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Not Enough ZZZZs? Sleep Recommendations for College Students

written by: Haley Drucker•edited by: Amanda Grove•updated: 10/18/2010

Falling asleep in class? The truth is that both quantity and quality of sleep are important, and listening to your own body's needs is key.

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    ZZZZ… A Good Night's Sleep

    Ask the average college student how much sleep he or she gets, and what you’ll often get is: “Sleep? What’s that?" It’s only half a joke. Very few college students get enough or the right kind of sleep. This is due both to the many demands on their time (classes, homework, jobs, internships, etc.) as well as the social environment that encourages staying up late and partying, pulling all-nighters, and so on.

    But the importance of sleep cannot be overestimated. Getting enough quality sleep leaves a student well prepared to succeed in class and in every other area of life. Sleep-deprived people’s minds are less alert and function more slowly, which can lead, among other things, to lower test scores. Lack of sleep also weakens the immune system, leaving the body more vulnerable to illness, and can lead to poorer memory retention and negative emotional outcomes such as depression, irritability, and stress. It’s clear that getting the right amount of sleep is a necessity rather than a luxury, particularly during the busy and stressful college years.

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    How Much Do I Need

    So what is the recommended amount of sleep for college students? It depends on who you ask. For a long time, the National Sleep Foundation has recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night for adults, with young adults such as college students falling in the 8-9 hours range. Newer research, however, suggests this may be an overstatement and that 6.5 to 7.5 hours of sleep is best, with over 8 hours per night actually having negative health effects. So college students today might want to shoot for 7-8 hours, at least until the sleep researchers work out their differences.

    But the real truth is that nobody else can tell you how much sleep you need—only your own body can. Some people function wonderfully with 5 hours of sleep per night, and some seem to need around 10. So pay attention to the signals your body is sending you. If you’re too tired to get up in the morning, you may not be getting enough sleep. If you can’t seem to fall asleep at night, you may be getting too much (or you may have a sleep disorder like sleep apnea).

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    Getting Quality Sleep

    If you aren’t getting the right kind of sleep, though, it isn’t going to matter how much you get. It’s better to get fewer hours of quality sleep than long hours of poor quality sleep. There are a lot of factors that can affect the kind of sleep you’re getting, but one of the most important and the easiest to change is the consistency of your sleep pattern. Everyone’s body has a natural awake/asleep cycle, called the circadian rhythm. When it’s time to go to sleep or to wake up, certain parts of the brain secrete chemicals that tell your body to make you drowsy or more alert.

    The problem is this: if you don’t go to sleep and wake up at about the same time every night, your body isn’t going to follow that natural rhythm. It doesn’t know when to wake you up or make you fall asleep, so it might make you drowsy in the middle of the day or keep you up late at night. So although it’s a custom, particularly among college students, to sleep in on the weekends, it’s a bad idea. So is frequent all-nighters. Going to bed around the same time every night and getting up at the same time every day, even on weekends, is a simple step that can do wonders for your quality of sleep. It puts your body in the position to let you know how much sleep you should be getting.

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    Quantity or Quality?

    Both quantity and quality of sleep are important—neither should be ignored at the expense of the other. Every individual’s body has individual needs. So while the recommended amount of sleep for college students is around 7-8 hours, it’s better to listen to what your body tells you than to blindly follow such a guideline. Get consistent, quality sleep and listen to your body’s signals, and you’ll be starting a habit of good sleep that will benefit you long after your college years.