It’s 3 a.m. when senior Melissa Vazquez jerks awake. Her laptop is open, showing a finished YouTube video on cellular respiration.
She glances at the clock and realizes that her dozing has taken a whole hour of potential studying time—it’s time to get back to work.
So she hits replay and takes a sip of coffee. It may be late, but Vazquez has plenty of experience studying in the early hours of the morning.
“Laying in bed and watching videos has been my studying method of choice lately,” she said. “When I’m sleepy, I just can’t read because I’m so tired.”
On an average school night, Vazquez goes to sleep around 11 p.m. But when there’s a test the next day, that time creeps closer to 3 or 4 a.m.
And she’s not alone.
In fact, 35 percent of polled high schoolers said they go to bed much later than usual the night before a test.
Yet, according to a recent New York Times article by science journalist Benedict Carey, this is exactly what students should not be doing before a big test.
Research shows that a primary reason for sleep is to consolidate new knowledge. And for various types of tests, different phases of sleep are more important.
For instance, before an exam that tests memory, such as a vocabulary quiz, studies say students should go to bed at their normal time and get up early to finish their studying. This will give them a full dose of deep sleep, when their brains consolidate facts.
For exams like math tests, which require memory and understanding, students need REM, or “dreaming,” sleep, when their brains see hidden patterns and find solutions to problems. To do this, students should stay up later to finish their test preparation and sleep in as long as possible.
For motor-memory assessments, such as music recitals, though, students should stay up later to prepare and get up at their normal time. This gives them enough Stage 2 sleep, when motor memory is consolidated.
For an AP biology test, which requires both memory and understanding, the article would suggest later bed and wake-up times.
However, for Vazquez’s recent AP biology test, she was up almost all night, only sleeping when her eyes closed of their own accord.
“I do believe that it could hurt my grade when I don’t get enough sleep,” she said. “On multiple-choice questions that I’m not sure of, I kind of wonder whether I might be able to see the trick answers if I got a full night’s rest.”
Nonetheless, studying until 4 a.m. isn’t uncommon for senior Caroline Mehta either.
“It depends on what subject it is and how much material I have to know, but I usually study until between midnight and 4 a.m.,” Mehta said.
In those early hours she completes review packets, reviews class notes, re-reads the textbook and makes outlines of the material.
Despite the late hours, Mehta said she’s pleased with her test performance, recalling an AP biology test for which she studied until 4:30 a.m.
“I didn’t really go to sleep at all,” she said. “I had to (leave school) early that day because I was so tired. But it all paid off!”
Mehta said she earned an A on the test.
Nonetheless, Mehta said she usually does get enough REM sleep before tests, as advised by the Times article. But she couldn’t see herself following most of the other suggestions, despite believing that they may work.
“If I know I have an extra hour before I really need to get up, I’m going to sleep, not study,” she said at the prospect of waking up early to finish studying before a memory test.
Vazquez prepared for the same AP biology test by watching Khan Academy videos on photosynthesis and cellular respiration for most of the night.
“I kept going through them until I fell asleep,” she said. “Then I would wake up and watch some more. I slept some, but I would try not to.”
Vazquez said she didn’t feel the effects of her late night during the test, though.
“When you’re in the test, you’re kind of stressed out and hyped up,” she said. “I might be dozing off in my other classes, but I can focus during the test.”
Senior George Cvetich feels similarly.
“I’m usually extremely focused on the exam while I’m taking it, so I’m not worried about my sleep,” he said.
While preparing for a recent math test, Cvetich studied until 1:30 a.m. after getting home late from a soccer game, following the advice given by the Times article.
“I was confused by the concept, so I stayed up hoping to get a better understanding,” he said.
While Cvetich wasn’t aware of the scientific research that backs up the importance of sleeping well before tests, he said the idea makes sense to him.
Junior Aidan Galati, however, has implemented a new rule this year in response to past drowsiness during tests: no staying up past midnight no matter how much material has been covered.
