The course was on the poetry of Percy Shelley and George Gordon, Lord Byron and I hated it. The professor was great, but 95-page chunks of densely existential Romantic poetry that didn’t even rhyme? Not my speed at all. So I did what any college student would do when faced with an assignment that makes their soul shudder: I put it off until the night before. “It” being a 10-page essay worth 70% of my grade.
Needless to say, I pulled an all-nighter. I wish I could say that the genius fairy visited me at 4AM with the literary insight I needed to make the grade. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite happen like that, although I did a lot better than I would have if I’d just gone to sleep. What I learned in the process might help you assess your own all-nighter eligibility and get you on your way to the least soul-sucking experience possible.
Should You Pull an All-Nighter?
Do a simple assignment triage: exam or essay? Essays, unfortunately, don’t write themselves. Sure, you’re not going to produce any Hemingway-worthy material at 4AM, but it’s still better to turn in something with a beginning, middle and end than nothing at all. I’ve also found that my essays flow better when I write the initial draft in one sitting. So if it’s an essay deadline staring you down, sacrificing a night of sleep might be your best hope.
Or Is Sleep Your Best Bet?
Exams are different beasts. You’ll be graded on what you can recall at exam time, not on how many flashcards and textbook chapters you burned through the night before. This means that sleep deprivation is not your friend. If you’ve been attending class, taking notes, or participating enough to have a general idea of what’s been taught during the semester, you’ll be far better off cutting your losses and getting at least some rest. It’ll make a huge difference in your ability to recall the information you do know.
Strategize and Suit Up
If you take the plunge and choose to stay up, you’re not alone. But what does a smart all-nighter look like? Time management issues may have gotten you into this situation, but you’ll need to turn over a new leaf now. Don’t start your all-nighter at your regular bedtime. Your body is ready to wind down and it will be hard to focus if you start off nodding off. Instead, blogger texmorgan, who regularly works nights, suggests settling in for the long haul several hours beforehand. Wear comfortable clothes, but stick to a desk instead of slouching on your bed; staying upright is key to avoiding sleep.
Stop Before You Drop
It’s the nth hour, and you’ll be tempted to work yourself into frantic delirium. Don’t. According to the Scientific American, your mind actually needs periodic breaks to stay sharp, so be sure to take ten or fifteen minutes out of every hour to step away from your computer or notes. This is a good time for some rejuvenating jumping jacks or other quick exercise to get your blood pumping. If at all possible, don’t stay up the whole night. A two-hour nap can make all the difference between information retention and a terrifying mind blank (or incoherent sentences):
For my Byron and Shelley essay, I let myself nap as soon as I had the first draft finished. Because honestly, without sleep it’s impossible to write citations. They’re miserable enough as it is.
Breaks are a great opportunity to refuel with snacks and caffeine, but sugar is your enemy, as it will make you crash later on—possibly during your exam. Instead, stick with protein-rich foods: trail mix, jerky, Greek yogurt or chocolate milk. You’ll need caffeine, of course, but use it wisely. Now’s not the time for five Red Bulls if a tall coffee is usually enough to make you peppy. Keeping your eyes open is good; getting a massive case of the shakes is bad.
Say No to Distractions
This is a good time to turn your cell phone off and your favorite website blocking software on. Social media is your enemy during the all-nighter, as much fun as it is to tweet your woes and commiserate with friends. We’ve all lost hours to Facebook’s clutches too many times to deny this, and I can tell you from experience: no one is awake to talk at 3AM. You don’t need to hit refresh again. If you’re a social studier, look for a buddy to stay up with you in person instead.
Save Time for Recovery
After you’ve turned in your essay or exam, try to take it easy with a nap or quiet afternoon. Definitely return to your normal sleep schedule, but sleep in an extra hour or two to make up your sleep debt (Harvard even suggests three to four extra hours of rest on weekends). And remember—making a regular habit of all-nighters can be really bad for your health, so start planning your assignments in advance.