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Sleep Smarter, Study Harder: A College Student’s Guide to Better Rest

Sleep Smarter, Study Harder: A College Student’s Guide to Better Rest

This comprehensive guide is designed to help college students understand the importance of quality sleep and how to achieve it. With expert advice, actionable tips, and valuable resources, you’ll be on your way to better grades, improved mental well-being, and a balanced college life.

College is often considered the best time of your life, with new experiences, new points of view, and so much to learn. But typically it’s not the best sleep of your life. As you transition to late-night study sessions, social activities, and newfound independence, achieving a good night’s sleep can sometimes take a back seat.

Good sleep isn’t just about recharging. It plays a crucial role in memory consolidation, problem-solving skills, and overall cognitive function, which are all vital for academic success. However, a National Institutes of Health report found that 60% of college students report that they are “dragging, tired, or sleepy” at least three days per week. And more than 80% of college students have noticed a drop in their academic performance due to lack of sleep.

Sleep is crucial for everyone, but when you’re juggling classes, assignments, part-time jobs, and social activities, your brain needs that crucial downtime more than ever. This guide helps you navigate the science of sleep, college-specific sleep challenges and their solutions, expert tips for optimizing your rest, and a one-on-one interview with a renowned sleep specialist. So, if you’re eager to maximize your college journey, understanding sleep is your starting point. Let’s dive in.

What is Good Sleep and Why is It Important?

Imagine your brain as a computer. Without proper shutdowns and restarts, the system begins to lag and errors become frequent. This analogy isn’t too far from reality: Research shows that students with consistent sleep patterns tend to have higher GPAs. 

A study published in the National Academy of Sciences found that for each hour of sleep lost at the beginning of an academic term, students experienced a 0.07-point decrease in their end-of-term GPA. The impact on grades was even more significant for students who slept less than six hours nightly.

The ripple effect of inadequate sleep reaches beyond academics. Besides impacting cognitive functions, lack of rest can lead to mood swings, a weakened immune response, and heightened stress. Students might bypass healthy activities because of their fatigue, opting for caffeine or sugary boosts instead. This cycle of poor sleep and poor daily decisions jeopardizes their academic performance and overall well-being. That’s why prioritizing sleep is essential for academic success and a holistic, balanced college life.

Sleep Cycles Explained

During a typical sleep session, an individual progresses through several distinct phases of sleep. Collectively, these phases make up a sleep cycle, which usually spans about 90 minutes. Understanding each stage is crucial for grasping the importance of uninterrupted sleep:

  • Light Sleep (N1): This initial phase bridges wakefulness and the deeper stages of sleep. It’s a time for the body to start slowing down and preparing for deeper rest.
  • Deeper Sleep (N2): This phase is critical for physical restoration, as it aids in tissue growth and repair.
  • Deepest Non-REM Sleep (N3): This is the most restorative sleep phase, during which the body undergoes significant recuperation. It’s essential for energy renewal and the release of growth hormones.
  • REM (Rapid Eye Movement) Sleep: This phase is important for the mind’s rejuvenation. It plays a key role in memory consolidation and regulating emotions.

Continual disruptions or not getting enough of these vital cycles can result in decreased cognitive abilities, mood imbalances, and other health complications.

Recommended Sleep Hours

The National Sleep Foundation suggests that adults, including college-aged individuals, aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night. While individual needs may vary, consistently achieving fewer than six hours or desiring more than 10 hours might signify underlying health or sleep issues that need attention.

The Science of Sleep

Sleep is a symphony of neurotransmitters, hormones, and neural pathways working in concert. At the onset of sleep, the body experiences a drop in core temperature and a rise in melatonin production. Throughout the night, the brain undergoes synaptic pruning, which is essentially decluttering and optimizing neural pathways for the next day. 

This isn’t just about feeling refreshed — it directly correlates with immune function, metabolism, memory, learning, and even genetic expression, which is the process of information encoded on a gene being turned into a product such as a protein. The quality and quantity of our sleep influence everything from our risk of chronic diseases to how effectively we can learn and store new information.

Mental Health and Sleep

Sleep and mental health are closely linked. Mental health issues can disrupt sleep patterns, and a lack of sleep can exacerbate or trigger mental health conditions.

