How to Sleep Well in a College Dorm

College is a time of change and challenge, a time when you’ll have the opportunity to explore a new setting full of interesting ideas, people, and activities. Most people find this time to be one of the most exhilarating of their lives.

The flip side of all this excitement is that quality sleep can get tossed by the wayside. An abundance of activities and class obligations and social engagements can seriously cut into the time that students make for sleep. In addition, college dorms are not always the most conducive to good sleep as many people have varied schedules, noise may be abundant, space has to be shared, and you may have to sleep in a bed that’s just flat-out not as comfortable as what you’re used to.

To really take advantage of all that colleges and universities have to offer, you want to get the best sleep possible. In this guide, we’ll walk you through some of the key steps and actions that you take to achieve this goal.

Start with Your Sleep Surface

If you’re moving into a new dorm, that means a totally new sleep surface. Though you may not be able to replicate all of the comforts of home, it makes sense to do your best to make your bed as welcoming as possible. To do that, focus on these things:

Most college dorms provide a bed frame and mattress for you to use, but it’s normal for these to be of mediocre quality and to have been used for many years. As a result, they typically don’t offer the kind of comfort or support that you are really looking for. If you are allowed to replace the mattress, you can consider a low-cost option and one that you can keep using for several years in other dorms or college living settings.

If replacing the mattress isn’t allowed or isn’t financially an option for you, consider a mattress topper. These can give an older mattress a whole new feel and at a reasonable price. You can also think about a mattress protector or mattress pad as each can improve the comfort of your bed and help to protect it against any future damage.

A good mattress will help to keep your spine aligned, but in order to do so, it has work in concert with your pillow. Different types of pillows have different properties with regard to their loft, compressibility, and softness. You want one that gives your neck support and that fits with your sleeping position.

Though often overlooked, sheets are important for your comfort. Depending on the climate where you are going to school, you may want warmer or more breathable sheets. You also want sheets that are soft enough to feel inviting and that don’t irritate your skin.

Just like with your sheets, you want bedding that matches with the temperature of your room and with your general sleeping temperature. People who tend to sleep cold should have plenty of blankets on hand while those who sleep hot might want a lighter blanket or one that’s easier to store away. Some people also find it comforting to use a weighted blanket.

Use These Sleep Product Guides to Dial in Your Dorm Room:

Optimize Your Sleep Environment

One of the key things that affects how well you sleep is your surroundings. In a college dorm, you may not have control over all of these, but here are some elements of the sleep environment and how to optimize them.

Your Roommate

Since in most dorms you’ll be sharing a room with someone else, they naturally are going to have a huge impact on your sleep setting. For this reason, it makes sense to talk with them openly from the get-go about your needs and expectations and how you plan to live together. Getting on the same page with your roommate is key when it comes to all sorts of issues such as parties in the room, overnight visitors, quiet hours, arranging furniture, music, and so much more. By opening up space for honest and clear communication, you can help improve your sleep setting and your overall relationship with a person who can be a friend for life.

Light

If too much light comes into your room, it can make it hard to fall asleep. If possible, consider upgrading your curtains to “blackout” curtains. If that’s not possible, an eye mask may be helpful to wear when you go to sleep to help block out light.

Sound

Sound can come from many sources in a college dorm: a snoring roommate, a party in a nearby room, or even just machinery in the building. Too much noise can make it hard to get to sleep or can disrupt you during the night. If noise seems like an issue, you might think of using a white noise machine (or white noise app on your phone) as these can help blunt the disturbance from external noises. Earplugs are another solid consideration to help prevent these noises from bothering you.

Temperature

Most people sleep better in a cooler room, but you’ll need to talk with your roommate about your preferred room temperature. If it’s hot or stuffy, use a fan to keep air moving and to cool you down. A fan can also be a good source of white noise.

Smell

Many people who live in college dorms have never had essential household responsibilities for serious cleaning or laundry. This may mean that a funky odor can develop over time in your room or in your building. It can be useful to raise any major issues with the dorm staff, but in your own room, make sure to have cleaning products on hand to keep the place smelling fresh.

Another way of improving the smell of your room is with essential oils. There are many fragrances available, and many also have benefits of improving calm and helping with sleep.

