Goodnight to All-Nighters: Your Guide to Actually Getting Sleep in College

By Lisa Lewis

College years are a huge transition—and an exciting one. With so many new experiences and activities—and, likely, a roommate or two—along with an increased academic workload, it’s easy for your sleep to get shortchanged. If that happens, it can drag down your mood, grades, performance, immune system, and more.

If that sounds familiar—or if you find that your sleep habits are starting to slide—the following suggestions can help you get the rest you need to optimize your energy, productivity, and, most of all, well-being.

Set Yourself Up for Success

If you know a certain type of class schedule works best for you, keep that in mind as you select your classes each term. Not a morning person? Stay away from 8 a.m. classes if you can. Likewise, if you do better when your classes are spread throughout the week, try to schedule accordingly.

Another aspect that can affect your sleep is your living situation. Some of it may be outside your control, but you’ll likely have some input when choosing roommates, and you may be able to select someone who shares your sleep/wake schedule. If you’ve decided to live off campus with friends, try to take sleep into account. Sharing a bedroom with a good friend who’s a night owl may not work great if you’re an early bird. Having a conversation about sleep before signing a housing agreement can help everyone involved.

If you and your roommates have dramatically different sleep schedules, see if there are adjustments you can make. Can late-night phone calls or study sessions be held somewhere other than your dorm room? Are ear plugs or an eye mask an option? Can lights be dimmed? How can you create a sleep-friendly environment?

Learn tips on what to do when you can’t sleep

Protect Your Sleep Schedule

Your routine and living arrangements are likely different than they were in high school, so some of your previous sleep habits may have shifted as well. If you no longer wake up early for class five days a week, for example, you may have let your bedtime slide, or, with all the responsibilities, new activities, and social events, you may not even have a regular bedtime anymore.

You probably don’t need to go to bed as early as you did in high school, but staying up late just because you can likely means you’re not getting seven to nine hours of sleep, which is the recommended amount from age 18 on.

Be Consistent

If your sleep varies—if, say, you have morning classes only a couple days a week and you also regularly stay up late on weekends—you’ll find that it’s harder to fall asleep on the nights you need to get to bed at a reasonable hour. Try to narrow the gap so your bedtime doesn’t vary as dramatically.

Another benefit to being reasonably consistent about your bedtime: Studies show that students whose sleep schedules are consistent get higher grades. Building healthy sleep habits can also help decrease stress, improve athletic performance, and promote your ability to fight infections

Keep Yourself Accountable

When you were in high school, your family may have helped keep you on schedule. Without that—and with more distractions—you may find that you get to bed much later than you meant to (or need to).  Sometimes you may need to say no to an activity, even if it’s a really fun one! If you’re hanging out with friends who don’t share an early morning class time with you, for instance, you may need to leave early with a plan to catch up the next day. You may even be able to enjoy your friends more when you feel alert and refreshed!  

You can’t always stay on track, of course. It’s fine to try to catch up with a nap if you’ve had a late night or two, but try to identify what’s keeping you from getting to bed on time so you can figure out how to address it.  

If your coursework is keeping you up late, pace your workload so you’re not cramming or pulling all-nighters to get assignments done. If you feel overwhelmed or need assistance with study skills, including efficiency, reach out to your school’s student resource center for tutoring or other help.

Limit Late-Night Scrolling

Do you find yourself on your phone later than you meant to be? Just like setting a bedtime for yourself, setting tech limits can be easier said than done. Setting a timer on your phone can provide an external reminder that it’s time to power down. Another alternative: Set a timer somewhere else in the room, such as on your microwave, so it takes more effort to silence it. Even that small extra step may be enough to pull you away from your phone and prompt you to disengage.

It’s also important to stay off your phone in the middle of the night. If notifications aren’t silenced, incoming messages can easily rouse you. (You can still allow calls and messages from essential contacts in case there’s an emergency.) If you happen to wake up in the middle of the night, resist the urge to check your phone. Glancing at the time is OK, but resist the urge to check for new notifications.

Sleep In Your Bed

It is tempting to use your bed as a couch, desk, snack table, and entertainment hub. Ideally, beds and bedrooms are used only for sleep so getting in bed creates the mental association that it’s time to go to sleep. But that isn’t always easy in a dorm room. “College students often live in very cramped quarters, where beds become a second living room and social space,” says Pallas Ziporyn, project coordinator for Sleep 101, a 45-minute online sleep-health course for college students that’s part of Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Sleep Matters Initiative. 

Try to reserve your bed for sleep, and study at the library or hang out in one of your dorm’s common areas. If that isn’t possible, allow enough transition time after studying or socializing to wind down for your soothing bedtime routine

Be Mindful of Caffeine, Alcohol, and Substances

What you ingest has an effect on your body and brain. There’s a belief that alcohol and other drugs, including over-the-counter drugs, help with relaxation and sleep. Alcohol, for example, may help you fall asleep faster, but it can also disrupt your sleep cycle, including your dreams, and worsen your sleep quality. Limiting alcohol, caffeine, and substances will allow for the healthiest night’s sleep.

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