Tips for Sleeping Better Before an Exam

Last updated: Jan 17, 2023

If you have an important upcoming exam, the stress and anxiety leading to the big day may not just impact you mentally. It also can impact you physically. Excessive sweating, feelings of nausea, a racing heart, and trouble breathing are common signs of test anxiety, but that’s not all. Poor sleep is another side effect of stress that can hurt your test score.


Unfortunately for many test takers, quality sleep before exam day is one of those often-overlooked test prep tips that can factor into a solid score. Too often, students sacrifice sleep for more study time, which doesn’t help. If you’re struggling to catch some Z’s before the test, find out why this is a big deal and what you can do about it.


student in bed studying before going to sleep

Why Is Sleep Before an Exam Important?

Think missing a little sleep only hurts your mood and leaves you a little cranky? Think again. Poor sleep directly impacts your ability to perform mental tasks, which is disastrous on test day. Particularly on standardized tests, your mental sharpness is exactly what is being evaluated, so the last thing you want to do is compromise those skills by doing anything that gets in the way of a good night’s rest.


Pulling an all-nighter is nearly a rite of passage in college, but it is not an effective form of test prep. Cramming the day before an exam at the expense of quality sleep more often than not hurts rather than helps you by creating a series of negative impacts:

  • Your memory suffers.
  • Your body is deprived of its chance to recover.
  • You fight your body’s natural desire to rest.
  • Your stress hormone levels are increased.
  • Your concentration and accuracy go down.
  • Your judgement wanes.

If you don’t think sleeping is essential to your mental performance, just look at the results when you fail to get the rest your body craves and needs. Interestingly, many college students get less sleep during the exact period when they need it most: finals week.


How Much Sleep Should You Get Before an Exam?

To feel fully rested, most adults require seven to nine hours of sleep. For adolescents, it’s about an hour more. However, if you’re thinking one good night’s rest before exam day is enough, you’re wrong.


You can run a “sleep debt,” which is the total sleep loss that accumulates in a given period. Even if you get a good eight hours of sleep the night before the big test day, you may not be as rested as you think. If you did not maintain a healthy sleep pattern the week leading to the exam, you’ll carry all of those missed hours of sleep into the test with you.


Unsure if you’re running a sleep debt that could impact your exam performance? Consider keeping a sleep diary. Note when you went to bed, how much you slept, how rested you feel, and how alert you find yourself in the morning. Plus, you’ll want to note any times that you feel tired throughout the day. All of this info can help pinpoint any problems with your sleep schedule.


How Can You Tackle the Exam Fully Rested?

If sleep loss can accumulate over several days or weeks, the key is to get into a healthy sleep habit well before your exam and stick to it. It may take some adjustment to your routine, but getting on a healthy sleep schedule is possible if you follow a few simple steps:

  • Set aside enough time to sleep.
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same times each day, even on weekends.
  • Avoid anything loud or stimulating for an hour before bed.
  • Don’t eat or drink anything in large quantities at least two hours before bed.
  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine.
  • Participate in physical activity each day, particularly outdoors.
  • Make your bedroom a quiet, dark place without any electronic devices and distractions.
  • Limit daytime nap length to no more than 20 minutes.


The key here is consistency. The longer and more strictly you follow the steps above, the greater your success falling and staying asleep. Ideally, you’ll go into test day after maintaining a strict sleep schedule for several weeks.


a student in front of a computer preparing for exam day instead of sleeping.

Trading Sleep for Studying Does Not Work

For far too many people, sacrificing sleep is their first strategy to fight test anxiety and pack in more study time. This will not help you as you prepare for an exam, and it may backfire. Studies have shown that students who sleep more perform better than those who stayed up to cram.


There’s no shortcut to a great exam score. If you have an important test coming up, you need to remember that it’s about investing as much time and effort into your health and well-being as it is studying the material.


If you do need help mastering the concepts to earn a great exam score, USF is here for you. We offer test prep courses for a variety of important exams, including the SAT, ACT, LSAT, GRE, and more. See what we have available today!


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