From elementary school to graduate school, routine testing is often the standard for evaluating academic performance and achievement. According to one study, an American student takes as many as 112 tests by the end of their senior year of high school. Quizzes, unit tests, midterms, and finals are hallmarks of education, and the stakes get higher as grade levels rise. High school and college students may have to prepare for a number of standardized tests: the SAT, ACT, TOEFL, GRE, LSAT, MCAT, to name just a few.
Given how much importance schools and colleges place on tests, it’s no wonder that students may be tempted to stay up late to cram before a big exam. After all, with so much on the line, wouldn’t sleep time be better used to memorize notes or take a few more practice tests?
In fact, research has shown the opposite to be true. Getting enough sleep is crucial to learning and academic performance, no matter the grade level. To have the best chance at success, students should make sure to get enough sleep in the days leading up to an exam.
Why Is Sleep Important During Test Prep?
Sleep is important for health and well-being throughout all stages of life. Getting enough sleep replenishes energy reserves, strengthens the immune system, helps the body repair itself, and is essential for cardiovascular health. During sleep, the body also releases important hormones that promote growth and development.
Sleep has a particularly important role in students’ ability to meet academic expectations for success, which includes preparing for tests. Skimping on sleep can affect a student’s test prep and performance in many ways, impacting everything from mood to concentration.
Sleep is also crucial for the formation and preservation of memories. Sleeping both before and after learning new information enables the brain to organize and encode that information into memory. Sleep also links memories together, which helps people solve problems and come up with new ideas.
Meanwhile, not sleeping can dramatically reduce a student’s ability to learn. Students who don’t get enough sleep face many challenges that can interfere with test prep and performance.
- Daytime sleepiness: Not getting enough sleep can make it hard to stay awake during the day and increases the chance of nodding off during a test.
- Attention problems: Students may become distracted and inattentive without enough sleep, which leads to more errors and makes it harder to recognize mistakes.
- Memory impairment: Lack of sleep can make it more difficult to form new memories and to access those memories when needed.
- Impaired reaction time: Without enough sleep, students can be slower to recall information and may take too long to answer questions on a timed test.
- Mood changes: Students who don’t get enough sleep can be irritable, moody, short-tempered, and may become frustrated more easily when faced with a challenging problem.
All of these consequences can directly impact test prep and performance, but not getting enough sleep can indirectly affect test scores as well. For instance, sleep deprivation is linked to an increased risk of accidents and infections, which can lead to school absences and affect a student’s ability to prepare for a test.
How Much Sleep Do Students Need?
It’s well known that high school and college students don’t get enough sleep in general. Studies have shown that 70% of college students and almost 73% of high school students do not receive the amount of sleep recommended by experts on an average night.
While scientists continue to investigate how much sleep people need, they agree that sleep needs change throughout a person’s lifetime. The National Sleep Foundation has issued recommendations for school-age children and young adults.
Recommended Amount of Sleep
Elementary Schoolers (6 to 12 years)
9 to 11 hours
Middle and High Schoolers (13 to 18 years)
8 to 10 hours
College Students (18 years and up)
7 to 9 hours
Experts agree that high schoolers need between 8 and 10 hours of quality sleep each night to function properly, which is about an hour more per day than adults require. This greater need may be due to several unique features of adolescent health and development.
Teenagers experience significant physical, mental, and emotional growth in a short period of time. Sleep helps support teens’ development during this critical period of growth.
Sleep may also play an important role in the brain development that takes place during the teenage years. While there are many factors that make it hard for teenagers to stick to a regular bedtime and wake time, new research suggests that maintaining a consistent sleep schedule may have significant long-term neurological benefits.
Puberty causes changes in the body’s circadian rhythm, which is the internal clock controlling the release of hormones that govern the sleep-wake cycle. Adolescents also experience changes in their homeostatic sleep drive, which is the urge to sleep that grows stronger the longer someone is awake.
Together, these changes give teenagers a natural inclination to stay awake later at night and wake up later in the morning than children or older adults. Because of high school start times, which can be before 8 o’clock in the morning, teenagers often must wake well before they have slept enough. Combined with homework, jobs, social interactions, sports, and other after-school activities, it is common for teenagers to routinely fall short of the necessary amount of sleep.
College students require the same amount of sleep that other younger adults do, between seven and nine hours a night. However, this doesn’t mean they actually get that much. Half of all college students report that they are tired during the day, while 70% say they do not get sufficient sleep.
College students face many of the same challenges that high school students do. On average, though, college students go to sleep over an hour later than high school students. College students may work longer hours at part-time jobs, routinely cram for tests, have classes at different times on different days, and hang out with other students late into the evening. All of these activities can cut into their sleep, to the potential detriment of their grades.
Students and Sleep Deprivation
Sleep deprivation occurs when people get less than the optimal amount of sleep over a period of time. Sleep deprivation can affect attention, mood, concentration, memory, and academic performance. Long-term sleep deprivation can have serious health consequences, such as high blood pressure, anxiety, obesity, and an increased risk of diabetes.
The stress of high school and college life can feed sleep deprivation, added to the many other reasons students may lose sleep. In turn, not getting enough sleep on a regular basis can increase a student’s stress levels. This means that not sleeping enough while preparing for a test can add more stress to an already taxing situation.
