College Student Sleep Guide – Prep For Success

Last updated: August 1, 2019

A well-known joke says that when you start college, you can only pick two out of these three: good grades, social life, and enough sleep. As grades are obviously important and social life doesn’t seem to ever stop being fun, most students opt for cutting down on sleep. 

What you may not know while you’re partying for hours or pulling an all-nighter is that insufficient sleep predicts a lower GPA and increases the chances of dropping a course. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine insists that enough sleep is crucial to success in college.

Figure 1. The student’s trilemma.

Read this guide to learn how to squeeze a good night’s rest into your busy daily schedule. Learn why exactly sleep is important, whether and how much it can be dangerous to avoid sleep, and what the most common students’ mistakes are. 

How to sleep well and ace college exams

It is very difficult for college students to balance everything out – early classes, sports, socializing, studying, work, and sleep. Taking extra care of your schedule and knowing what to prioritize can help you spend your college time in a less stressful and more organized way.

How do you know what to prioritize when everything seems important? This is for sure – you will have to sacrifice. You need to focus on your studies while remaining healthy and fairly satisfied with life. This certainly doesn’t mean partying every weekend is necessary. How much studying you need really depends on your major and studies have shown that medical students typically have more stress and sleep problems than language majors, for example.

Have a good schedule

Still, you can optimize your time to the best of your abilities. One way is to learn about your chronotype (time preference) and see what kind of schedule fits you best. Although people are typically divided into larks and owls, the truth is that the majority falls somewhere between those two. This means that the majority of people have an internal biological rhythm that prefers getting up around 7-8 am and turning in around 10-11 pm. We all know that students’ sleep schedules are nowhere near this sleep/wake frame – which may explain why most students go about with a foggy mind and excessive daytime sleepiness.

Your mind and your body rely a lot on regularity. This is true of sleep, meals, and other activities. You will probably have a different lesson schedule every day but you should try and build as much of a daily routine as possible. Set a certain time frame dedicated to sleep and don’t compromise it. An exam period is approaching? Counter that with learning on time and avoid staying up for cramming. Your brain processes information during sleep and strengthens the information you learned. Those who suffer from sleep problems often have problems with learning and remembering. 

When you go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day (including weekends and holidays), your inner clock ‘ticks’ in tune with natural day/night cycles which is very beneficial for your mental and overall health. Your body gets to restore well and the brain clears from harmful substances.

Expose yourself to bright light

You should enjoy the morning and afternoon light as much as possible. You’ve probably noticed that you don’t sleep well after a day spent inside the house. That’s because your brain didn’t receive proper information about the time of the day. Spending time in bright light improves focus, mood, and has a beneficial effect on your sleep. You can do this by walking to your lectures, sitting by a window, or taking a stroll with your friends.

If possible, avoid night light exposure. Screen light delays your sleep onset (the time it takes to fall asleep) by inhibiting your ‘sleepy hormone’ production. With low melatonin, you are likely to toss and turn and probably resort to your phone as a way to kill time. This only aggravates sleeplessness and may result in being late for class or unfocused and sleepy during an important lecture.

Cultivate your gut bacteria

You’ll probably increase your kefir and kimchi intake once you learn how helpful a healthy gut flora is. A balanced microbiome in your gut can help you remain calm and sleep well through a stressful exam period. This is not an assumption. There’s actually been a study which focused on the gut microbiome, sleep and stress levels among students.

It showed that students who took fermented milk every day had better sleep quality and duration. They also dealt better with stress than the placebo group whose sleep was getting shorter and worse as exams were approaching.

You can use this knowledge against stress and poor sleep in important periods of your college life. Remember that alcohol, sodas, sweets, coffee, and junk food are bad for your gut so consume them in small amounts.

Exercise at the right time

Exercise is very important – it helps our body maintain weight, strength, health, good sleep, and good memory. Try to have at least a bit of exercise every day and harder training a couple of times a week. Just make sure not to do it too late in the evening because doing so can postpone your sleep time. Sign up for sports that suit your schedule and interests. If nothing fits, you can always go jogging or cycling on your own.

Sleep environment

It may not be easy to have the perfect sleep environment if you live in a dorm. What you can do is talk to your roommate and see what compromise you can reach. This is what you should aim for when it comes to your bedroom:

  • The room should be dark and quiet. This can be fixed with an eye mask and earplugs if no better solution is available. 
  • White noise machines are good for blocking unwanted sounds. Many people report sleeping better with one on.
  • The room should be cool – about 65°F or you can use a light cover and thin pajamas. Getting sweaty at night isn’t a good sign. While your body is fighting to lower the temperature, it can’t give you the restorative deep sleep. The cooler environment is better for good sleep.
  • Make sure the air is not too dry or humid, especially if you have a breathing problem or sleep-related breathing disorder. 
  • If your mattress, covers or pillows aren’t comfortable, replace them. If you can’t change a mattress in your dorm and the situation is bad, invest in a mattress topper.

