Mind & Body

Studying for a Test? Here's Why You Shouldn't Pull an All-Nighter

Anyone who's done with school doesn't miss final exams. Or term papers. At least, they don't miss the flurry of activity that leads up to them — living at the library all day long, writing and studying relentlessly, surviving on a diet of coffee and pizza. And, of course, pulling all-nighters. There's nothing like 'em to get that paper done in time or cram those last few facts before a test. Well, it turns out that putting off sleep to study might hurt your grades after all. Here's why pulling an all-nighter should be your last strategy for getting things done.

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Snooze, Don't Lose

The most likely time for a college student to pull an all-nighter is right before an exam. Which is ironic, since science says that's basically the worst possible time. According to Professor David Earnest from Texas A&M University, "Sleep deprivation's effect on working memory is staggering. Your brain loses efficiency with each hour of sleep deprivation." Plus, the middle of the night just isn't the right time to start cramming. Just like the rest of your body, your brain works on an internal clock, and it just doesn't retain information as well in the middle of the night as it does during the day. So if you're staring into your textbooks in the wee hours of the morning, you're working against your body's natural processes.

But it's not just that studying late means you're not getting the most out of your brain. Missing sleep has a well-documented negative effect on academic performance. In one study encompassing more than 53,000 students, sleep problems increased the probability of dropping a course by 10 percent and lowered the average GPA by about 0.2 points. That's comparable to the effects of regular binge drinking and excessive marijuana use. Furthermore, a Swiss study found that even one night without rest could have a lasting effect on your circadian rhythm. That's right — it might take just one all-nighter to damage your sleep habits for the long term.

The Bigger Sleep

Fortunately, there are some people working to help college students overcome their sleep-deprived habits. The Center for College Sleep at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota has proven how powerful shifting attitudes towards sleep can be. Thanks to the research done by the center, the school has begun enacting several measures to improve sleep habits among students. For example, many of the so-called "late night" events on campus have been moved to earlier in the evening. But it's not just their own school's ZZZs that they're hoping to improve. Their College Sleep Questionnaire helps you assess your own sleep patterns and get the tools you need to improve your pillow time.

If you absolutely have to pull an all-nighter, do it smartly. Don't do it to cram for a test the next day — you'll only wreck your brain when you need it most. And once you've done it, wait a while before you do it again, since that lack of sleep adds up over time. Hold off on coffee until you're deep in the process since you don't want the caffeine crash to hit you mid-essay, and avoid other crash-inducing foods like sugary candy and high-carb pasta. Protein and fruit are a great alternative — try apples and peanut butter with your 2 a.m. cup of joe. If you can, try and schedule a short nap just to keep you going. 2o minutes can make a big difference. Oh, and the most important thing? When the morning comes and the paper's been submitted, GET SOME SLEEP.

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We're too sleepy to come up with a clever description. So we'll just pick up "The Sleep Solution" by Dr. W. Chris Winter instead (free with your Audible trial membership). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas September 12, 2018

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