The Ultimate Sleep Guide for College Students

Learn about common sleep problems college students face and how they can get better sleep.

By Ashley Little

May 4th, 2022

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College is an exciting time for many students who look forward to being on their own for the first time and managing their own schedule. But with great power comes great responsibility.

Many students face challenges with their new-found freedom and are caught juggling their personal life, studying, attending classes, participating in extracurriculars, staying active, feeding themselves, washing laundry… the list goes on. 

Getting good sleep is often one of the first things to be pushed to the bottom of the priorities list, likely because students don’t realize how important it is to their physical health, mental health, learning, and all other aspects of their life!

Keep reading to learn more about the sleep problems college students experience and see our resources to learn what college students can do to get better sleep

Why Sleep Matters for College Students

The NCBI reports that a majority of students are sleep deprived, with 70% of students sleeping less than eight hours a night, and 50% reporting daytime sleepiness.

Sleep is critical at every stage of life, but it’s especially important for college students who are actively learning. Sleep is key to learning because it is during our sleep that our brain has time to consolidate new memories. So when people say if you want to learn something you should “sleep on it” they mean it literally. 

Not only is sleep important for the academic component of a college student’s life, but it also contributes to good physical and mental health. All of these factors work together to make a student successful, so if one area starts slipping, it’s not unusual to see a student suffering in another aspect of their young adult life.

A good night’s sleep can make the difference between a healthy, balanced student and a struggling student. When students stay well-rested, the benefits manifest in improved academic performance, better memory, stronger immunity to illnesses, improved mood, and a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, and other health conditions. 

Sleep and Mental Health 

Insufficient sleep is a common side effect of suffering mental health challenges. In fact, 50% of insomnia cases can be attributed to depression, anxiety, or stress. And in the reverse, long-term sleep deprivation can even contribute to mental health problems. 

Traditionally, it was believed that sleep challenges were a side effect of mental health conditions, but research now explores how sleep deprivation could be a contributing factor to the development and onset of mental health conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and ADHD.

This reciprocal relationship exemplifies the important ties between our sleep and the brain. Sleep is a time when we let our brain rest and recharge for the next day. When sleep quality or quantity suffers, we feel the mental health effects quickly. 

This could be as simple as feeling hazy, having trouble concentrating, and having difficulty recalling information after a night with less sleep, but long-term sleep loss can raise several serious mental health concerns for students including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and addiction. College students have even been turning to abuse of ADHD medications like Adderall, Focalin, Ritalin and Vyvanse to stay awake during the twilight hours at an increasing rate.

Some even treat all-nighters or how little sleep they’ve gotten as a bragging right or badge of honor. But few stop to consider the actual consequences of sleep deprivation on their body and mind. 

Sleep and Academic Performance

Many studies have validated the connections between sleep, learning, and memory. After a well-rested night, the quick benefits include improved problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, attention, memory recall, and ease of learning new information. Quantitative studies have even measured the direct impact of sleep quality, finding that sleep measures account for nearly 25% of variance in academic performance. 

A Harvard Study was recently released that showed students with irregular sleep schedules (staying up late or waking up early to study often) did worse academically than students with regular sleep schedules. The authors found that for each increase of 10 in their sleep regularity score, students saw a .1 increase in their GPA. While correlation does not imply causation, it’s hard to deny a connection between sleep and academic performance.

These effects can be attributed to the strong connection between sleep and learning. The learning process includes acquisition (taking in new information), consolidation (stabilizing a memory in the brain), and recall (remembering learned information). The middle stage, consolidation, occurs during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and Slow Wave Sleep (SWS). These deep, restorative stages of sleep are critical for processing learned information in the brain. 

The Reality of All-Nighters for College Students

Without the proper duration or quality of sleep at night, students will face many challenges in their academic performance. This is why those all-nights college students love to pull aren’t as effective as they may think. 

One particular study assigned individuals a graded visual discrimination task. Subjects were tested and retested in order to collect data on their learning performance over repeated trials. The group who hadn’t slept in 30 hours before testing showed no increase in their performance of said task after repeated trials. 

Even after two days of rest and recovery, the sleep-deprived group was still suffering, again showing no improvement in their ability to complete the task. Individuals with a normal sleeping pattern showed consistent improvement in their performance over time.

The study piles on more evidence of the importance of sleep on learning. One such experiment had subjects learn a motor skill-based task. They were tested in the morning, 12 hours later at night, then 12 hours later after a night of sleep. Subjects showed no significant improvement in their performance from morning to night, but did see an 18% increase in performance after a night of sleep.

In short, put the flashcards down for a minute and get some sleep. Beating your head against the books all night in hopes that repetition is helpful at the cost of sleep is scientifically inaccurate.

Your brain hits a wall where you’re no longer absorbing and understanding what you learn until you rest, and you need to listen to your brain. By pulling an all-nighter, you’re not only risking poor performance on the test tomorrow but for the next several days. It’s a gamble that doesn’t often pay off.

It may sound simple – sleep more and sustain better grades and mental health – but a good night’s sleep does not always come so easily to a college student. 

Sleep Challenges for College Students

Finding time for a good night’s rest isn’t so simple for a college student with a million things on their plate. Some of the most common factors responsible for the sleep challenges college students face include: 

  • Balancing a busy schedule
  • Inconsistent daily schedule
  • Late night socializing
  • Managing stress or anxiety
  • Overstimulation from TV, phone, video games, or other tech
  • Sharing a dorm room
  • Loud noises
  • Bright lights 
  • Excess caffeine from coffee and energy drinks
  • Excess alcohol consumption or stimulant use

There are many sleep challenges college students face between trying to balance personal life, academics, friendships, and truly taking care of themselves without guidance from their parents for the first time. Other obstacles in the way of a good night’s sleep for a college student include being distracted by technology and social media, late-night partying, early class times, increased stress, excess caffeine, and excess drug and alcohol use.