Studies indicate that individuals who consistently get less sleep are at a higher risk for conditions such as depression, anxiety, and mood disorders. Adequate sleep acts as a reset for the brain, allowing for emotional regulation and resilience against daily stressors. Disrupting this can lead to mood imbalances, decreased motivation, and heightened susceptibility to psychological stress.

Challenges & Solutions to Good Sleep in College

Navigating college life is exciting, but the experience can also be riddled with numerous obstacles that impede a student’s sleep quality. Late-night study sessions, balancing your social life, coping with stress, and handling academic pressures can all interfere with getting the recommended amount of sleep. Recognizing and addressing these barriers is crucial for holistic well-being and academic success in college.

Challenge #1: Irregular Schedules

Unpredictable timetables, last-minute assignments, and spontaneous social plans can make maintaining a consistent sleep schedule challenging. This can impede your ability to get enough regular, good quality sleep in college.


Set nonnegotiable sleep hours. Just as you wouldn’t miss a vital class or appointment, treat sleep with the same level of importance. Planning allows for a structured day, ensuring ample rest periods. This proactive approach to scheduling, combined with disciplined bedtime habits, can improve sleep quality over time.

Challenge #2: Too Much on Your Plate

Being ambitious is commendable, but overloading yourself can be detrimental to your sleep and overall well-being. It can create stress that compounds into sleepless nights, or simply not enough time to sleep.


Setting boundaries is essential. Prioritize tasks and understand your limits. If the load feels unbearable, consider revisiting your commitments. Remember, sacrificing sleep isn’t a solution — it’s a pathway to decreased productivity and wellness. Whenever you’re stretched thin, take a step back, reevaluate your priorities, and adjust. Sleep is a nonnegotiable component of a successful college experience.

Challenge #3: Stress or Anxiety

Stress and anxiety are common culprits behind sleep disturbances in college. Particularly if you are juggling a lot of responsibilities and trying to do well in school. Keeping your stress and anxiety at bay is key.


Mindfulness practices such as meditation or deep-breathing exercises can help to calm the nervous system and center the mind. Additionally, consider establishing a nighttime routine that prioritizes relaxation — reading a book, listening to calm music, or taking a warm bath can signal the brain that it’s time to wind down. For persistent issues, consider seeking counseling or therapy services, which many college campuses offer. They can provide coping strategies tailored to your needs.

Challenge #4: Excessive Screen Time

With the increasing reliance on technology for study, entertainment, and communication, screen time has surged among college students. However, blue light emitted from screens can disrupt production of melatonin, a hormone vital for sleep regulation.


The solution is to limit screen exposure at least an hour, preferably 2 hours before bedtime. Additionally, consider using blue light filters on devices and explore applications that adjust screen color according to the time of day, promoting better sleep.

Challenge #5: Unhealthy Sleep Environment

Many college students might not give their sleeping environment the attention it deserves. An uncomfortable mattress, noisy roommates, or a room that’s too bright can hamper sleep quality.


Invest in a good-quality mattress topper, consider using earplugs or white noise apps, and get blackout curtains if necessary. Making your sleep environment as comfortable as possible can significantly affect your sleep quality and duration.

Optimizing Sleep in College

Adequate sleep is important to a student’s cognitive function, mental health, and overall wellness. Yet, in the bustling world of academia, sleep is often compromised. Fortunately, by integrating specific strategies into your daily routine, it’s possible to optimize sleep and enhance your college experience. Let’s explore ways to ensure quality rest amidst the academic hustle.

Eating Healthy for Better Sleep

Diet plays an underrated role in sleep quality. Consuming too much caffeine or heavy meals close to bedtime can disturb sleep. Additionally, alcohol, though sometimes believed to be a sleep inducer, actually disrupts the natural sleep cycle and can prevent you from entering the deeper stages of sleep.

Foods rich in tryptophan, magnesium, and calcium, such as turkey, nuts, and dairy, promote rest. Consider eating a balanced meal a few hours before bedtime and avoiding spicy, acidic foods or alcohol that cause discomfort. 

Get Enough Exercise

Physical activity has a dual benefit — it aids academic performance and promotes sleep. Engaging in daily exercise, be it brisk walking, yoga, or a gym routine, can lead to deeper and more restorative sleep. However, try to avoid strenuous workouts close to bedtime as they may have the opposite effect.

Avoid Screens and Distractions

The blue light from screens can impede melatonin production, making falling asleep difficult. Aim to disconnect from electronic devices at least an hour before sleep. Opt for a traditional book or soft music instead of scrolling on your phone. Creating a digital-free bedtime routine can significantly impact sleep onset and quality. 

