College Finals: 4 Tips For Pulling a Productive All-Nighter

What’s the most stressful week of the year for college students? Most students will say finals week. 

It’s a seemingly endless week, when students stress over trying to cram in enough study time to ace their exams. The stress and pressure can lead students to make unhealthy choices in an effort to simply get through the week.

Often, one of those choices is the all-night study session. Staying up all night to study isn’t the healthiest or most effective way to absorb the knowledge you need. In fact, according to a study by Michael Scullin, director of the Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory, sacrificing sleep to cram may actually be counterproductive. His study showed that students who get adequate sleep on a regular basis perform better on their exams than those who don’t get enough sleep. 

But sometimes an all-nighter is your only option.

If you find yourself having to do a 24-hour cram session before a crucial final, keep these tips in mind to make it as productive as possible. After all, you don’t want to put in the effort only to be lost in a fog of sleep come test time.

1. Make a Study Plan

Surviving an all-night study session requires some diligent preparation. Do not go into your study session without a plan to keep you focused through the night. The study plan is important because it helps you prioritize the work, explains Tamara Powell, a lecturer at California State University, Sacramento. Setting priorities can keep you from feeling overwhelmed, and it creates a structure for your studying.

A good plan should do three things:

  • It should tell you exactly what you need to accomplish by studying each subject.
  • It should identify all the materials you will need for the night’s study sessions.
  • It should create a schedule that paces your focus.

That schedule should be set up in blocks of time that will allow you to study and focus at predetermined intervals. Ryan Orwig, president of STATMed Learning, recommends using the 50/10 rule to divide up your time: 50 minutes of study time to 10 minutes of break time. Orwig says this method helps eliminate distractions, stifles attempts at multitasking, defines rules and boundaries for the study sessions, and helps students retain information.

With a strong plan in place before the night begins, you are more likely to stay on task and absorb the material.

2. Avoid Drinks With Artificial Caffeine

Your first instinct may be to load up on energy drinks, coffee and soda to help you keep your eyes opened. Avoid that temptation.

Most medical research shows that adults can safely consume up to 400 mg of caffeine a day. That’s approximately four cups of brewed coffee, 10 cans of cola or two energy shots. But not all caffeine is created equal. It comes in both artificial and natural forms. While too much of anything can be bad for you, natural caffeine tends to be associated with fewer negative side effects because it is not made of chemicals and is digested more slowly than synthetic caffeine.

In other words, your body is going to react differently to drinks with natural caffeine versus those with synthetic caffeine. Lindsay Oberst, lead editor for Food Revolution Network, notes how natural caffeine, consumed in regulated amounts, can contribute to increased alertness and cognitive health. That means a sharper mind for studying.

Synthetic caffeine, on the other hand, gets absorbed more quickly by the body. It provides a quicker spike in energy, but that spike comes with a crash, Oberst writes. This drain on your energy will inhibit your ability to focus while studying.

So, how do you know which drinks have which caffeine? Your best bet is the product’s ingredient list. According to the International Food Information Council Foundation, there are only around 63 known sources of natural caffeine. These include coffee beans, tea leaves, kola nuts and cocoa beans. If you don’t see ingredients that contain natural caffeine themselves, then you should assume the product is made with synthetic caffeine.

3. Eat The Right Brain Foods

What you eat and when you eat it matter when you are trying to stay focused throughout the night. Maximize your brain’s power by feeding it the right foods.

Deane and Patrick Alban, a health writer and chiropractor, respectively, say your brain needs a healthy mix of complex carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to stay mentally sharp. So, say goodbye to fast food and microwavable dinners. Instead, medical licensing and exam prep company Board Vitals recommends fresh fruits and vegetables, yogurt, cereal, turkey, red peppers with hummus, almonds and walnuts.

Staying hydrated is also important for keeping your brain in proper working order. Chiropractor and health writer Tracey Roizman notes that it’s important to drink water because dehydration can lead to fatigue and lack of focus.

You should structure your eating schedule, as well. If you snack throughout the night, your metabolism will go through highs and crashes. Reach for a snack if you are hungry, but don’t eat idly. A body that is properly fed has the right levels of energy to keep you awake and focused, says Paige Foote, RD, CPT and founder of Yeah Girl! Nutrition.

Just make sure to make smart choices about what you eat during the long hours of the night.

4. Take Regular Exercise Breaks

You cannot study all night long without taking breaks then expect to retain everything you reviewed. Breaks, especially breaks that include some form of physical exercise, are crucial to keeping you alert and focused throughout the night.

Your brain simply isn’t in top shape when you don’t give it a break. “Prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance.” That was the conclusion of a 2011 study led by University of Illinois professor Alejandro Lleras.

"From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself,” Lleras says. “Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task."

And for you to stay as mentally sharp as possible, those breaks need to include some sort of physical activity. Justin Rhodes, associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, says we think and learn better when we exercise. There is a growing body of research on why this is, and Rhodes offers two of the most common explanations:

  1. Exercise increases blood flow through the body and brain, which means more energy and oxygen are available for our brains to perform better.
  2. Exercise activates the hippocampus, a part of the brain critical for learning and memory. Cognitive function improves when the hippocampus is revved up.

Periodic exercise during the night will not only help you stay focused but also relieve the stress associated with cramming the night before a final exam. The team at educational services company Score At The Top explains that exercise releases endorphins, the chemicals that cause us to feel pleasure. A rush of endorphins helps reduce the impact of negative stressors and keep you feeling positive and energized.

So, as you go through the night, don’t forget to stand up, stretch, do some jumping jacks, go for a walk or partake in any other physical activity that can give you a boost.

Sometimes, an all-nighter is a necessary evil for college students. The keys to making it productive are preparation and dedication to taking care of yourself so fatigue doesn’t catch up with you.

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