Mission Impossible: Sleep and the College Student

“Sleep, social life, or good grades,” my buddy said with a grin, “pick two.”

College sleep

By now, you may have heard that statement about how busy life in college can get. With all kinds of student organizations to join, social events to attend, new people to meet, languages to learn, papers to write, and projects/problems sets/lab reports to complete, every college student wishes for more hours in a day. Sometimes, they get those extra hours by forgoing sleep.

Especially at a competitive school like UNC, people fall into the dangerous trap of taking pride in sacrificing sleep for academics. I’ve heard many UNC students brag about pulling an all-nighter in Davis Library. People even say things like “I can sleep when I’m dead.” or “Sleep is for sissies.” (That last one is advice a professor gave me my senior year at UNC).

Given the culture surrounding sleep on a competitive college campus, I know that getting people to prioritize sleep is going to be hard. But the research is clear: getting enough sleep has wide-ranging benefits in areas that are especially important to college students, like memory, focus, and stress.

Benefits of Sleep

Truthfully, researchers don’t really know why we sleep.

However, we do know that when sleep-deprived, our attention, focus, motivation to learn, creativity, ability to think abstractly, and vigilance are all decreased. This makes it harder to receive and properly process incoming information, and makes it more likely that we make sloppy errors in our work.  In addition, our neurons don’t function properly, and we are less able to recall previously learned information. Can’t learn new things? Can’t remember old things? Lack of sleep takes its toll on the student’s brain.

In addition to negatively affecting memory both before and after learning, inadequate sleep impairs judgment, mood, motivation, and how we perceive events. Over time, poor sleep has been linked to obesity, diabetes, and depression.  Lack of sleep can also lead to weight gain.


New research has even suggested that not getting enough sleep makes us appear unattractive and sad.

If you don’t get enough sleep over time, you build up a sleep debt.


So to be happier, sharper, smarter, and better at making decisions, get enough sleep every night!

Sleep is good. I get it. Now what?

                Getting good sleep is about developing good habits, or “Sleep Hygiene”. Harvard Medical School has a Division of Sleep Medicine website which I highly recommend if you are interested in learning more about sleep. They have listed 12 tips for improving sleep which are amazingRead them nowSeriously.

Below is the abbreviated version. For full explanations, hit the links above!

  1. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and other chemicals that interfere with sleep (especially 4-6 hours before bedtime).
  2. Turn your bedroom into a sleep-inducing environment. Keep work, TV, and bright lights out of the bedroom.
  3. Establish a soothing pre-sleep routine.
  4. Only go to sleep when you are truly tired.
  5. Don’t be a nighttime clock-watcher.
  6. Use natural light to your advantage: to stay on a natural awake-sleep schedule.
  7. Keep your internal clock set with a consistent sleep schedule.
  8. Nap early, before 5pm, or not at all.
  9. Lighten up on evening meals.
  10. Balance fluid intake.
  11. Exercise. And do it early in the day, and at least 3 hours before bedtime.
  12. Stick with your new sleep routine!

In addition, check out greatist.com’s list of 27 ways to sleep better tonight. And, the NY Times has some great info on sleeping better in their wellness section, like steps for more, and better, sleep and how exercise can help us sleep better.

It’s easy to let your school work slip into sleepy time, but that isn’t what’s best for your brain. So instead of pulling an all-nighter, plan ahead and break up studying into multiple smaller sessions. Sleeping between bouts of studying will help consolidate your memories and help you do better on your test. And when it comes to your social life, make sure you are taking into account how much sleep you have been getting before deciding to hang out with friends late at night.

If you are still having issues with sleep, feel free to walk in to UNC Counseling and Psychological Services in the Campus Health building. They are a great resource for helping students get better sleep, and they are familiar with meeting students with sleep issues as they are common amongst college students.

Happy Sleeping!

12 thoughts on “Mission Impossible: Sleep and the College Student

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