How to Sleep the Night Before an Exam


Girl sleeping on a pile of books

You’re lying there awake the night before a big exam. Thinking to yourself how will you get to sleep. Many students find themselves in the exact same situation, you’re not alone. I’ve taken literally hundreds of exams (unfortunately), and these are the best tips that have worked for me.

Grounding Yourself

Take three deep breaths. In through your nose and out through your mouth. Taking control of your breathing can help you de-stress quickly, and has been proven to increase focus. Okay, are you just a little bit more relaxed now? Good, continue reading! One of the most important things I’ve learned throughout my education is that one exam grade is not going to make or break you in the real world. The truth is most employers don’t even consider your GPA past your first job/internship. And if you’re applying to college soon, one exam isn’t going to drop your GPA enough to prevent you from getting into your dream school. Grounding yourself is a really important part of managing your stress and helping you get your much-needed sleep. As a student concerned enough about your grades that you are even reading this post means that you will probably do just fine. Now I’m not saying to not care about exams or study for them, all I’m saying is don’t get to the point where it makes you sick just thinking about them.

Stop Cramming

I’m serious. It’s something I have done for most of my life. Maybe I liked the rush of studying the night before an exam, and still being able to do fairly well. Maybe it was tied into how often I procrastinated. But seriously if you take nothing else away from this article, remember this tip. It made a world of difference. Starting a week in advance, even just 30 minutes to an hour a day. Study for the subject ahead of time! Feeling more confident in the exam material will help reduce stress. Worrying if that question that you aren’t solid on will appear on the exam or not is stressful, so create a schedule and stick to it. Know the material forwards, backward, and inside out. If it’s too late for this advice to work, don’t worry you can always do it next time.

Some Quick Do’s and Don’t

  • Don’t drink any alcohol to help you relax. While alcohol may help you fall asleep, it interrupts REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. REM helps to facilitate a night of restful sleep. Plus a hangover while taking an exam is not a good combination. Take it from me, and I’ll just leave it at that.
  • Don’t drink any caffeine after 11 am the day before your exam. There’s nothing more frustrating than being caffeinated out of your mind while studying the day before, only to not be to get sleep that night. So skip the caffeine if you can!
  • Do catch up on your sleep the day before if not a few days in advance. Sleep debt is a real thing, so if you are already running on fumes, plan ahead and get some sleep whenever you get the chance.
  • Do take power naps. A power nap is a game-changer for high school and college-aged students. It’s like plugging in your phone 20% and picking it up 30 minutes later, and it’s at 80%. Even if you’re not much of a nap person, become one. You will learn to really appreciate them. It’s something I personally undervalued my freshman year of college, but by my second year, I was good to go!
  • Don’t study on your bed. Your bed is made for sleeping not studying or doing homework. I would love to lay on my bed and do homework. It’s comfy, warm, and an overall all nice place to relax after a difficult day in class. But I promise you if you stop doing homework on your bed you will fall asleep much quicker. Your brain is great at making associations, even subconsciously. So making the connection that doing homework on your bed is an acceptable thing to be doing instead of sleeping, makes it more difficult for you to fall asleep. It might be a hard habit to break, but it’s made falling asleep the night before an exam much less of a chore.
  • Do some light exercise. While it might be too late to get a full exercise routine done (depending on when you are reading this). A little bit of light exercise would help you to relax. If you’re into yoga, great! Do some of your favorite poses. If you aren’t, that’s okay too. Instead lay on the floor and stretch out. Perform some of the stretching routines that you’ve probably learned in high school physical education. So just dust a few of them off and get started.
  • Sleep in your own bed. Sleeping somewhere else, especially somewhere other than your normal bed will cause you to not get as restful as a night sleep as you normally could. Your brain is hardwired to not trust a new place while sleeping. This animalistic behavior protected our ancestors from danger, by remaining in a light sleep to listen to predators. Now we don’t have to worry about this as much, but we still experience these effects. So if you know you are going to be stuck at a friends house studying, take some special care to make the room more closely resemble your room at home. I’m not saying rearrange his/her room, but definitely bring your own pillow and blanket, and a few other things from home.
  • Use white noise. If you don’t already sleep with some form of white noise I highly recommend you either buy a white noise generator or perhaps even a fan. The white noise of a fan really helps to drown out other sources of noise. Living in a house with six other people in my junior year, this was a godsend. Buy an inexpensive box fan, or use one you already most likely have in your house. I’ve been using one for 10+ years now, and I’ve slept through thunderstorms without hearing a peep. I recently reviewed my favorite white noise machine that lulls me to sleep every night, check it out here!
  • Listen to some relaxing music. Nothing too heavy metal. Just some nice relaxing songs you enjoy. Maybe if you enjoy ASMR, listen to your favorite video right before bed.

The Night Before Bedtime Routine

At this point, you are done studying. I mean it. Put down your notes. The small bits of information that you will retain (at this point) will be insignificant compared to the benefit of getting some rest. After you are finished reading my post, say goodnight to whoever you’re texting. Set the alarm on your phone, and plug it in across the room. Don’t touch it for the rest of the night. Not even if you have “Night Shift” turned on. The glow of screens emulates the sun, which tricks our body into thinking we should be awake. Dim the lights in your room, or turn off the main room lights while just having a smaller desk lamp turned on. At this point, I would take a nice warm shower to relax my muscles, and ease my mind. Brush your teeth and continue on with any regular nightly hygiene rituals.

Read that book that you’ve been trying to start. It doesn’t have to be for long, just enough to relax your mind. It doesn’t even have to be a book just as long as you forgo the constant stimulation that internet-connected devices provide. Something you find relaxing, that you can do in your bed. But in my experience, a book always works best. Something about being able to immerse yourself in another character’s perspective really helps to ease the stress of the next day test jitters.

Closing Thoughts

I’ve gone into this earlier, but I think it bears mentioning it again. It’s not the end of the world. This exam will not change the course of your life significantly. It’s something I’ve definitely had to learn when during my education. You always have another opportunity to improve. Either on the next exam or even having to take the class over again. I’ve had to retake classes over again, it’s not as big as a deal as its made out to be.

You’re done studying at this point (most likely), and so you will do as well as you studied. You can’t change the outcome at this point. But that’s okay. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try your hardest, but I am saying to just relax, I’m sure you’ll do great! Just a little thought experiment. Can think about a time when you were feeling this way about an exam over a year ago? Two years ago? It’s fairly difficult to remember, isn’t it? Just think two years down the line from now, and how much it won’t matter. As students, we tend to over-exaggerate the stress involved with doing well. But it’s nothing to lose sleep over. Now get some sleep, and go ace this thing!

Recent Content