Feeling Like Home

You can fall asleep better if you feel at home in your room, so consider putting up decorations or setting up plants that make the place seem more like your own.

Improve Daily Routines and Sleep Hygiene

Having good habits is one of the best ways to improve your sleep. This includes your sleep hygiene (all the routines related to sleeping) and many of your daily practices. Some steps to make the most of these routines include:

Be careful with alcohol

It’s common for students to start drinking in college, but don’t feel pressured to do so if you don’t want to. And remember that it’s easy to overdo it and suffer serious consequences (in terms of your health or school). With regard to sleep, remember that alcohol disrupts sleep quality, so avoid having drinks for several hours before you go to bed.

Normalize when you go to bed and wake up

This can be really hard in college with so much going on, but do your best to stick to a schedule. Your mind and body can sleep best when routines are predictable, so do your best to keep them from getting too far out of whack.

Limit pre-bed screen time

Try not to use your phone in bed since the light from it can disrupt your Circadian Rhythm. Silencing your phone when you are going to bed can prevent disruptions, and also, having an actual alarm clock (instead of just your phone), can make it harder to get distracted by texts or notifications.

Don’t go crazy with caffeine

Many college students become coffee hounds because they get into a cycle of sleep deprivation that they try to solve with coffee or energy drinks. There’s nothing wrong with caffeine, but avoid having it too late in the day and try not to use it as a crutch instead of developing good sleep hygiene.

Standardize your pre-bed routine

Going through the same set of steps (such as brushing your teeth, washing your face, stretching, etc.) each night helps trigger in your mind a realization that it’s time for sleep.

Find relaxation methods

Knowing how to distract yourself from disruptions (such as a loud neighbor) can keep you from getting worked up and anxious, which itself makes it harder to get to bed. Deep breathing or guided meditations are both ways of helping you ease into sleep and studies show they may have other health benefits as well.

Nap wisely

A brief catnap can help give you extra energy, but naps shouldn’t be longer than an hour at most, and try to keep them earlier in the day so that they don’t prevent you from falling asleep at a reasonable hour.

Get exercise and sun

Don’t just be in class and the library. While work is critical, your body needs movement, and getting solid exercise can help make it easier to drift off to bed at night.

Don’t work in bed

Though it’s tempting to do your homework sitting in bed, this can be counterproductive in the end. It’s better to associate your bed just with sleep and not with work.

All-Nighters? Not a Good Idea...

When you’ve got a ton of work to get done, it may seem like it makes sense to pull an all-nighter and just skip sleep to keep working. Though this practice has a long history with college students, it really doesn’t serve any of your goals.

First, as you stay up later and stretch your time without sleep, you generally lose productivity. As a result, you’re working more but getting less done. You’re less likely to retain information or to produce high-quality work. Second, you’re putting yourself in a tough spot for the next day. If you try to work through the next day without sleeping, your work quality will keep going down. If you decide to nap or go to bed in the afternoon, you can easily throw off your sleep cycle for days to come.

Instead of falling into the trap of the all-nighter, try to plan ahead and prioritize. Review your syllabi from classes and know when you’re likely to face pressure points in terms of your workload. This can help you avoid the last-minute rush that may make an all-nighter feel needed in the first place.

Don't Be Afraid to Ask for Help

Living in a college dorm requires a lot of adjustments, and this can take time to get used to. You might not be able to get great sleep right off the bad, and that’s OK. Keep experimenting and working to improve your sleep environment and sleep hygiene to find what works for you, and with time, it should become easier and easier.

That said, if you are still struggling with sleep or feeling a lot of fatigue and daytime sleepiness, don’t hesitate to raise the issue with the college health center or with your doctor. They may be able to work with you to make more personalized suggestions and make sure any sleep issues don’t spillover to affect your social life or schoolwork.

Additional Resources

Sleep Hygiene & Routines:

Mental Health Resources:

  • ULifeline. This anonymous, confidential online resource is specifically designed for students searching for information on emotional health. It’s provided to all colleges and universities free of charge.
  • Active Minds. Connect with mental health resources for students and young adults with Active Minds.