14 Tips to Set a Good College Sleep Schedule

Going to college means lots of changes, most that you can’t plan ahead for. However, one thing you can get ahead of is your sleep schedule.

Young woman lying on bed using laptop computer, in student dormitory
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The answer to getting good sleep in college isn’t just sleeping all day to make up for an all-nighter. It’s actually pretty old-school, like something-your-parents-tried-to-do-when-you-were-little old-school: It’s having a set bedtime and wake-up time. And before you scroll right past this advice, hear us out.

At first, the idea of ditching your curfew and turning into a night owl might sound appealing, particularly if you’ve set your schedule to avoid early classes. But according to Jennifer Mundt, Ph.D., a sleep psychologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, sticking to a schedule, especially a consistent wake-up time, is crucial for good sleep, regardless of your age.

And in college, you’re on the hook to set your own sleep schedule, perhaps for the first time. So, consider approaching sleep the way college is supposed to help you think about the future: Figure out what works best for you. Stick with what helps you sleep now, so you can prevent sleep deprivation, insomnia and irregular sleep patterns long after your school years.

The risks of not getting enough sleep in college

Sleep is a pillar of health that’s often overlooked, says Mundt. Though sleep helps improve focus and memory to make you more effective at learning and remembering what you study, students often forego sleep to cram or socialize. Because of this, many students rack up sleep debt, which brings on fatigue, anxiety, irritability and brain fog. Stats also show that 60% of college students suffer from poor sleep quality, and nearly 8% struggle with insomnia.

This can compromise students’ ability to understand and retain information, even affecting grades, research shows. In fact, the study found that although sleep disturbances received less attention from administrators than factors like binge drinking, drug use and stress, sleep had similar or greater negative impacts on academic success.

So how do you make sure this trend toward sleep debt and its negative impacts doesn’t affect you? Here are some guidelines for better sleep in college.

Tips for getting better sleep in college

Figure out your best bedtime

Building your bedtime around your natural circadian rhythm is the best way to develop better sleep habits in the long term. Pay attention to when you naturally get sleepy, and don’t fight your body’s signals by trying to stay up later. If you don’t already have a natural favorite bedtime, work backward from your wake-up time, either when you wake up naturally or when you need to be up for classes. Note how much sleep you’ve gotten on mornings when you feel fully rested, then count backward from your wakeup time to gauge your ideal bedtime—or use our sleep calculator to find your perfect bedtime.

Adjust your sleep schedule slowly

Once you figure out your best bedtime, change your schedule to accommodate it. As with any new routine, keep in mind that adjustments take time. Therefore, give yourself permission to slowly shift your sleep-wake times.

For instance, if your goal is to hit the hay at 11 p.m. instead of your more usual 1 a.m., adjust your bedtime earlier in 15-minute increments each night. Once you have your new schedule down, try to be consistent, and sleep in no more than one extra hour on weekends, advises Mundt.

Be consistent about your sleep schedule once you set it

Though it’s easy for sleep to take a back seat to social and study obligations, it’s important to be consistent with your sleep routines. After all, sleep is pretty much your body’s CEO, responsible for making sure your digestive, immune and nervous systems operate smoothly.

One workaround to remind yourself not to skimp on sleep, according to Kelvas, is to prioritize sleep the same way that you prioritize coursework. But find an approach that works for you. It can be easy to let other habits fall by the wayside when you first take charge of your own schedule, so be sure to leave room for everything else that goes into establishing healthy sleep patterns, like staying hydrated, eating balanced meals and taking care of your emotional health.

Don’t get frustrated when you can’t sleep

Understanding that you’ll benefit from an earlier bedtime is critical, but helping your body adjust to a new schedule can mean experiencing some sleep struggles. If you find yourself tossing and turning at first, don’t get frustrated.

“In these situations, don’t force yourself to sleep. Sleep will happen naturally when your body is ready,” says Mundt. If you can’t fall asleep after 30 to 40 minutes, get up and do something relaxing out of bed, such as reading a novel, journaling or listening to a meditation app. Try to avoid anything stimulating, including engaging in screentime.

If you truly cannot sleep, and getting out of bed hasn’t helped, try a little reverse psychology and tell yourself not to fall asleep. Psychologists call this “paradoxical intention,” a cognitive trick that helps us face our fears. Sleep researchers say this tip can help put the brakes on insomnia, a common sleep problem that affects 10 to 30% of Americans.

Factor in wind-down time

According to sleep scientists, adults need at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Mundt recommends giving yourself enough time to get ready to sleep before your dedicated bedtime. When you consider wind-down time as part of your sleep routine, it can help you avoid the “Oh, no, now I should get ready for bed” thoughts.

Taking 30 minutes to an hour to wind down can also help prepare your brain for sleep mode. During this time, put away your screens (including phones, TV, and computer) and do relaxing activities. To prep for bed, you might take a warm shower, read a few chapters of your favorite book, chat with a friend or write in your journal.

Deep breathing, which studies show elicits the body's relaxation response, can also decrease tension and help you drift off.

Each day, let the sunshine in

Don’t let your first outdoor activity be running to the lecture hall. To get the best out of your sleep schedule, make time for sunshine before class begins. According to Mundt, bright light is vital for regulating your circadian rhythm, so try to take a walk or run outside first-thing, or simply enjoy coffee in the fresh air before classes start.

