How to pull an all-nighter effectively and still do well on your exam

Cramming weeks of biology or accounting material into the 12 hours prior to the exam is a prevalent trend on college campuses. It is amazing to me how many students are able to stay up all night and then take an exam. Our sleep and wakefulness cycles are governed by the circadian rotation of the earth, and overriding these cycles is extremely difficult, and so So I guess you deserve kudos for that in a semi-backwards way!

According to Dr. Charmane Eastman, director of Biological Rhythms Research Laboratory at a medical center in Chicago, what makes interrupting these cycles so difficult is that they exist even in the absence of time cues such as sunlight and clocks.

Part of the issue is that most students enter the 12-hour “all-nighter” period without having slept the previous 12 hours, so their brain is already working less efficiently.

Unfortunately, there is no way to beat the clock completely as staying up all night takes a toll on both your physical and mental performance. However, Penn State undergraduate studies say that understanding exactly what is happening to your body’s natural rhythms throughout the night can help all the night owls out there maximize brain power.

10 – 11 p.m.:This varies for most people but around 11 p.m., the first yawns start to occur as your usual bedtime is approaching. Taking an early evening nap will slow your body’s decline around this time.

11 p.m. – 12 a.m.: Your body temperature will begin to fall as it mimics the circadian rhythm cycle. If the room you are studying in was comfortable, it may now feel cold.  Instead of turning up the heat (which can put some people to sleep), throw on a sweater or jacket. At this point, caffeine is not your friend. It will make you feel antsy and anxious. It will also be less and less effective the later (or earlier) it gets. Reach for a light, healthy snack if you feel the urge to chug a Starbucks beverage.

1 a.m. – 2 a.m.: The best strategy is to study the toughest material first because it requires the most brain power. Save the easier work for the early morning hours as you will probably be exhausted and much less motivated. Exercise can also help with drowsiness so drop and give me twenty! Just teasing … but going for a short walk can definitely help you feel invigorated. Relocating can also be helpful.

This is also about the time you start feeling hungry so snacking is the best way to defeat drowsiness. Obviously, you want to avoid eating a four-course meal. Grabbing a yogurt, cottage cheese, fruits or vegetables is going to be your best bet. Iced tea, club soda and fruit juice will be more beneficial than coffee or soda. Chocolate milk is another  hidden treasure as it provides both caffeine and sugar. Can’t beat that!

4 a.m. – 5 a.m.: You’re probably feeling pretty darn good at this point as the second wind is kicking in. Shortly following this is the desire to take a “quick” nap because your biological clock is ticking quite slowly. If you have between one and two hours to spare, I would recommend taking a nap because waking up will be easier than if you just doze off for 15 minutes.

6 a.m. – 7 a.m.: Go outside and view every all-nighter’s ultimate reward: the sunrise. Grab a light breakfast consisting of some carbohydrates and protein (or one of the two) but try and avoid as much fat as you can. Fat takes awhile to digest, which can make you feel sluggish.

8 a.m.: TEST TIME APPROACHING. A great pre-exam plan is to exercise, shower and eat a high-protein, low-fat breakfast (I would take advantage of the pit omelet station for some egg whites with veggies).

After the test is over, the carbohydrate-deprived can now binge on pasta, bread and cereal in preparation for sleep. To get your body back on track, taking a one to two hour nap will be more effective than sleeping all day. And congratulations! You have successfully defeated your circadian rhythm!

Just don’t make it a habit.

  • David


  • Aisha Brown

    this is very much valued, although i do wish i had read this prior to my all night revision yesterday! nevertheless, i can use this beneficial information consistently now. thank you very much!

  • Laurence Burris

    If you haven’t been studying all along, cramming will not work to satisfy the soul. If you don’t want to be in school then don’t be in school. You’re wasting your money and your time doing something you don’t like. Putting off studying means you’re not happy.

  • Qwerty

    What if you’re putting off studying because you have a another shitload of papers and projects to do?

  • answer man

    Well laurence burris you are full of *#$%
    Why would it be wasting money when you can be placed in the situation where you have no other option
    Look at the mono stricken student. You have been ko for an extended period of time and you have no other option. Does this mean you do not deserve to be in college. Or for those stricken by a devestating computer crash a day before a paper is due. Are they deamed not fit.
    An all nighter is the way that some people also function most efficiently. As a previous college student who has experienced all ups and downs in college from being a pharmaceutical psychonaut to a sick individual, I have had to deal with many all nighters. In fact I managed to graduate from one of the most prestigious private schools with a bs in chemisty and biology and a minor in math. I have never not pulled an allnighter for a test and came out with a 4.0. Am I not fit to be a functioning member in a collegic atmosphere.
    Don’t just asume. You make a d%$* of yourself

    • js

      I suggest you learn to spell properly, before you get so high and mighty.

    • Sleep Deprived master’s student

      Answer man: RIGHT on brother!!! By dude’s logic, MOST students should not be in college and I would venture to say he is one of them because it is just a necessary evil to pull an all nighter at some time and for some reason. Very well said, sir!

  • ArKain

    Actually, he’s not talking about being able to do your job, he’s talking about having fun doing what you do. Though, the point still stands that even though school is a pain in the ass, you still have to get through it to do what you want so you CAN be happy in life.