Use your bed for sleeping. It may sound funny, but many students browse the net and study in their beds. Do all those things at your desk or in a library. The bed should be reserved for sleeping. This way, you will associate bed with sleep and as soon as you get in, you’ll become sleepy.

Relax

Have a warm shower, stretch, drink chamomile tea, pick your clothes for tomorrow. These are some ways you can wind down from a long day and relax. When we are under stress, there are many stress hormones circulating in our system and we can’t relax enough to fall asleep. This is why winding down before bed helps. 

If you are not sleepy, you can use the time to review your notes or make plans for the next week. Try not to use computers or smartphones – they make you alert and lead to bad sleep.

Things to avoid – sleep disruptors

Many students don’t know how to deal with all the freedom they suddenly have. They spend their time partying, eating junk food, using their computers for much longer than they should or need, and use illicit drugs. 

Needless to say, this behavior is unwise. This is how your college mates waste their time, energy, money, and health. Avoid these in order to get things right from the start.

  • Alcohol. Especially late at night. Alcohol doesn’t help you sleep – it knocks you out. Sleep after alcohol use isn’t real sleep and you can’t reach deep sleep plus you wake up multiple times a night without even knowing it.
  • Marijuana. This herb speeds up the time it takes to fall asleep and can increase the time you spent in deep sleep but it prevents REM from taking place. REM sleep plays a role in memory and after they stop cannabis use, people usually have “REM rebound” – they spend more time in REM trying to make up for this lost stage.
  • Tobacco. According to research, tobacco seems to cause the biggest sleep problems of all these substances.
  • Coffee. Coffee can help you focus and stay alert but it doesn’t make up for the lost sleep. If you consume it in the morning in reasonable quantities, you’re good. But having coffee late in the afternoon can disrupt your sleep. People rarely realize they didn’t have restful sleep because of coffee, so the next day they have more coffee. It takes about 12 hours for caffeine to completely leave your system and this is why many sleep scientists recommend not drinking coffee after 2 pm.
  • Energy drinks. These are just bad. They ruin your sleep as much as coffee (or more, if you drink more than one) and they are linked to other health problems like cardiovascular problems, obesity, liver damage, and addiction.
  • Technology. Some sources advise shutting it down 30 minutes prior to bed but it seems that the sooner you plug out, the better. Screen light isn’t the only bad guy here, but social media as well. Things that make you actively interested and excited should be dealt with earlier in the day. Leave the night for rest.
  • Food. If you really can’t afford a well-balanced diet, at least try to buy a salad every now and then. Lettuce, veggies and boiled eggs aren’t expensive, especially if you’re preparing everything. Stay away from carb-filled diet and fatty foods because they can disrupt your sleep.

Sleep enough

Most of the above tips are there to help you get good sleep quality. But how much should you sleep? For the majority of young people, this is between 7 and 9 hours. Women typically need a bit more sleep than men. 

Sleep 101

The Sleep 101 program has shown excellent results among students and has managed to improve their sleep. It is an interactive program designed by Harvard University to teach students how to instill good habits that help them act and sleep better. See if your college or university offers any sleep programs.

Figure 2. How to sleep better. From UCLA.

Benefits of proper sleep among college students

A well-rested student is likely to engage in social interaction with other students and professors. He or she has a healthy appetite, enough energy for activities in and outside of campus, can remember and focus without problems, and is likely to make good decisions.

Students who sleep well are more successful and have a higher GPA than those who don’t. They are healthier and more satisfied with their lives. Such students respond well to stress and can react properly to problems. 

Their brain is clear of neurotoxins which ensures good memory and improves mood.

Well-rested students typically maintain a healthy weight, their hormones are well-balanced, and they run a lower risk of having heart problems, inflammation, and cancer in the future.

They perform better at sports because their response time is smaller and their strength is up to par. They also make better and more focused drivers.

Consequences of inadequate sleep among college students

Research shows that only one night of inadequate sleep can make a person appear lonely and less approachable in the eyes of others. The truth is that they feel as lonely as they appear. So the student who stayed on a computer all night won’t be interested in chatting with colleagues or taking part in group activities. This is not good because it is important for their future jobs to have as many connections as possible. The most successful people have the biggest networks of acquaintances.

