Ask a Professor: How to Pull an All-Nighter in College

Many college students stay up all night to cram for exams or finish essays. A professor shares tips on pulling an all-nighter and whether they actually work.

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published on July 1, 2022 · Updated on July 6, 2022

Edited by Tyler Epps
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Ask a Professor: How to Pull an All-Nighter in College
Image Credit: Mayur Kakade / Moment / Getty Images


Over half of people have pulled an all-nighter, according to a 2019 survey — and 20% of college students pull an all-nighter every month.

What is an all-nighter? It's not the same as being a night owl or staying up late. An all-nighter means going the entire night without sleep. College students often pull all-nighters before big exams so they can cram in extra study time. They may also give up sleep to finish essays or presentations in time for the due date.

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As a professor, I know the research. All-nighters usually backfire. You'll be groggy the next day, and you're less likely to retain information when you're sleep deprived. On top of poor academic performance, all-nighters take a toll on your mental and physical health.

But sometimes an all-nighter is unavoidable. So here are the best ways to stay up all night — and some tips on how to stay awake the next day.

How to Pull an All-Nighter: 5 Things You Should Do

If you're pulling an all-nighter to study for a big test or finish a paper, you'll want to keep your brain and body functioning well.

Instead of leaving yourself stressed and exhausted the next day, these steps can help you minimize the harm of sleep deprivation.

1. Get SOME Sleep

Yes, an all-nighter technically means not sleeping. But scheduling in a power nap the afternoon before your long night or in the early morning hours can make a big difference.

The Sleep Foundation recommends a 10-to-20-minute nap to get the most benefits without the grogginess of longer naps.

2. Plan Your Snacks

You might be tempted to down sugar or fried food during an all-nighter, but eating healthy snacks will help you stay up.

Reach for fresh fruits and vegetables and make sure you have good protein sources on hand. These nutritious snacks will prevent you from feeling sleepy and help you avoid a sugar crash.

3. Drink Water

Hydration is key for an all-nighter. Skipping sleep puts your body under stress, and water can help it function.

What's more, drinking water will help you avoid dehydration, which can sap your energy and leave you feeling tired.

4. Turn On the Lights

Staying up all night means battling your circadian rhythms. Your body wants to sleep, and dim lights will signal melatonin production that will make you drowsy.

To avoid feeling sleepy, study in a well-lit area. And make sure to take breaks from looking at your computer screen, which can cause eye strain.

5. Take Breaks

It's important to take breaks during an all-nighter. Stand up and move around, take a walk, or do some stretches to keep your blood flowing.

Breaks do more than keep you awake — they also improve your studying. According to Cornell University, study breaks can improve productivity and focus.

What to Avoid During an All-Nighter

If you're planning on studying through the night, there are several things you should avoid doing. Read below to learn what you should steer clear of before and after an all-nigter.

Too Much Caffeine

It might sound smart to drink caffeine to stay up all night, but too much caffeine can backfire. Yes, caffeine is a stimulant, but it can also cause unwanted side effects.

Consuming more than 400mg of caffeine in a day — the equivalent of as little as two cups of coffee — can cause jitters, headaches, anxiety, and stomach upset.

Zero Sleep

One night without sleep can cause anxiety, irritability, and even hallucinations, according to a 2018 psychiatric study. In fact, ethical rules ban researchers from even conducting sleep loss studies that exceed 48 hours because sleep deprivation is so damaging.

Schedule a nap before your all-nighter or take a power nap at some point during the night.

Driving

Driving without sleep is dangerous for you and those around you.

According to the CDC, 18 hours without sleep is equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.05. A full 24 hours without sleep is equivalent to 0.10, or over the legal limit to drive. So avoid driving during and after an all-nighter.

How to Stay Awake After an All-Nighter

Let's say you pulled an all-nighter to study for a final exam. Your goal goes beyond staying up all night — you also want to perform well the next day.

Unfortunately, a night without sleep will affect your academic performance. Many studies show that college students who pull all-nighters have lower GPAs than those who get regular sleep, reports the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

But what if you already pulled an all-nighter? How can you stay alert after a sleepless night? Here are some tips to stay awake:

How to Avoid an All-Nighter

You can avoid an all-nighter with one step: Plan ahead. At the beginning of the term, you'll know exactly which weeks will be your busiest. If you have two exams and an essay due during week eight, plan ahead to avoid running out of time.

Finals week is always busy, so start studying early. By scheduling your study sessions and preparing, you can avoid an all-night crunch. Break down big assignments like research papers and presentations into smaller components to avoid all-nighters.

You should also consider alternatives to an all-night study session. For example, you could join a study group to share the study load or get up early to add in study time. Another option is to study in the evening, with a cutoff time to go to bed.

Do All-Nighters Actually Work? Is It Worth It?

Some college students swear by all-nighters to pack in extra study time. But staying up all night often backfires. That's because sleep deprivation harms your cognitive functioning. Without sleep, your attention span crashes, you'll struggle to focus, and your memory takes a hit.

According to the Sleep Foundation, lack of sleep can even create false memories — the absolute worst outcome if you're taking a test and can't recall the correct answer.

Stress hormones like cortisol also spike after a sleepless night, and sleep deprivation increases anxiety. Stress and anxiety will hurt your academic performance the day after an all-nighter. In most cases, it's better to avoid an all-nighter.

If an all-nighter feels unavoidable, think strategically about when it makes sense to lose sleep. An all-nighter might make more sense if you need to submit a paper to avoid a late penalty. It might backfire before a big exam or presentation, though. Take time to consider what your day looks like before sacrificing sleep.

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