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Improve your sleep

Quick Read

  • Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep each night.
  • Getting good sleep quality and duration on a regular basis is correlated with better test scores, better GPA, and better mental health.
  • You can’t make up for days of poor sleep with a single good night.
  • Performance starts to decline at 16 hours of being awake. At 20 hours, you perform as if you were legally drunk.
  • Don’t pull all-nighters. Sleep deprivation affects your memory and concentration.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene.
  • See a professional if you have concerns about your sleep.
  • When possible, plan your schedule around your natural rhythms.

Want to do well? Prioritize sleep!

We spoke with sleep psychologist and researcher Dan Blum about the most important things students should know about sleep. The biggest takeaway: sleep is super important to success. As much as 25% of the variance in academic performance between students can be attributed to sleep measures. When you think about your own sleep consider three factors:

  • Quality — how well you sleep
  • Duration — total amount of time you slept
  • Consistency — how regular your sleep and wake times are day-to-day

One night of good sleep right before an exam is not enough. Better grades are correlated with good quality sleep and appropriate sleep duration for the month and week prior to an exam. There is no relationship between a single night of good sleep and better test scores. That means you need to prioritize getting enough good quality sleep on a regular basis to optimize your performance.

Why does sleep matter?

According to Dr. Blum, sleep is critical to the formation and consolidation of memory. Sleep allows us to encode and store information we learn throughout the day. It takes at least 4 full cycles of sleep to properly encode information. Each cycle of sleep lasts approximately 1.5 hours.


Dr. Blum also explained that sleep helps sustain attention, especially in boring situations. Sleep deprivation results in multiple lapses of attention and memory.

Physical and emotional well-being

Studying is harder when you’re sick, depressed, anxious, or stressed. Sleep impacts your immune system and mental health.

What happens when you sleep isn’t good?

Research shows that sleep affects many domains of our life. Consistently getting poor quality sleep or not sleeping enough can result in:

Avoid all nighters

Performance starts to decline after around 16 hours of being awake. After 20 hours of being awake, you perform as if you were legally drunk. Furthermore, sleep is critical for memory consolidation. Skipping sleep the night before the exam makes your studying prior to it less effective.

How much sleep?

Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep each night. The more active you are, the more sleep you need. Collegiate athletes need up to an hour more a night.

Practice good sleep hygiene

Sleep hygiene refers to practicing habits that help you get good sleep.

Create associations that cue your brain to fall asleep

  • Create a regular bedtime routine. Choose relaxing, calm activities and perform them in the same order each night.
  • Use your bed only for sleep and sex. Avoid doing homework in your bed.

Make your environment sleep friendly

  • Darken your room
  • Use a white noise machine
  • Set your room temperature to low- to mid- 60 degrees Fahrenheit

Regulate your internal clock
Your sleep-wake circadian rhythm is your body’s internal clock that regulates when you feel sleepy and when you feel alert.

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time.
  • Stop using screens at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Turn down the lights in your room in the evening. Bright light tricks your brain into thinking it’s daylight.
  • Get sunlight in the morning. It only takes 15-30 minutes of direct sun exposure outside to reset your clock for the day. If you can’t get outside, open your blinds and turn on bright lights.
  • Eat at consistent times each day. Meal times also impact your sleep-wake circadian rhythm.

Be thoughtful about caffeine, alcohol, and food

  • Avoid drinking caffeine within six hours of bedtime. If you are sensitive to it, consider eliminating any caffeine after noon.
  • Avoid heavy meals in the evening.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol the night before exams, important study/work sessions, and difficult classes. Alcohol may make it easier to fall asleep but it also disrupts sleep, which reduces sleep quality.

What about melatonin?

We hear about a lot of students using melatonin to help them fall asleep so we asked Dr. Blum about this strategy. He explained that most people’s bodies naturally produce enough melatonin so most people do not need to take melatonin regularly. Furthermore, over-the-counter melatonin is not regulated by the FDA so it’s hard to be sure you’re getting the right dose. Research suggests that there is huge variability in how much over-the-counter melatonin tablets contain, even between different lots of the same label. Taking too much melatonin can produce effects that you’re not expecting.

That said, melatonin is used sometimes by sleep specialists for things like anchoring a circadian rhythm. Dr. Blum recommends speaking to a specialist if you’re thinking about using melatonin to discuss dosing and timing.

Wake up on time

Priority registration

Sometimes the simplest way to make sure you wake up on time is to choose classes that start at a time when you know you’ll be awake. This won’t always be an option but if your disability impacts your sleep and you have priority registration, it can be helpful to prioritize later classes.

Work with your natural rhythms

Similarly, we all have times of the day when we’re naturally more alert and times of the day when we’re sleepier. Structuring your day so that you schedule your hardest classes when you are the most alert can help you not only get to them on time, but also learn more easily.

When to see a professional

If you have concerns about your sleep, Dr. Blum recommends starting with your primary care physician who can provide referrals to sleep specialists. Examples of issues that should be discussed with a professional include:

  • Any signs that you are experiencing sleep apnea (your breathing stops or gets very shallow during sleep)
  • Feeling exhausted after regularly getting 8-10 hours of sleep
  • Taking more than 30 minutes to fall asleep 3 times a week for at least one month
  • Waking in the night and staying awake for 30 minutes or more 3 times a week for at least one month
  • Regular nightmares that impact mental health or sleep quality/duration

Common sleep issues

According to Dr. Blum, there are some common overlaps between some mental health disorders and specific sleep problems. He shared the following information with us. This list is not meant to be diagnostic. If you are concerned about your sleep, please discuss your specific problems with your provider.

  • ADHD: Sleep apnea.
  • Depression: Difficulty with over sleeping and early morning waking. It’s common for early waking to start about 5 weeks prior to the onset of a Major Depressive Episode.
  • Anxiety: Difficulty with falling asleep and staying asleep.
  • Bipolar: Greater sensitivity to changes in circadian rhythm. Staying up all night increases the likelihood of a manic episode.
  • Trauma: Nightmares.