Naturally, not sleeping enough makes students drowsy during class. Students who cannot pay adequate attention or who fall asleep during class may miss key information that will be useful for a test. They may even fall asleep during the test itself.
There can also be more serious consequences to daytime sleepiness, such as driving while drowsy. One survey of college undergraduates indicated that 16% had fallen asleep while behind the wheel of a car. Driving accidents caused by drowsy driving can be serious. Even minor accidents can interfere with getting to class and disrupt study plans.
Additionally, sleep deprivation affects the immune system. Studies show that people who routinely do not sleep enough are more likely to contract the common cold and other illnesses. Lack of sleep increases the likelihood of other problems that can interfere with studying as well, such as depression, impulsiveness, and poor nutrition.
In addition to sleep deprivation, sleep inconsistency is another problem many students face. Sleep inconsistency means not getting the same amount of sleep from night to night, or sleeping and waking at different times during the week. This can be caused by rising early during the weekdays and sleeping in on weekends. Inconsistent sleep patterns, like sleep deprivation, can take a toll on students’ grades.
How Does Better Sleep Get You Better Grades?
Research suggests that students who consistently get longer and higher-quality sleep receive better grades.
Sleep is a time when the brain determines which information to retain as memories. Sleeping after a session of study or test prep may help students remember the material and ultimately perform better on tests. Getting a full night’s sleep is also linked to a better ability to pay attention. Studies show that lack of sleep leads to inattention and sleepiness, both of which can negatively impact academic performance.
Sleeping before preparing for a test is also crucial to learning new material. In one experiment, sleep-deprived and well-rested students were both taught new information, then tested on it two days later. The students who had slept before learning performed two letter grades better than their sleepless counterparts.
Most critically, getting enough sleep each night in the week before an exam leads to improved scores. Studies show that getting a consistent amount of sleep while learning material is even more important than sleeping well the night before the test.
On top of all these benefits, getting enough sleep can give students a more positive outlook on their day ahead and their chances of success. After proper sleep, students are more receptive to the lessons their instructors give. They view themselves in a better light and are more highly motivated to do well in their subjects.
How to Get Enough Sleep Before an Exam
By taking concrete steps ahead of an exam, students can improve their sleep hygiene and set themselves up for success on test day.
- Set a sleep schedule ahead of time: Aim to go to bed and wake up at consistent times every day. Studies show that sleep consistency and regularly getting enough sleep are as important as sleeping well the night before a test.
- Take a nap: Taking a nap may be more beneficial than cramming for a test, according to certain studies. Be careful to keep naps under an hour and not too close to bedtime.
- Exercise during the day: Daily exercise and sunlight exposure are likely to improve sleep. Make sure not to exercise too close to bedtime, since the stimulation can keep people awake.
- Take a break from caffeine: Coffee, tea, and caffeinated sodas are stimulants that keep working for several hours. Try to avoid these after noon to ensure they don’t interfere with sleep.
- Reduce your screen time: The blue light emitted from cell phones and tablets provokes the brain into staying awake, so try not to use these electronics right before bed.
- Revisit material in the morning: Reviewing material after a night’s sleep has been shown to be more effective than staying up all night cramming.
- Try relaxing before bed: While it can be hard to relax after an intense study session, trying simple meditations or other relaxation techniques may make it easier to fall asleep and may also relieve overall stress.
- Save the bed for sleep: Don’t study, watch TV, or text in bed. Associating the bed only with sleep can make it easier to fall asleep quickly.
- Customize the bedroom: The bedroom should be dark and quiet enough at night to promote relaxation. Take some time to make sure the sleep environment is conducive to a good night’s sleep.
Frequently Asked Questions About Sleep and Test Prep
Are All-nighters Helpful or Bad?
Pulling an occasional all-nighter is not likely to cause serious problems, but it doesn’t necessarily help either. In one study, the participants learned a new task, then half of them stayed awake for 30 hours before repeating it while the other half slept in between. Those who slept improved their performance by 18%, but those who stayed up didn’t improve at all.
How Much Sleep Do I Need Before a Test?
Depending on a person’s age, they should get between 7 and 10 hours of sleep the night before taking a test. Even more importantly, students should do their best to get the right amount of sleep every night in the weeks leading up to a test.
Should I Go to Bed or Keep Studying?
Sleep will improve your concentration, alertness, and mood the next day, all of which are advantages during a test. Plus, sleep can help you remember the material you have already studied.
Resources for Students and Parents
- Teenagers and Sleep: This U.S. National Library of Medicine resource explains the importance of sleep for teen health, why it may be difficult for teens to get enough sleep, and what parents can do to help.
- Sleep: Let’s Talk About Older Kids and Teens: The Clay Center for Healthy Young Minds offers information on sleep disorders and other mental, emotional, and behavioral challenges facing teenagers.
- Start Schools Later: Start Schools Later advocates for later start times in elementary, middle, and high school, in alignment with recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association.
- Banish Your Bad Study Habits: This guide from the American Psychological Association offers tips and advice for college students, especially graduate students, on how to hone their study skills and break bad habits.
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