College students are also susceptible to developing sleep disorders like sleep apnea and advanced sleep phase disorder (ASPD), particularly those who actively use alcohol and recreational drugs. Students who drink excess caffeine, stay up too late, pull all-nighters, and sleep at irregular intervals are also high-risk for developing serious sleep problems that last beyond the college years.

While in the middle of juggling a social, personal, and academic life, college students likely aren’t spending too much time thinking about their sleep. But quality sleep is at the core of all parts of life, and when it suffers, the consequences extend to various parts of our lives and well-being. 

How Can College Students Get Better Sleep?

In order to protect physical and mental health, college students should be prioritizing their sleep. Here are some sleep tips for college students.

Make a Sleep Schedule

  • Allow yourself at least 7 hours of sleep each night (even on weekends)
  • Plan your schedule on a weekly basis, especially for studying so you don’t get stuck with the last-minute, late-night cramming panic
  • Put away your phone, TV, and computer 1-2 hours before bed – instead, wind down with a relaxing activity 
  • Avoid naps, especially in the late afternoon or evening

One of the difficulties with the college years is managing an inconsistent schedule. Your classes may not be at the same times each day, you may have an unpredictable work schedule, or you may need more time studying one week than others. It’s very easy to become overwhelmed and lose a ton of sleep time simply because you don’t have a consistent routine. 

While you may not always be able to predict exactly what your schedule looks like, you can take time at the beginning of each week to plan out your schedule and ensure you have proper time for rest and relaxation to unwind. Taking the last one to two hours before bedtime for yourself to unwind can go a long way in improving your sleep. 

Create a bedtime routine that doesn’t involve stimulating technologies or high-intensity workouts. Take a warm bath or relaxing shower, read a book (not related to your studies), build a puzzle, or do some yoga stretches. If you can create a consistent bedtime routine at least one hour before your bedtime, your body and mind will start to predict that it’s time to wind down and you’ll have an easier time falling and staying asleep. 

Establish a Healthy Lifestyle 

  • Exercise regularly 
  • Eat healthy 
  • Avoid excess caffeine, alcohol, or other stimulants
  • Don’t stretch yourself too thin 

One way to work on improving your sleep hygiene is to keep up with healthy lifestyle practices. In college this becomes challenging with the temptation of cheap and convenient fast food, a partying lifestyle, and the overconsumption of caffeine to get you through those 8AM classes. But it’s important to remember that holistic health requires keeping up with all aspects of your well-being, including sleep, nutrition, and exercise.

Optimize Your Dorm Room 

  • Reserve your bed for sleep, not studying!
  • Create a relaxing sleep environment – you may need to negotiate with a roommate
  • Make your bed more comfortable

Setting your sleep space up for a better night’s sleep is a great way to fix the most tangible problems interfering with your sleep. Bright lights keeping you up outside your window? Hang up darker curtains. Loud noises keeping you up at night, consider earplugs or a white noise machine to drown out the noise. You can also make your bedroom more comfortable by filling in the white space on the ways, decorating with accents, laying down a rug, adding lamps for different levels of lighting, and other items that make the room feel more cozy. 

If you’re sleeping in a dorm, you’re probably also dealing with the discomforts of the standard twin XL mattress that comes with the room. Consider getting a new mattress that actually is comfortable – some of the best budget mattresses are reasonably priced for a college student on a tight budget. You could also consider adding a mattress topper for an extra layer of comfort to your bed.

Finally, reserve your bed for sleep and sleep only. This will help your brain and body adjust to the idea that when you’re in bed it’s a time for rest, not studying or binge watching your favorite show.

Reduce Your Stress

  • Exercise
  • Socialize with friends and family
  • Meditate

As we mentioned earlier, there is a strong reciprocal relationship between sleep and mental health. If you’re overwhelmed with stress, you’ll have an extremely difficult time relaxing and falling asleep at night. Try to maintain a healthy mindset and reduce your stress by exercising, meditating, socializing with friends and family, or any other activities that help you de-stress.

The more relaxed you are, the quicker you’ll find sleep. It’s a simple explanation for a very complex issue though, and your stress issues may fall outside the normal spectrum. If you’re having trouble de-stressing and subsequently sleeping, there are resources on campus or through your primary care physician that can help you. Which leads us to our next point…

Seek Help from Your Campus Resources

  • Visit your campus’s Counseling Center
  • Speak with your academic advisor
  • Communicate with your professors
  • Join a campus club to build a community of support

College is more than just a time to earn a degree in your preferred field of study. It’s also a time to build a community as you venture into young adulthood. There are many campus resources available to students to offer support academically and personally. 

If you find yourself struggling to manage, your campus Counseling Center is a great place to start. Trained counselors can help you navigate through the challenges of college life, whether that’s stemming from a mental health challenge, academic challenges, or personal challenges. 

Your academic advisor can also be a great resource to help you. Stay in frequent contact with your academic advisor and any other resources your campus provides to help you stay on top of your schedule and ensure success. Even joining a campus club can be a beneficial way to build a community of support around you.

Prioritizing your sleep while in college can seem challenging, but students can make major improvements with small adjustments. For more tips for better sleep for college students, check out our guide on 52 actionable tips for college students to improve their sleep by clicking the button below.

Resources on College Students and Sleep

In our resources below you can learn more about the importance of sleep for college students, statistics around how severely college student’s sleep is suffering, and tips to help a college student get better sleep.