“I’ve learned that if I stay up later than midnight, I will most likely do very badly on the test no matter how prepared I thought I was for it,” said Galati.
However, she will wake up earlier than usual to finish going through notecards for the test that she made the night before, just as the article advises.
“I didn’t know that this was a recommended thing to do,” Galati said. “It was just something I personally learned to help me.
“I’m often tired due to my busy schedule, so these backed-up ideas of when and how to sleep before tests really come in handy.”
Freshman Amalie Fackenthal has a pre-test method similar to Galati’s when it comes to her bed time.
“I never stay up late studying,” she said. “I believe that if you stay up late, it will make you too tired to remember anything no matter how much you studied.”
Fackenthal remembers a recent physics test when she went against her instinct, not getting her usual amount of sleep before the exam.
“I was so tired, and I couldn’t focus very well,” she said. “I didn’t do very well. I wish I’d gotten more sleep.”
Freshman Atsuo Chiu had a similar experience during his first math and physics tests of the year, for which he studied until 3 a.m. the night before.
A recent history test for junior Jenny Kerbs, however, stands as a time when the memory-test advice hasn’t worked.
“I studied my short-answer questions over and over until I was positive I had them down,” she said. “And I got up around 6 a.m. to study more.
“When I got into the test, I remembered the main points, but I had forgotten all of the people’s names that I needed to include for the short answer.”
Yet Kerbs has had positive experiences waking up early to finish studying for French vocabulary quizzes, another type of memory test.
“I find that I can more easily remember words that I study the day of (the quiz) rather than the night before,” Kerbs said.
She also said that she will now try following the article’s advice for other types of tests.
History teacher Sue Nellis said that she never stayed up as late as some of her students do studying for tests when she was in high school.
“I just couldn’t function the next day if I (stayed up all night studying),” she said.
Now, Nellis encourages her students to start studying several days before so that they can sleep the night before the exam.
“The night before the AP (U.S. History) exam is especially important,” she said. “I don’t want them studying at all (that night). I just want them to sleep!”
Junior Julia Owaidat remembers finals as the most sleepless times of the year, though.
“It’s the ultimate cram session where students try to force as much knowledge into their minds as possible,” said Owaidat, who stays up until 1 a.m. before most final exams.
“For me, that involves watching every Khan Academy video (on YouTube), reading every outline at least eight times instead of five and going through every single flashcard I made throughout the year.”
However, Owaidat realizes that sleep is an important aspect of test preparation.
“I used to think teachers told us to get a good night’s sleep and eat a healthy breakfast before a test as a way to make themselves seem more caring,” she said. “But it actually does work.
“I don’t do well on tests when I’m cranky, so you could say not sleeping until 4 a.m. and not eating would make me very cranky!”
Owaidat agrees with the majority of the Times article’s suggestions, though she’s tried the getting-up-early approach only for finals, when she has more time to study before the test. (On some final-exam days, students don’t have a test until 11 a.m.)
“(For a regular test), if I wake up knowing I need to study more, I feel unprepared and psych myself out,” Owaidat said. “For finals, it usually works because I have a few hours to hear what (classmates) are studying.”
For memory and understanding tests, like math exams, though, Owaidat doesn’t see the validity of the Times article, which suggests staying up later to finish studying.
“I look at my friends who do this, and I just see how miserable they are during the day,” she said. “Why put yourself through that?”
Mehta and Vazquez, however, say they’ve become accustomed to the effects of limited sleep.
Preparing for the AP exam in chemistry last year, the two spent all day at Tupelo Coffee House studying. Vazquez went home with Mehta, where they studied with few breaks and no sleep for the rest of the night. After arriving at school, the two broke out the books again.
For them, this study method isn’t going away no matter what recent brain research suggests—they’ve come to rely on those precious early-morning hours to cram in the last few facts before a big test.
“It all kind of balances out,” Mehta said. “I mean, that’s what leaving school early and coffee are for!”
Previously published in the print edition on Nov. 25, 2014.