Many college students don’t sleep well. This Harvard course hopes to change that
Raymond So excelled in high school, so much so that he got into Harvard. Still, there was one area where he struggled: getting enough sleep. In high school, his rest was haphazard and never enough, and he knew that wouldn’t cut it in college.
It was almost out of necessity, then, that So signed up for a class last year about sleep, taught by a preeminent Harvard professor of sleep science.
A year later, So is so convinced of the power of sleep that he is taking his message to the rest of the student body. He convinced the college’s administration for the first time to require freshmen to take an online course about sleep before they arrive on campus, part of a new initiative to help students have healthier sleep habits.
“My sleep habits were just so erratic, so awful,” So said about high school. “I just sort of ignored the issues.” Now he wants everyone else to learn what he did with professor Charles Czeisler about how important sleep is.
“Had I not taken his seminar, I never would have been aware of my bad habits,” So said. “Now I’m more aware of when I start to drift.”
It’s not just Harvard; college kids everywhere have notoriously bad habits. And some students, of course, have figured out how to sleep eight hours a night. But others fall back on more irregular sleep schedules, some extreme. Many survive only with extra sleep on the weekend, or a complete crash in the summer.
“People who have sleep figured out in college? It’s not that common,” said sophomore Alexis Mealey, who averages six or seven hours per night, which is more than she got in high school.
Sometimes students’ procrastination or socializing keeps them up late, but often it is simply difficult to juggle classes and extracurricular activities. Harvard athletes especially are squeezed because practice is very early and study groups can meet as late as midnight.
“I try for at least four hours on weekdays,” said Brenden Rodriquez, a junior from Los Angeles who is in Navy ROTC and studies mechanical engineering. He said his study groups meet around 10 p.m., and he tries to get to bed by 1 a.m. He gets up at 5 a.m. for training.
“It definitely becomes normalized after a while,” he said.
There is also, perhaps unsurprisingly, a culture at Harvard of trying to be tough. Students complain (brag?) about how little sleep they got, how much studying they have to do, or how over-committed they are.
“Everyone wants to one-up each other in the amount of stuff they’ve got going on, and that definitely can seep into the amount of sleep people get and admit to getting,” Rodriquez said.
In his course about sleep, Czeisler emphasizes the three pillars of good sleep: getting enough sleep, getting quality sleep, and getting it consistently. In the class, students shared their own stories of sleep problems.
They said certain aspects of college life make it more challenging to get good sleep, like the fact that problem sets in math and science classes tend to be due first thing in the morning, making it tempting to pull an all-nighter to finish them.
Other activities seem to glorify sleeplessness, like an all-night hackathon that is part of a popular computer science class. Czeisler said. While the event is designed to give students motivation and focus, it’s actually counterproductive and can also affect their other classes.
And there are plenty of places to stay awake all night around campus, it turns out. Students said two libraries are open all night, one with a cafe that serves coffee. Each upperclassmen dorm has its own dining hall, where students can work. Those are where Daniel Lu, a rising junior, pulled his all-nighters the first two years of college.
“At my worst, I was just kind of working in those libraries and trying to stay awake,” he said.
He sets multiple alarms and still sometimes sleeps through them. Once he slept through an interview for a fellowship.
“It’s not something I’m proud of,” he said.
As part of the class last year, Czeisler’s students proposed ways to make it easier for Harvard students to sleep.
Some people proposed a 10-hour period, such as between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., during which no school-related events could be scheduled. Another said problem sets should be due at night rather than 8 a.m., so students are less likely to stay up all night to finish. Someone else proposed nap rooms at the far-away Allston campus if they find themselves with a spare hour.
Czeisler hopes So’s efforts and the new required course will spread simple lessons about good sleep.
“Of all the difficult work they have to do in college, this is kind of a secret weapon,” Czeisler said.
Meanwhile, another student-led group is studying the sleep habits of upperclassmen in two dormitories at Harvard, to identify factors that might hurt sleep quality. It is focused specifically on student athletes.
Nevertheless, plenty of Harvard students say they can’t survive without eight hours nightly. Conor Healy treats college like a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job, trying to work consistently during those hours to free up his nights and weekends. He tries to get nine hours of sleep each night.
“I just seem to be genetically wired not to be able to function very well on anything less, and the rest of my family is the same,” he said.
Those who do stay up late aren’t necessarily partying. Mealey, the sophomore who gets six or seven hours a night, is the president of one club, a member of another, writes for the political review, gives tours of campus, and works for the model United Nations.
“It’s almost like a pressure where if you are sleeping enough it almost feels like you’re not doing enough,” she said.
Others have even more extreme schedules. Vinh-Kha Le, a rising sophomore from Connecticut, said he gets three hours of sleep regularly throughout the week and then passes out on the weekend for a day or two.
“I can go days without sleeping, possibly weeks if I get a few naps in here or there,” he said.
Le said his doctor is worried and asked him to log his hours of sleep.
He knows his schedule isn’t the healthiest, but he said he likes to challenge himself with the hardest classes and obsess over problem sets for hours without food or sleep.
“I’m used to it. But it’s not a good thing to get used to,” he said.
Last week, So and Czeisler ran a table at a health fair for freshmen during their first week on campus. Many approached the booth and said they enjoyed the class, that it made them think more about sleep. So passed out eye masks and ear plugs to all new students.
Chris Kwon, a freshman from Minnesota, came by the booth with a friend. Kwon said he already knows he can’t pull all-nighters like some of his friends did in high school. But he is curious how Harvard will challenge his sleep schedule.
“[The course] reenforced what I was already thinking, but again, college and Harvard is another level and it’s going to be much harder,” he said.