Sleep and Nutrition: What Your Brain Needs to Ace the SAT and ACT

It’s a familiar routine for teenagers the world over: stay up late to study or finish homework. Sleep until the last minute to steal some much-needed rest. Skip breakfast. Dash off to school.

For many students, this haphazard itinerary is the norm.

If you’re one of those students on the low-sleep, no-breakfast diet, it’s time to create some new habits heading into test day.

Succeeding in school, on standardized tests, or in work is not simply a matter of working hard. It’s also about preparing yourself—a human body with certain biological demands—to succeed.


In a previous post, The Science of Cramming, I discussed why cramming doesn’t work, but I didn’t get into its most damaging byproduct: sleep deprivation.

According to Dr. Philip Alapat, Medical Director of the Harris Health Sleep Disorders Center in Houston, Texas, a good-night’s sleep is far more valuable than any eleventh-hour review of trigonometry or subject-verb agreement. “Memory recall and ability to maintain concentration are much improved when an individual is rested,” Dr. Alapat explains. “By preparing early and being able to better recall what you have studied, your ability to perform well on exams is increased.” Studies suggest that students who sleep for at least seven hours a night perform, on average, 10% better than their sleep-deprived classmates. This is because memory neurons that convert short-term memories into long-term ones work best during sleep.

In short, if you want to remember what you’ve learned, you need to get a solid eight hours of sleep most nights, and especially the night before the test.

This wisdom applies to test preparation, too. “Sleep is as important to learning as exercise is to physical stamina,” explains Dr. Robert Oexman, Director of the Sleep to Live Institute in Joplin, Missouri. The brain needs regular sleep in order to process and retain new information just as your muscles need regular exercise in order to grow strong. As Dr. Oexman notes, studies have proven that eight hours of sleep are far more beneficial to students than even four or five hours of studying deep into the wee hours of the morning.


Just as important as sleep is nutrition. According to Dr. Alex Richardson, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention at the University of Oxford, research has demonstrated that eating breakfast helps students perform well on exams. “For the best breakfast,” Dr. Richardson explains:

include slow-release carbohydrates, such as whole rolled porridge oats, whole grain bread or low-sugar muesli, as they provide slow-release energy. Add a protein food, such as milk, yoghurt or eggs, to keep you feeling full for longer. On exam day aim to include a portion of a food rich in long-chain Omega-3 fats, such as smoked mackerel, as they are believed to have brain-boosting properties.

Visit the BBC’s guide for 5 exam-day breakfasts that will maximize your brain’s performance on test day.

In addition to food, it’s vital that you stay hydrated before and during the test. (While you can’t consume food or snacks while taking the SAT or ACT, you can bring food and snacks with you to have during breaks.)

As Dr. Richardson writes, “One of the best ways to maximise your focus is to stay hydrated. Even mild dehydration can lead to tiredness, headaches, reduced alertness and diminished concentration.” On the morning of the exam, start the day with a large glass of water or fruit tea. Avoid sodas or other sugary drinks, which can lead to peaks and valleys in alertness. Note that staying hydrated doesn’t start the morning of the exam. According to the Institute for Medicine, women on average need about 9 cups (2.2 liters) of water per day, while men need 13 cups (3 liters).

Test preparation doesn’t just mean stuffing information into your brain—it also means giving that vital organ the ingredients it needs to function properly.

Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities and has taught writing and reading at Elite Prep Los Angeles since 2010.