Want to Improve Your GPA? Start Sleeping More.

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A new study has found that sleep disturbances have a greater effect on academic performance than anxiety, depression, binge-drinking, and marijuana use.

To all students getting ready to start college in a couple of weeks, here's some information worth listening to. The key to academic success could lie in an unexpected place -- the number of hours you manage to sleep each night. A new study by Drs. Monica Hartmann and J. Roxanne Prichard from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, has found that sleep quality and quantity equal or outrank binge-drinking and marijuana use in predicting student grades and the chances of graduating. (Only abusing prescription pills was worse.)

The study, which assessed the sleep habits of 55,000 American college students, found that sleep disturbances have a greater effect on grade point average than being diagnosed with anxiety or depression. For every extra day a student did not sleep enough, s/he was 10 percent more likely to drop a course and for GPA to drop by 0.02. This is particularly bad for first-years, who are 16 percent less likely to graduate if they drop a course in that first year.

Despite this, colleges provide surprisingly little information about good sleep habits, ranking it second-last on a list of 26 risks to wellbeing worth educating students about. (The last on the list is Internet addiction.) This is unfortunate, considering that 60 percent of students surveyed said they wanted more guidance in establishing healthy sleep habits. As Dr. Prichard told the New York Times,

“There’s definitely room for improvement in educating students about sleep. If all you do is ask students how they’re sleeping, chances are they’ll say ‘great’ because they’re so chronically sleep-deprived, they can fall asleep anywhere!”

Is it a college's duty to teach young adults how to get a good night's sleep, I wonder? In part, yes, particularly when colleges offer things like 24-hour libraries that arguably do more harm than good when it comes to students' study habits; but I do think that parents need to take more responsibility for establishing good sleep skills earlier in life, before a child leaves home. Much like nutrition, grocery shopping (yes, Stanford does this), physical health, and emotional resiliency should not be a college's job to teach, nor should knowing when to go to bed and when to wake up. Until more students do arrive at college equipped with those skills, however, colleges need to make a point of educating students about the importance of sleep, in the same way they provide guidance on alcohol and drug use.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine offers some suggestions for getting a better night's sleep.

Go to bed and wake consistently at the same time every day, including weekends.
- Avoid caffeine before bed. Some sources suggest not having it after 2 p.m., while others say not to have it for at least 3 hours before bed.
- Keep computers, TVs, and phones out of the bedroom and do not use in the hour leading up to bedtime, if possible.
- Avoid vigorous exercise in the 6 hours prior to sleeping.
- Make your bedroom cool, dark, and comfortable.