Seize Your USMLE and Shelf Exams: How to Carpe Test Day

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • To some, “carpe diem” means to live everyday to the fullest, but when you’re a student prepping for the most important exam of your life, it means to give your all on test day.

    You’ve studied for weeks, maybe months just to take a given number of blocks, and it is finally time. The advice below is my foolproof plan for how to put your best foot forward and truly seize the day on your test day. (I’ve even included a quick summary at the end for you.)

    But first, a disclaimer: Test day should NOT be the first day you are trying something new out. It is NOT the time to try out a different energy drink, a new sleep schedule or some food you’ve never had before. Capiche?

    With that said, let’s get to work.

    We all need to eat.

    Everybody should be bringing food to the exam to fuel all that brainpower. Focus on healthy, energy-rich meals. What am I talking about? Mainly proteins, some sugars, and low on fat. Read labels when you’re buying your favorite snack bar — it might really just be tons of sugar, which might be useful short term, but beware the crash after ingesting it. That being said, don’t stuff yourself either. Make sure you’re satiated, but avoid the post-Thanksgiving-meal food coma.

    Also be sure to bring something enjoyable for yourself, such as a treat for each break. I personally bring a bar of chocolate, and each break I’ll snap off a piece to eat. Also, bring something to perk you up before going back in after a break, such as a box of mints or cough drops. Just pop one or two of them right before you walk back into your exam, and by the time you sit down you’ll be awake again feeling refreshed.

    We all need to sleep.

    If you’re anything like me, you don’t get your best sleep the night before an exam. Make sure to go to bed early, but prior to actually lying in bed, do something to help you relax: have a cup of tea, avoid caffeine, and definitely don’t do anything overtly stimulating before bed like watching a scary movie or playing intense video games. Also, although you think it might help you relax, avoid alcohol because it will make your sleep less efficient.

    Also, if test anxiety is impacting your sleep, address it now—don’t just ignore it and hope it’ll go away come test day. Evaluate what actions you’re taking to cope with the anxiety. Are you giving yourself an outlet by allowing for decompression time or with physical activity and exercise? (More on how to punch fear in the face by Dr. Birju Patel.)

    We all need to take breaks.

    This is probably the most individualized thing on this list, and the one that needs to be worked on prior to the day before the exam. There are many different philosophies behind taking breaks depending on who you talk to, so there is no right answer. Just make sure to take this seriously when you do your practice tests, and practice taking breaks. Also, a break can include just closing your eyes for a minute and taking some deep breaths in your seat before you move on to the next block.

    Almost all of us need caffeine.

    99.99% of us use it to help us study, so make sure you have enough to carry you through the exam. However, I recommend drinking half of your normal amount the morning of the exam. Generally, you’re so hyped from nerves you don’t need as much caffeine as you normally would, and this will prevent caffeine-induced anxiety on your first few blocks.

    Miscellaneous advice:

    -Consider bringing earplugs for extra noise cancelling. This can make a huge difference for your focus.
    -Visit the test center before test day to make sure you can get familiar with parking in the area, the commute time, and the exact location of the testing center.
    -Take some ibuprofen or acetaminophen the morning of, and halfway through your exam. Are you going to get a headache/backache/muscle pain? Maybe, maybe not. Do you want to risk anything distracting you on the most important test of your life? Definitely not.
    -Warm up by doing a handful (5-7) or easy practice questions on the morning of the exam before you leave home. That way, you’ve primed your mental pump so you can attack the first real question with confidence.
    -Be mindful of your breathing. If you feel anxiety creeping in, your breathing is most likely shallow. Put your hand on your stomach (below your navel) and breathe into it, making your belly expand in the process. If you can steady your breathing, you will in turn calm your mind.

    Here’s a handy cheat sheet for these tips:


    • Eat a healthy breakfast, bring healthy snacks with you, and don’t stuff yourself
    • Bring mints and a treat to enjoy
    • Exercise the day before—it will help blow off steam and help you sleep
    • Sleep the night before
    • Figure out a break schedule that works for you prior to exam day
    • Drink half the amount of caffeine the morning of, and bring emergency caffeine with you
    • Bring earplugs
    • Take ibuprofen or acetaminophen the morning of and halfway through
    • Do 5-7 easy warm up practice questions before leaving the house
    • Breathe. Slow and steady deep breaths work wonders for keeping the mind clear and calm.
    • Experiment with this advice prior to test day


    • Experiment with a new routine on test day
    • Try new foods, medication or increase your caffeine intake
    • Doubt yourself—your mental state is as key to your success on test day as is your preparation. Believe in yourself. Remind yourself that you can and will succeed.

    After these exams, we all need to party like it’s 1999. Whatever that means to you, make sure to have responsible fun after the exam—you’ve earned it!


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