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Why All-Nighters Don’t Work: Could You Be Sabotaging Yourself?

Staying awake all night doesn't actually help you—and might end up causing more problems in the long run. Here's what you need to know.

It’s finals time. You’re studying, last minute, for an exam that’s going to be the make-or-break exam of the entire semester. You say to yourself, “Maybe I should stay up all night studying—then I’ll pass this test with flying colors.”

Many a college student has thought the way you do—and many a college student has been wrong. It turns out that staying awake all night (also called “pulling an all-nighter”) not only doesn’t work but could actually be a way to sabotage yourself in the long run.

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Myth: Staying awake all night helps you remember everything

Reality: Science proves that the opposite is true.

Paula Haynes and Bethany Christmann, two graduate students at Brandeis University, received a grant from the National Institutes of Health, studied the effects of all-nighters on the body and the brain, and completed a paper on the topic.

In their research, which was performed on the common fruit fly, Haynes and Christmann discovered that when the fruit fly didn’t sleep, their memory consolidation mechanisms (known in the science world as dorsal paired medial neurons, or DPM neurons) didn’t function correctly.

To put it more simply, if the fruit fly didn’t sleep properly, it wouldn’t remember what it needed to know. And, said Haynes and Christmann, this can help us understand how memory works in humans and apply the lessons to our own lives. “Knowing that sleep and memory overlap in the fly brain can allow researchers to narrow their search in humans. Eventually, it could help us figure out how sleep or memory is affected when things go wrong, as in the case of insomnia or memory disorders,” they wrote.

Myth: Sacrificing sleep for studying leads to better grades

Reality: If you sacrifice sleep for studying, you’ll probably do worse.

Smithsonian magazine recently reported on a study conducted on high school students at various grade levels. They were asked to report on their sleep and studying habits, then on how well they did on exams—especially if they sacrificed sleep for studying.

The results were unanimous: Students who eschewed sleep for studying consistently did worse on their tests, no matter their age or the subject matter. This same study also found that students who didn’t get enough sleep the night before a school day found it difficult to concentrate on what was being taught or remember what they’d learned the previous day. So, no matter the circumstances, getting enough sleep the night before school is crucial to successful learning.

According to the study, the solution is to find a balanced academic life that combines sleep, studying, extracurricular activities, and social activities with friends. And while that can prove difficult for high school students (since many are still learning time management skills), it often proves much easier for college students, especially if they’ve started college later in life.

In short: If you’ve got a big final exam the next day and you’re worried about passing, get a good night’s sleep the night before. Don’t sacrifice sleep for studying, and don’t cram for a final exam by pulling an all-nighter. Most of all, learn to balance your outside activities with your college life—and with your overall health.

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