Focus on Good Sleep Hygiene

An environment conducive to sleep can be a game changer. Darken the room using blackout curtains and consider using white noise apps or earplugs to block disruptive noises. Ensure a comfortable mattress and maintain a room temperature between 60° F and 67° F for optimal sleep. A tidy, clutter-free space can also be mentally soothing and pave the way for relaxation.

Stick to a Consistent Sleep Schedule & Routine

The body thrives on consistency. Going to bed and waking up at the same time daily, even on weekends, sets a natural sleep-wake rhythm. Create a pre-sleep routine — read, meditate, or practice deep breathing exercises. Consistent rituals signal the brain to wind down and can lead to better sleep quality. 

Nap with Caution

While naps can be refreshing, they need to be approached with care. Limit naps to 20 minutes to avoid sleep inertia — that groggy feeling post-nap. Additionally, avoid napping late in the day, as it can hinder nighttime sleep. Strategic napping boosts alertness without compromising nightly rest.

Get Help with Persistent Sleep Issues

Despite their best efforts, some students may still struggle with sleep. Persistent issues such as insomnia or sleep apnea require attention. Many colleges offer counseling or sleep therapy services. Seeking early guidance can prevent complications and help maintain a balanced college life. Remember, addressing sleep issues isn’t a sign of weakness but an essential step toward holistic well-being. 

Resources for Good Sleep in College

Transitioning to college often comes with sleep challenges. However, with various resources available, students can find support and strategies tailored to their unique needs. Here are 15 noteworthy resources to ensure restful nights amidst academic demands:

  • The Better Sleep Council: Dedicated to raising awareness of the connection between sleep and health, this site provides articles, videos, and infographics to help students discover actionable tips that enhance their sleep quality.
  • CDC – Sleep and Sleep Disorders: A segment of the CDC’s website dedicated to sleep health; this site covers topics from sleep disorders to sleep hygiene. College students will find evidence-based recommendations and facts.
  • Harvard Division of Sleep Medicine: A comprehensive resource from the Harvard Medical School, this site offers information on the importance of sleep, sleep’s ties to health, and strategies for getting a good night’s rest.
  • Johns Hopkins Medicine – Sleep Medicine: This sleep center offers valuable insights into understanding sleep, its disorders, and the latest in sleep research.
  • National Sleep Foundation: Established over 30 years ago, the National Sleep Foundation is a dedicated independent nonprofit with a mission to enhance overall well-being through advancing sleep health. They track the most recent scientific discoveries about sleep, translating them into easily digestible resources. This foundation offers a goldmine of valuable insights and guidance for college students seeking both understanding and solutions to their sleep-related challenges.
  • Podcasts Featuring Dr. Michael Breus : Dr. Breus is a clinical psychologist and a diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine. He has been featured on a variety of podcasts where he shares tips and insights on sleep.
  • Sleep Doctor : Offering comprehensive details about various sleep disorders, treatments, and best practices for good sleep, these resources provide invaluable insights for anyone seeking sleep-related information.
  • Sleep Education – AASM: The American Academy of Sleep Medicine offers detailed insights into sleep disorders, treatments, and general sleep health. The tips and tools section is especially beneficial for college students.
  • Sleep Foundation: Not to be confused with the National Sleep Foundation, this site offers expert-driven insights on sleep products and a broad spectrum of sleep health topics.
  • Sleep Review : A journal for sleep specialists or other interested parties offering the latest news and research in the sleep field.
  • SleepHub: An Australian site that delves into various sleep disorders and treatments, it also offers general advice for better sleep.
  • Stanford Sleep Medicine Center: Recognized as one of the leading centers for the diagnosis and treatment of all sleep disorders, this website provides insights into research and treatment related to sleep.
  • Tuck: A community devoted to promoting sleep health awareness, offering guidance on sleep hygiene, mental health, and improving sleep quality.
  • UCLA Sleep Disorders Center: A recognized leader in the research, diagnosis, and treatment of sleep disorders, the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center also offers educational materials on their site.
  • World Sleep Society: This global community advancing sleep health worldwide provides resources, research, and education on all aspects of sleep.

