Here's what Lisa Dice, 17, had with her when she took the new SAT exam: four mechanical No. 2 pencils, a calculator, a sweatshirt, a bottle of water, a bottle of apple juice and a packet of cheese-flavored crackers. Here's what she wishes she'd had: "a sandwich--something with a bit more substance."
Clocking in at 3 hr. 45 min.-- three-quarters of an hour longer than the old test--the new exam, which debuted on March 12, is not just a measure of verbal and mathematical proficiency; it's a test of endurance. Kids are given two 5-min. breaks, which they may use for refueling. Ned Johnson, an SAT tutor who sat for the new exam himself, says he saw kids running out into the hallways and "stuffing their faces."
In an era when so much rides on SAT scores and when parents are looking for every possible competitive edge for their children, it's no wonder that exam-time nutrition is becoming the next frontier in test prep. Thomson Peterson's, a national test-prep firm, has created a diet section on its website to introduce students to more healthful pre-exam nutrition. And private tutors are increasingly offering food strategies as part of their curriculum.
Johnson, who runs PrepMatters, an SAT-coaching firm in Bethesda, Md., not only advises his students to eat a good breakfast before the exam; he also helps them use practice tests to determine which snacks sustain them best. "It made a difference," says Jan Evans, whose son Walker was coached by Johnson two years ago. Though he ran out of steam during a practice test when he had eaten beef jerky, Walker fared better on the granola bars and bananas that Johnson recommended. "He was surprised he wasn't burned out," says Evans, who was impressed by her son's subsequent attention to nutritional prep. "He would lay out the food the night before so that he had everything ready. This is preparing for a test in a different way. I wish I would have known about it when my kids were younger."
While no one has done a controlled study on which foods are best for test takers, nutrition experts offer some commonsense advice. "For starters, I'd suggest that the child get up early enough so that he or she can have a balanced breakfast," says pediatrician W. Allan Walker, author of the new book Eat, Play, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating for Kids (McGraw-Hill; 272 pages). "Letting them sleep 20 minutes more and then stuffing something in their hand on the way out is probably not in the child's best interest in terms of optimizing the nutrients that are available to the brain during the exam."
A good breakfast, in Walker's view, is low-fat milk and a whole-grain cereal, or eggs, toast and jam. Although teenagers often reach for cola and sweets for a quick energy surge, that is not the way to go into a long exam. Such foods tend to make you crash after an hour or so. For snack breaks during an exam, Walker suggests trail mix or energy bars. The carbohydrates they contain give a quick boost, while the proteins and fats are broken down more slowly.