sign up to take the MCAT again, as soon as possible, with only minimal additional prep, and simply eat better on the morning of the test and during the breaks. The result? The overjoyed phone call you read about above.
What to eat before testing
In the 23 years I’ve been doing med school admissions consulting at GetIntoMedSchool.com, I’ve had this same discussion with hundreds of pre-med students.
Here’s the nutrition advice that has proven to be a game-changer for every one of them.
1. Eat protein before testing.
I learned this long ago from Dr. Judith Wurtman, a nutrition scientist at MIT. Without getting too technical, let me explain it this way. Essentially, your brain needs certain chemicals in order for you to think straight. These necessary chemicals are all made from amino acids. Your body can’t manufacture amino acids out of thin air, so you’ll need to ingest them–by eating protein–before and during your test experience.
If you do this, you’ll experience increased focus and concentration, stronger recall of facts, greater clarity of thought, and more stamina for getting through a long exam.
High protein foods include eggs, nuts, cheese, low-sugar whole milk yogurt, cottage cheese, fish, meat, poultry, healthy protein powders, and legumes. (I suggest you not eat turkey on test day, though–because turkey’s high levels of L-tryptophan could make you sleepy.)
Many students eat whole-egg omelettes stuffed with vegetables and cheese on test days, but if you don’t like omelettes–here’s a great Men’s Health article that contains eight high-protein breakfasts that “aren’t all about eggs.”
2. Eat additional protein during test breaks.
According to Dr. Judith Wurtman, stress decreases the volume of the brain chemicals you need to think straight.
The solution? Replenish your brain’s supply of “think straight” chemicals by eating more protein throughout the test day when possible.
During very long tests, you’ll be given breaks during which you can eat. Bring along an insulated lunch bag that contains an ice pack and some easy-to-grab hard boiled or deviled eggs, cheese, low-sugar whole milk yogurt, cottage cheese, meat, or chicken. If you’re a vegetarian, pack yourself some small, portable, tightly wrapped burritos made of whole wheat tortillas slathered with nut butters or seasoned bean/pea paste (and cheese, if you eat cheese).
You may be eating this food while walking down a hall to a bathroom, so make sure it’s all very portable– easy to grab and eat while walking.
3. Enjoy healthy fats alongside your proteins.
Your brain needs fat to function. On test day, don’t worry about the dietary fat that comes along with the egg yolks, nuts, cheese, low-sugar whole milk yogurt, 4% milk fat cottage cheese, fish, and meats you’ll be consuming. Go ahead and cook your eggs in real butter. Add a side of avocado sprinkled with salt and pepper if that appeals to you. Fat will help you on test day.
4. Consider also eating fresh apple, pumpkin seeds, and/or blueberries.
According to this article on DevelopingHumanBrain.org, students who eat apples report lower levels of stress and anxiety and higher test scores than those that don’t. Pumpkin seeds contain several fats important for brain health, along with zinc, which can contribute to enhanced intellectual focus. Blueberries are nutritional and antioxidant powerhouses that can contribute to improved verbal comprehension, memory, reasoning skill, concentration, decision-making, and even numerical ability.
5. Starting the day before you test, be sure you’re well-hydrated.
Even mild dehydration can sap your brain power, drain your energy, interfere with your concentration, and give you a throbbing headache on test day. Fully hydrate the day before, and swear off all alcohol in the 48 hours before the exam in order to avoid alcohol-related dehydration. Drink a moderate amount of water before you test, and more water during test breaks. Bring a water bottle so you won’t have to stand in line at the building’s only drinking fountain. Drink enough so you stay hydrated, but not so much that a full bladder interferes with your concentration during the exam.
What not to eat before testing
1. When choosing what to eat before testing, stay far away from anything made with white flour and/or sugar.
This includes donuts, bagels, muffins, pancakes, waffles, syrups, and fruit juices.
Even if you’re not diabetic, the last thing you want is to rocket your blood sugar into the stratosphere, only to have it crash in the middle of your second test section. You’ll know when your blood sugar crashes, because you’ll start to feel confusion, indecisiveness, anxiety, brain fog, and depression. After 23 years I’ve gotten so experienced at seeing this in test-takers that sometimes, I can look at test results and pinpoint exactly when the student experienced a blood sugar crash.
Don’t focus only on “what to eat before testing.”
Make good nutritional health a part of your overall academic strategy. Make it a point to eat every day as though you’re fueling a high-achieving academic machine.
Because you are.
Want more help?
For specific help creating strong applications to law, medical, business, or grad school, see the helpful article I’ve written here.
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Who is Jeannie Burlowski?
Jeannie is a full-time academic strategist, podcast host, and sought-after speaker for students ages 12–26 and their parents and grandparents. Her writing, speaking, and podcasting help parents set their kids up to graduate college debt-free and move directly into careers they excel at and love. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Huffington Post, USA Today, NerdWallet, and US News and World Report, and on CBS News.