  • Olivia

    As a senior neuroscience major (currently taking 18 hours, actively involved in my sorority, AND working two jobs to pay my bills), I have not been able to avoid even a causal all nighter. For weeks at a time I average at about 2.3-2.5 a week. I rarely party but I do have a learning disorder so studying takes longer and is less productive… Enter the all nighter. I hyperfocus for 9 hours, mostly ace my tests, and get rendered cognitively useless for the ensuing school day. My inability to maintain a 4.0 mostly stems from my German classes as well as my consequential exhaustion causing me to sleep in (though my favorite thing to do is skip class since I learn better alone, but I’ve been denied A’s because of the attendance requirements,of some professors).

    My input to this article:
    (1) As a neuroscience major I can tell you that even short-term sleep deprivation is bad bad bad! Everyone knows memory functions better with sleep. Don’t do it if you don’t have to.
    (2) If you don’t know ANY, or verrrrry little, of the material DO it. You still won’t do well in many classes, but scoring a 67 is so much easier on your overall grade than scoring 18 or 30.
    (3) If it’s a math class, or something that uses problem solving or reasoning skills (many chemistry tests are this way), don’t do it. What’s the point of learning methods to solve different problems? You’re most likely to see too many new math problems, and the numbers, being different from your practice problems, will jusy make you muddle and mix up steps.
    (4) 3# means only pull all nighters for straight memorization. Cramming for factual learning can actual ly work.
    (5) The less caffiene or cigarettes the better. And for you drug users, even with legal prescriptions like I have, the less adderall is best too. I usually do better taking my afternoon dose at 9 pm and surviving off one mountain and one cigarette. Less stimulants allow for a steady concentration without jitters or Facebook/meme distractions.
    (6) Take a BRISK walk or short sprint every 1-2 hours. Take a shower before class. Do your makeup if you wear it. Wear nice clothes to class. All these things will make you feel awake.
    (7) early am caff. wearing off? Let it. Drink juice or milk and stay hydrated. You wont be tired for an am test if you do this.

    Last 2- I think these are so important to do, even if you do none of my other or the authors tips:

    (8) spend 20-30 minutes doing something that makes you happy. I will go on a walk with my friend and her dog. I also night snuggle with my cat. Happiness is calming and releases neurotransmitters that stress has inhibited.
    (9) Do approx. five minutes of really fast math problems of any kind… Easy enough that you cant stop and think about. This has been demonstrated as having same awake inducing effects as caff. Do before reviewing last time before test… It’s amazing.

    But seriously, just don’t do all nighters. ;-)

  • Jeff M.

    I am a junior Public Relations major and am also a Division One Student Athlete at the university I attend and I also have a internship doing marketing and PR.
    All-nighters have pretty much become a ritual for me every semester. I know that sleep deprivation can result in some negative effects, but with my hectic schedule it is IMPOSSIBLE for me to get everything I need to done without not sleeping some nights.
    During the fall semester for the last two years my team has made appearances in bowl games, which forces us to still have a FULL practice schedule and lifting before & DURING finals week w

  • Jeff M.

    *(cont) week, which leaves little time for all of the projects, papers, and studying that is required of me. Last semester my Persuasion Theory professor assigned a 40 page paper the week before finals week, so on top of studying for 4 other finals and doing another 10 pg paper & having football for 5 hours a day, I had to find time to complete that. This resulted in me having to stay up for 49 hours straight to finish everything & still lift in the morning. I ended up getting a B+ on the paper and an A overall in the class.
    I have never had any negative results from pulling all-nighters as far as grades goes. Every semester it has just simply become a necessity for me.

    My advice for a successful all-nighter: Determination, caffeine & exercise!
    …& if you can get your hands on it a little Aderol doesn’t hurt either ;-)

  • Tired Stanford student

    Thanks for this, especially the hourly breakdown. About to go ace a final.

  • Swapnil

    Thanks. I am going to try this tonight for my Science Test tomorrow.

    • Megha

      Thanks a lot :)
      Gonna try this today but unfortunately i have very bad luck – economics and math. Im done with math but have to cram for eco :(

  • Megha

    Thanks a lot :)
    Gonna try this today but unfortunately i have very bad luck – economics and math. Im done with math but have to cram for eco :(

  • Bahy

    haha how did he know i was studying BIO

  • Victor N.

    OMG. I love you.

  • Dessa

    Finals time… Lets hope this helps! Thanks for the great info.

  • A first time all-nighter

    Woots! Awesome advice :) will try this for tomorrow’s morning exam, hopefully it will work! Thank you!!

  • tym

    yerba mate is a great way to keep going for the hard parts. stronger than coffee, healthier than energy drinks. but i agree that food is the best source of energy.

  • Tired Columbia Student

    This is very well-written- Nice job :) Used this for Finals Week

  • Joh13566g

    I did this once, test was at 10 AM, got rescheduled to 2 PM. I was already on school so I couldn’t go somewhere for some sleep. Pretty sure I slept on my exam…

    Great article!

    What most people don’t realize is that studying and learning should never be too difficult. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what it’s like. You know the feeling: you go to class, get a ton of homework, then spend hours and hours reading over your notes, trying to memorize everything in a mad panic before your next exam.
    Not only is this stressful, but studying this way is both time consuming and a huge waste of energy. But the good news is, studying doesn’t have to be this difficult.
    In fact, if done correctly studying and learning should be a pleasurable experience. It shouldn’t be hard and it should probably take you less than half the time you’re already spending. So how is all this possible?

    This video explains some of my views:
    Efficient studying

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