Sleepy people have disrupted hormones and this means they feel more hungry and less full, more tired and less active (including sexual activity). They usually aren’t in a good mood, have poor attention, slow reactions and difficulty learning.

They have a high risk of developing anxiety as a result of poor stress management. Over a longer period of time, emotional instability may increase and a person can become depressed.

Some people feel euphoria from sleep deprivation. This is because of dopamine surge – this chemical is released to keep us alert but it also causes euphoria. What worries is that people who stay up late (especially if drinking) may experience this euphoria and as a result make risky and even life-threatening decisions considering other (and unknown) people or daredevil stunts. It is not that they don’t know there may be consequences, they just feel good and optimistic about their actions.

These aren’t the only consequences of sleep deprivation – sleepy people are terrible drivers. They may fall asleep behind the wheel and wake up in a split second without even knowing it happened. Scientists have found that it is possible for some parts of our brain to fall asleep while others stay awake in extreme situations. These two cases are known as microsleep.

Figure 3. What happens in different parts of the brain if you don’t sleep enough.

Where do students go wrong with their sleep?

There are many things students do wrong when it comes to their sleep. Some are easy to change – for example, bad habits. However, it’s not up to us if we suffer from certain conditions, have family or financial problems.

Figure 4. Academic performance problems. Source: Collegian

Stress 

A majority of students are overwhelmed by their assignments and tasks. Some deal with it well, others may become anxious and depressed. Sleep difficulties are aggravated by bad mood and rumination and the other way round – poor sleep worsens one’s mood. Thinking more positively and relaxing in the evening can help break this cycle.

Irregular sleep patterns 

Poor academic performance is closely related to sleep patterns. Those who maintain the same sleep schedules are more likely to perform better. Going to bed randomly every day will just make you exhausted, groggy, and moody all the time. The toll is so big that it’s just not worth doing this.

All-nighters

A big test tomorrow and what do you do? Study all night and go straight to the exam – you’ll sleep some other time, this is too important right now. This is the biggest mistake you can make. How are you going to focus on complex lessons at 3 am? If that subject is really so important, start studying on time – well ahead. Students keep pulling all-nighters without thinking about how that is going to affect their health and attention levels. There are some things we can’t make up for even after make-up sleep.

Sleeping in on weekends

Sleeping for 12 hours to make up for having a sleep-deprived week isn’t going to help you. You probably feel great after having catch-up sleep. However, some things can’t return – research shows that our attention levels don’t come back even weeks after having our make-up sleep. Health problems you are causing by sleep deprivation are not going to disappear completely – cancer takes years to develop. It was proven that even a couple of sleep-deprived nights per month increase the chances of having cancer years later. 

Substance use

As mentioned above, tobacco, alcohol, energy drinks, coffee, and drugs have a negative effect on sleep. Some students seem to use one or more of these with little restraint. Then they make up for not feeling well with more caffeine or they use sleeping pills at night. 

Just sticking to good sleeping habits can naturally improve your sleep and you’ll be able to feel the effects for a long time. Sleeping pills can cause addiction and as soon as you stop using them, the problems return. Sometimes those problems get even worse.

Technology

Staying up on your computer to chat with others or finish an assignment is a surefire way to get yourself exhausted for the next day. It is difficult to stay away from technology and this is exactly why you need good time management in the first place. Finish everything early enough, dim the lights, and try to relax (no Netflix before bed!).

Figure 5. Negative effects of blue light. Source: Business Insider.

Naps at a bad time

Naps are ok as long as they are not longer than 20-30 minutes and are at the right time of the day – which is early afternoon. Students who have frequent, long and late (evening) naps also have the worst sleep quality and length on the weeknights.

Long naps disrupt night’s rest and may lead to a cycle of sleep disruptions and a delayed daily rhythm of your body.

Other risks – childhood family problems, difficult university, sleep disorders

Students who come from low-income families are more likely to be under stress and experience sleep problems. It is even worse for those who also had family problems (mental or physical abuse in childhood). They should pay more attention to their mental health and stress sources and deal with them.

Those who picked a difficult and demanding university or college are under more pressure than other students. They should not overburden themselves with additional activities and should focus more on relaxation.

Finally, some students suffer from various sleep problems and disorders like obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), restless legs syndrome, sleepwalking, and other. Some sleep disorders are caused by our own habits and bad practices whereas others can be of another origin. Whatever the case, do your best to deal with those problems in order to become a better student.

Additional resources

  1. Causes and consequences of sleepiness among college students https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4075951/
  2. College students: getting enough sleep is vital to academic success  https://aasm.org/college-students-getting-enough-sleep-is-vital-to-academic-success/