Ace your next exam with these healthy strategies.
College is demanding. The lectures, the labs, the assignments, the projects. If your studies alone aren't enough to make your brain feel like mush, throw in a job and a social life and you'll be mentally worn out in no time. But even with all that, there are effective ways to keep your mind sharp so you not only pass your classes but thrive in them.
7 Tips for Enhanced Cognition and Better Grades
Sure, studying hard is essential to getting good grades. But academic success starts with a healthy lifestyle. Follow these seven steps and you’ll set yourself up for a successful semester.
1. Make smart food choices. The foods you eat play a big role in how well your brain functions. Unfortunately, campus diets are anything but ideal. Centered around fast, fried, and processed foods loaded with saturated fats and refined sugars, the typical student’s daily diet can have a negative impact on memory and cognition.1 A 2019 study confirmed that dormitory residents not only eat a lot of fast food, it also showed that overconsumption can lead to worse short-term memory.2 So instead of grabbing chicken nuggets and waffle fries at the student union, opt for a leafy green salad, a few handfuls of nuts, and some fruit.
2. Get some exercise. With a loaded class schedule and a host of other commitments, you may not think you have any time left to exercise. The truth is, you may not have time not to if you want to get good grades. That’s because physical activity—particularly in a group setting—can translate into higher grades. A 2023 doctoral dissertation shows that increased involvement in exercise and recreational sports is associated with a higher GPA.3 Whether you play an intramural sport, hit the fitness center, or go jogging, anything that gets your heart rate up will help your cognition and your test scores.
3. Minimize the partying. College life is full of temptation. It can be hard to focus on your studies when there’s never a shortage of opportunities to have a good time. But partying too much or too hard can lead to less than optimal cognitive performance and less than stellar grades. A national survey of college students showed that those who binge drink are 5.9 times more likely to do poorly on a test or project than those who don’t binge.4 Something to remember the next time you think about going out instead of hitting the books.
4. Cut your screen time. Social media and video games can be a real brain-drain—and excessive use has been linked to poor scholastic outcomes. Not only that, heavy internet gaming and smartphone use tend to have a negative impact on physical activity, mental well-being, and sleep.5 They can also eat into your precious free time. Case in point: a 2023 study revealed that male college students spend just over one hour a day on social media while female students spend over two hours.6
5. Catch some shut-eye. Good sleep on campus can be hard to come by. However, quality sleep is just as critical for academic success as studying is. In an analysis of 100 MIT students, sleep quality, duration, and consistency were associated with better academic performance.7 But what if you have no choice and have to pull an all-nighter for the big test? No dice. A study in Behavioral Sleep Medicine shows that rather than making the grade, students who study all night without sleep actually end up with a worse GPA compared to those who get in their zzzz’s.8 So instead of cramming the night before, shoot for at least seven hours of quality sleep to keep your brain sharp.
6. Address anxiety. College students are experiencing more stress and anxiety than ever, and it’s having a serious impact on classroom performance. But while reducing anxiety is easier said than done, dealing with your mental health can go a long way toward improving your academic prospects—and your overall well-being. Fortunately, a pair of recent studies published in Frontiers in Psychology offer ways to naturally cope with the struggles of college life. One meta-analysis shows that mindfulness-based interventions is effective at reducing anxiety among college students.9 The other study suggests that students inhale aromatherapy with essential oils to help relieve test anxiety.10
7. Take a quality supplement. Help your brain function at optimal levels with a clinically studied supplement.
Ginkgo biloba. Used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years, ginkgo biloba boosts brain function so you can focus when it’s time to study. A review of 14 clinical trials showed that ginkgo biloba can improve memory and cognition, as well as cerebral blood flow supply, executive function, attention and concentration, non-verbal memory, and mood—all while decreasing stress.11
Ginseng. Rich in antioxidants, ginseng has been shown to improve brain function and enhance memory. A study published in the Journal of Pharmacy Research reported that ginseng stimulates brain activity to cause a more economical release of energy, which results in increased work output.12 Sounds like a no-brainer!
Aged garlic extract. This powerful antioxidant has a wide range of benefits. Often used for its heart-supporting activity, preliminary research suggests that supplementing with aged garlic extract (AGE) reduces inflammation in the brain and significantly improves both cognition and memory.13 What’s more, AGE fortifies your immune system so you won’t miss a class or a quiz. In a study of healthy individuals who got the cold or flu, the group taking the garlic supplement experienced reduced severity, fewer symptoms, and missed the fewest school days when compared to the placebo group.14
Academic success starts with your daily habits. By focusing on a healthy lifestyle as much as you focus on studying, you’ll optimize cognitive performance and set yourself up for success this semester and beyond.
- Abbott KN.The effect of high fat, high sugar, and combined high fat-high sugar diets on spatial learning and memory in rodents: A meta-analysis. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. 2019;107:399–421.
- Akbarzadeh M. The Association of Fast Food Consumption and Short-Term Memory in Students Residing in Dormitories of Shiraz University of Medical Sciences. Sadra Medical Journal. 2020;8(2):139–50.
- Matian N. Exercise Behavior and Recreational Sports Participation Predicts Academic Success in University Students. Doctoral dissertation, University of the Pacific. 2023.
- White A. The burden of alcohol use: excessive alcohol consumption and related consequences among college students. Alcohol Res. 2013;35(2):201–18.
- Kwok C. The effects of internet gaming and social media use on physical activity, sleep, quality of life, and academic performance among university students in Hong Kong: A preliminary study. Asian Journal of Social Health and Behavior. 2021;4(1):36–44.
- Dumford AD. Social media usage in relation to their peers: Comparing male and female college students’ perceptions. Computers and Education Open. 2023;4:100121.
- Okano K. Sleep quality, duration, and consistency are associated with better academic performance in college students. npj Sci. Learn. 2019;4(16).
- Thacher PV. University Students and the “All Nighter”: Correlates and Patterns of Students’ Engagement in a Single Night of Total Sleep Deprivation. Behavioral Sleep Medicine. 2008;6(1):16–31.
- Li J. Mindfulness-based interventions to reduce anxiety among Chinese college students: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology. 2023;13:1031398.
- Jiage L. Aromatherapy with inhalation effectively alleviates the test anxiety of college students: A meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology. 2023;13.
- Barbalho SM. Ginkgo biloba in the Aging Process: A Narrative Review. Antioxidants. 2022;11(3):525.
- Tabassum N. Natural cognitive enhancers. Journal of Pharmacy Research. 2012;5(1):153–60.
- Nillert N. Neuroprotective effects of aged garlic extract on cognitive dysfunction and neuroinflammation induced by β-amyloid in rats. Nutrients. 20173;9(1):24.
- Percival SS. Aged Garlic Extract Modifies Human Immunity. The Journal of Nutrition. 2016;146(2):433S–6S.
This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.