We all thought getting into college was the hard part. Juggling the last two years of high school, grades, SATs, extracurriculars and a social life - it was difficult but we knew it was temporary. We knew that when we got that big envelope in the mail, we could take one big sigh of relief. No one said that college was going to be easy, and it's not by any means. I will say that I did not expect the rest of my life to be one big juggling circus act, where another ball gets thrown into the mix each day. You arrive at university first semester ready to get involved, meet new people, and make the Dean's List. That dream pans out well for a select few, but even they drop the ball on one very important, yet rarely-acknowledged aspect of college life.
I am talking about sleep. That's right, REM sleep, the one acronym that we didn't invent for a midterm. Sleep is the thing that we sacrifice for our real priorities, like research papers and 4 a.m. McDonald's runs. No one comes into college, steps one foot on the university seal and proclaims, "I really want to catch up on sleep!" There are so many other "important" things to do than get a good night's rest. Our to-do lists and planners are bursting at the seams with deadlines and assignments. No one ever thinks to pencil in eight hours of sleep every day.
"No one comes into college, steps one foot on the university seal and proclaims, 'I really want to catch up on sleep!'"
Sleep was hardly a priority before college, why make it one now? It used to just be something we did after we finished the tasks on our list for the day - that is, if sleep came before a relaxing Netflix session - which for most people, it didn't. I admit I've chosen an hour of Grey's Anatomy over a quick nap quite a few times. A large portion of this collegiate problem has to do with the fact that students prioritize binge-watching a new Netflix series over completing a full REM cycle. Even when the thing damaging our sleep schedule is slightly more acceptable - like, say, studying for an exam - we do not feel the need to catch up on the sleep we missed. As long as caffeine is ready and available, the importance of sleep does not cross our mind for longer than the ten minutes we spend every morning wishing we went to bed earlier.
The most popular, overused excuse for why college students are not getting enough sleep is two little words: "I'm busy." Yes - busy - the word that has lost virtually all meaning in the last decade. It's 2016 and everyone's busy. If you're living life right now and not busy, you are probably five years old (and even then you still have play-dates scheduled back to back). So what is all this stuff that we have to do? What are the balls that we're juggling? From a college student's perspective, it is easy to say that schoolwork and classes are taking up all of our time. This is true to an extent. It is not difficult to get your work done; that's the whole reason we're in this higher education system. But to do it well - while surviving the weeklong high tide of exams, papers, and presentations every month - that is the real challenge.
"The most popular, overused excuse for why college students are not getting enough sleep is two little words: 'I'm busy.'"
Not only do our assignments and general productivity take up a substantial fraction of potential sleeping time, there are also the matters of resume building and social prosperity. I joked earlier about first-semester students' list of goals upon arriving at school; one urgent bullet point on that list is the daunting internship that we're all supposed to have by sophomore year. I have yet to meet a college student that is not interning, applying for internships, or simply working on the side - sometimes they're doing all three. A Johns Hopkins Pre-Med student once served me at Maggiano's after finals and we bonded over our busy lives and the stress of finals week - she gave us a free dessert and we tipped her well.
For many young people, a social life ranks high on a scale of important aspects of one's college experience. In the years leading up to college, teens are force-fed the idea that college will be the high point of your life. Half of the excitement surrounding college life is the notion that "it gets better" after high school. We're often told that college is where you find yourself, where you meet life-long friends; we're told outrageous stories and watch Animal House and are brainwashed into thinking we're doing the institution a disservice if we don't live it up before it's too late. It's glamorized and canonized as the best four years of our lives so we feel obligated to make it that.
"Our to-do lists and planners are bursting at the seams with deadlines and assignments. No one ever thinks to pencil in eight hours of sleep every day."
And so we lose sleep, because we're too busy juggling midterms, careers, relationships, friendships, and the occasional hangover, sometimes all at once. All these things have been proven worthy; they've been justified as reasons to lose an hour or three of sleep (although the hangover could be avoided). These are aspects of our lives where, if we drop the ball, there are clear-cut consequences. A dip in our GPA, a gap in our resume, a fight with our roommates - we refuse to be failures in these areas of our lives. So instead of letting our grades slip for a good night's rest, we get three shots of espresso instead of two the next morning and are dragged to class, addicted to our coffee cups.
This post is part of our series on sleep culture on college campuses. To join the conversation and share your own story, please email our Director of College Outreach Abby Williams directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can find out here if the #SleepRevolution College Tour will be visiting your campus, and learn how you can get involved. If your college is not one of the colleges already on our tour and you want it to be, please get in touch with Abby.