Interview with a Sleep Expert

Dr. Erika Trovato

To better understand the nuances of sleep and its vital role in a college student’s life, we interviewed Dr. Erika Trovato, DO, MS, who specializes in traumatic brain injuries. With her deep insights into brain function, she offers a unique perspective on the impact of sleep on cognitive performance and holistic well-being.
  • Q: How do short naps during the day impact students’ overall sleep quality and cognitive performance?

    Dr. Trovato: This can be thought of as an individual recipe for each person’s optimal function. It’s a balance between getting just the right amount of sleep averaged over a specific period of time. What is ideal may remain constant, but due to life circumstances, social responsibilities, and academic pursuits, the balance is tipped in one direction or the other. The important thing is to recognize the “imbalance” and work toward finding that balance as soon as possible.

  • Q: What are the potential effects of sleep medications or over-the-counter sleep aids on a student’s sleep cycles and overall health?

    Dr. Trovato: Several types of sleep aids and medications are utilized to induce sleep. One is melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone secreted by the pineal brain at night to help regulate the sleep-wake cycle. While this medication is even safe in pregnancy due to its low side effect profile, it has different effects on different people depending on the dosage.

    Another common ingredient in OTC sleep aids is diphenhydramine, an antihistamine with anticholinergic and antiemetic properties. Diphenhydramine is used not only to treat insomnia but also for allergic reactions, cough, motion sickness, and Parkinsonism. However, this medication has side effects due to how it works in the body. This includes confusion, low blood pressure, high heart rate, nervousness, and dryness of the mucous membranes. What is essential to consider with any OTC sleep aid is that there are side effects and these must be considered, even for help sleeping.

  • Q: How does the sleep pattern of a typical college student today differ from those of previous generations, given the modern tech environment? (i.e., screen exposure, cell phones, laptops)

    Dr. Trovato: Modem technology allows for high-stimulus environments that activate our brains. Modern technology at our fingertips, such as cell phones, gaming devices, and iPads, requires our brains to work in these “high-stimulation” environments for however long we are exposed to them. While variations in the amount of observation vs. interaction depend on what you are doing on the screen, the amount of stimulation must always be considered.

  • Q: How does sleep deprivation influence decision making and impulse control in young adults?

    Dr. Trovato: Executive function is a group of skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. We use these skills daily to learn, work, and manage our lives. When someone is sleep-deprived, their executive function skills are compromised, which may negatively influence their decision making and impulse control.

  • Q: Can you explain the neurological mechanisms behind sleep’s role in memory consolidation and how this directly impacts a student’s ability to recall and apply academic information?

    Dr. Trovato: Sleep contributes to the storage and consolidation of memories. Developmental changes in memory storage needs may, in turn, have an impact on sleep. The active systems consolidation hypothesis offers an integrative account of the role of sleep in memory, arguing that memory representations are repeatedly reactivated and reorganized across large-scale neuronal networks during sleep. The hippocampus is thought to orchestrate this process, stabilizing some memories and transforming others.

  • Q: Are there specific sleep phases where critical thinking and creativity are enhanced?

    Dr. Trovato: Sleep is composed of physiologically and neurochemically distinct stages. Sleep stages are divided into rapid eye movement sleep (REM) and non-rapid eye movement sleep (non-REM). Three non-rapid eye movement stages and one rapid eye movement stage make up one sleep cycle; a person will typically go through four to six sleep cycles per night. During the third stage of sleep, the last of the three non-REM stages, the brain is said to be in a “deep sleep,” and it’s hardest to be awakened during this time. Even though brain activity is reduced, there is evidence that deep sleep contributes to insightful thinking, creativity, and memory. The fourth stage of sleep, the REM stage, is believed to be essential to cognitive functions such as memory, learning, and creativity.

  • Q: Given the benefits of sleep, what are the top three habits or routines you’d recommend to any college student looking to optimize their sleep for better academic performance and overall mental health?

    Dr. Trovato:

    • Have good sleep hygiene to promote a regulated sleep/wake cycle. This includes maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, getting natural daylight exposure, avoiding alcohol before bedtime, and eliminating noise and light disruptions.
    • Avoid alcohol before bed. Alcohol can disrupt all stages of sleep but it’s most likely to affect the latter stages of sleep, including “deep sleep.” Deep sleep is a vital stage of sleep that is important for physical and emotional rest and repair.
    • Stop using electronic devices like cell phones, iPads, and TVs for at least 30 minutes before bed. These electronic devices stimulate your brain when you should be relaxing and getting ready for a good night’s rest.