Start by making a concerted effort to spend time outside, especially during the morning. According to Dr. Danielle Kelvas, a physician who specializes in sleep, just a little physical movement can enhance the quality of your sleep. Therefore, try to exercise outdoors or leave for class a little early so you can fit in a few extra steps along the way. Find a café off-campus to visit as part of a routine. If you don’t want to venture out alone, set up a study group at a coffee shop a bit further from home or invite a new friend or your roommate to join you on walks.

Another trick: Make sure to open the blinds in your dorm room to let natural sunlight be your alarm clock.

Monitor your caffeine intake

If you typically reach for a latte to curb your midday slump, be mindful of your caffeine intake, cautions Kelvas. One study found that drinking caffeinated beverages can reduce nighttime sleep by 4- minutes. Instead of trying to chemically beat back your afternoon sleepiness with coffee, take it as a cue that you need to rest or change to an earlier bedtime—then replace that afternoon coffee with sparkling water or non-caffeinated tea.

Limit your alcohol consumption

Though alcohol is often part of the college experience, know that a nightcap before bed doesn't do wonders for your rest, and that binge drinking can cause serious sleep and health issues. Though alcohol can initially bring on faster sleep, as its effects wear off, so do its sedating effects, making it harder to fall into deep sleep. Alcohol also causes sleep disruptions in the later part of sleep — specifically, it compromises REM sleep, which is critical for memory consolidation. If possible, try to avoid alcohol, or, at the very least, limit your consumption, Mundt recommends.

This means not forcing yourself to go to sleep—but also becoming aware of what might be keeping your mind and body alert.

Swap Netflix and chat for meditation and chill

Cozying up in bed to watch Netflix or TikTok videos might seem like the perfect way to unwind, but electronics and bed are about as incompatible as night and day. Studies show that using these devices in the bedroom can actually be a health hazard.

For starters, activities like doomscrolling or playing games can stimulate the mind, which delays bedtime. The blue light from your screens also alters the body’s production of melatonin, and this can make you feel more alert. Melatonin is called “the vampire hormone” because it only comes out at night, says J. Roxanne Prichard, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in sleep at the University of St. Thomas. Switching to journaling or meditation as a form of relaxation can help your brain shift away from anxiety and toward calm.

To get into the habit of electronics-free evenings, choose a set time to turn them off. If your smartphone is also your alarm clock, go retro and replace it with an old-fashioned alarm clock.

Don’t give in to exam anxiety

Anxiety and worry can cause a spike in the stress hormone, cortisol, which can make you feel more alert. But don’t mistake that alertness as a signal to keep studying.

If you’re feeling pressure to fight sleep in order to study more, you may end up facing diminishing returns. Researchers have also found that students who consistently sleep longer and better perform better academically. Sleep is profoundly important for stabilizing your memory, especially in the REM stage.

Get regular exercise

If you aren’t exercising outside in the morning with a brisk walk, make time for exercise during the day. Moving your body, even for 30 minutes each day, can improve your sleep. But be mindful of evening workouts. Late-night gym sessions can rev you up and make your body feel more alert right at the time when it should be winding down.

Be reasonable about your goals and expectations. You don’t need to be a marathon runner to reap the benefits of working out. Light exercise can be just as beneficial for your sleep and bolster your mood. If you’re new to exercise, start with a low-impact activity like walking, yoga or the elliptical machine.

Keep it quiet

Loud noises are notorious for making it challenging to sleep, but they’re sometimes unavoidable, especially in a dorm environment (or if you have roommates sleeping a foot or two away). To minimize noise pollution, Kelvas says, you can start by investing in noise-cancelling headphones, which prevent loud noises both by physically insulating your ears from loud sounds and by emitting a signal designed to “cancel out” specific external noise frequencies.

If your neighbor next door doesn’t use headphones when listening to loud music, try to drown out all that disco with a white noise machine. And if you're a super-light sleeper who wakes at the sound of a pin drop, Kelvas recommends investing in some good old-fashioned earplugs. You can’t always control the noise level in your dorm, but wearing earplugs to bed can improve both the quality and quantity of your sleep.

Sync your bedtime with the requirements of your class schedule

One benefit of choosing your own classes is that you can often make a point of arranging your life so that you don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn. Even so, since keeping the same schedule helps you establish better sleep habits, you should try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day.

With this in mind, try to set up your sleep schedule in a way that accommodates your earliest class. For instance, if your earliest class during the week starts at 10 a.m., aim to wake up 60 to 90 minutes ahead of that time every day (for example, around 8:30 or 9), not just on the day(s) when that class meets.

You might initially feel a pang at the thought of not sleeping in on your later-class days. But not only will maintaining a consistent bed- and get-up time help improve your sleep overall, you may soon find on your later-class days that you actually enjoy the bonus of having extra personal time in the quiet mornings on campus before your classmates are out and about.

Practice the 4-7-8 breathing technique

It’s not uncommon for spikes of worry and waves of anxiety to throw your sleep off kilter. When this happens, 4-7-8 breathing can help. This exercise, developed by integrative doctor Andrew Weil, is proven to calm the body’s stress response. To practice 4-7-8 breathing, simply inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds and then exhale, making a “whoosh” sound for eight seconds. Then, repeat the exercise four times.