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Dear Mitch,

On the day of a big test like the upcoming PSAT, I know some teachers and books recommend doing all kinds of things that are not what I would normally do. For example, one book says to have a really big breakfast, and my friend's teacher said if you want to be alert you might have a sip or two of coffee because caffeine is known to keep people up, and I guess it's good to be up for the whole three hour test. What do you think of all the little theories on what kids should do that day? Because to me they sound like a waste of time and even kind of dumb. What do you think?

Clifton Ellis

Vancouver, BC


Dear Clifton,

I'm glad you asked this, because I do hear the exact suggestions you mentioned, plus a dozen more. Everyone is different, so in a forum like this it never feels right to say ALWAYS OR NEVER to anything. For all I know, there are people who would do better on the test by not bothering to show up at all. Who knows? BUT, I DO HAVE MY OWN FEELING ON THE WHOLE GENRE OF SUGGESTIONS TO WHICH YOU ARE REFERRING.


I can only give you anecdotal support for my opinion here, but over the years I have collected a mountain of such reports, and primarily from people who I know and trust.

To give you an idea, here are few occurrences I have witnessed:

An otherwise intelligent and sensible parent became concerned when she noticed her daughter was having trouble sleeping the night prior to the exam. So, when a warm glass of milk didn't do the trick, the parent panicked and gave the child half of an over-the counter sleep-aide. It was the daughter's first time ingesting that particular medicine, and her light-weight body did not metabolize it the way her parent anticipated/hoped. Half of one pill seemed prudent, the parent later told me in tears, but the following morning the student was a ZOMBIE. I think one could have affixed a note to her head with a thumbtack and she would have thanked the tacker for making sure she had the note with her. She retook the test the next time it was given, and this time I had the parent get her up unusually early the day before, so she was only about one hour sleep-deprived for school on that Friday, which went unnoticed. Then the night before the test when I called to whish her luck, I advised her not to bother going to sleep. Instead, I told her just get into bed at your normal time, turn off the light and try to keep your eyes open as long as possible. With the pressure to fall asleep and get a good night's sleep gone, she went right off to dreamland.

Coffee? I have heard parents telling their child it's good for a boost on the test, just a sip or two. Again, this is almost always a case of a person's body trying something new that it is not used to. Coffee for someone who has not built up a response-expectation, combined with the nervousness accompanying a big test, can readily lead to upset stomach and several out-of-the-ordinary trips to the restroom during the test, each of which takes time and builds to the nervousness. Also, the fact about caffeine is simple: it can increase alertness and may even save a life during a late night drive, but in the short run the alertness makes most people more anxious and LESS focused. HOWEVER, in keeping with my philosophy of avoiding experiments on yourself that day, if a student is a coffee drinker, as some high school students appear to be, the DEFINITELY do whatever you normally do in the morning. A coffee drinker who takes a rare day off from coffee is five times more likely than his/her non-coffee drinking peers to develop a slow but long-lasting headache during the test. And that particular headache, from caffeine withdrawal can, ironically, only be aborted with caffeine. Most proctors do not come around serving coffee. For that, you might require a flight attendant.

A big breakfast? Perhaps a little larger than usual, but basically comprised of the same foods your body is used to. That is not the day to try bran and prunes and fall in love with that combo, shoving your last spoonful down on the way into the test center. Trust me. Bring silent, unwrapped snacks that are in your shirt pocket. If you feel drained, you can slip a few raisins into your mouth – or chocolate, etc. Silent, though, no crunching, no wrappers. You can launder your shirt when you get home.

Common sense. I'm told it can help.

Hope this helps,