Sleep or Study? How to Get Enough Rest Before Tests
Find out if it's better to pull an all-nighter or get sleep instead
It is the night before a final exam and college kids all over campus are asking the eternal question: should I buy a bunch of energy drinks, snap on the headphones and pull an all-nighter, or am I better off going to bed at a reasonable hour but losing study time?
"So much memory consolidation happens when we sleep that performance is generally not improved with sleep deprivation," says W. Christopher Winter, MD and President of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine. Memory consolidation is an important mechanism for doing well in academically rigorous tasks. It is a process in which our brains convert short term memory into long term memory. According to a 2017 study, sleep deprivation leads to cognitive lapses, meaning staying up all night studying can contribute towards a worse grade than you would have gotten after a good night's sleep.
However, what if you've put off or simply have not found the time to cram the facts you need into your busy brain? You know you'd bomb the test without significant last-minute consumption of notes and texts. Are there ways to responsibly pull an all-nighter?
The answer is sort of.
Sleep More Before and After Your All-Nighter
If you want to stay awake and suffer less, sleep extra in the days leading up to your all-nighter if possible. Getting appropriate rest ahead of time can mitigate the effects of a night without rest.
Next, prepare your environment, food, and drink:
Turn the lights on.
Keep the room cool.
Avoid snacking on heavy or sugary foods that can lead to a crash.
Hydrate with plenty of water.
Once you've turned in that paper, be smart the next day. Do not drive, eat healthily, and take a nap; even a 30-minute slumber can help. "These naps are great for an extra boost of energy and make us feel more alert," says The American Sleep Association. If you have more available time in your day, "sleeping for ninety minutes or more puts us through the whole sleep cycle, light and deep sleep, including rapid eye movement."
Keep Your Sleep Habits in Check
After you've recovered from your Night Of No Sleep, keep an eye on your overall sleep habits. Dr. Winter says, "Seven to nine hours is recommended for college students," but stresses that everyone is different. Not surprisingly, consolidated sleep is more beneficial than incremental sleep. "Think of sleep like a concert. If Coldplay kept stopping during their songs and taking breaks, while they may have technically played every note, the breaks would disrupt the necessary flow. Sleep is similar."
Avoid all-nighters when you can, but know that a seemingly endless night will not kill you. Just check that you are getting enough sleep overall so you can avoid the risks of chronic sleep deprivation.