BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! Why won’t the microwave be quiet? Oh wait, that’s the 7:00 a.m. alarm — it’s time to wake up.
Though many students may claim to sympathize, their alarms likely ring a couple hours later than this. Harvey Mudd College first-years, on the other hand, do not have that luxury.
The perpetrator of this struggle is HMC’s flagship core curriculum, and it’s a boon for students in multiple ways. By having each student take a predetermined and diverse set of courses, Mudders can explore each STEM discipline to their heart’s content, discovering where their true passions lie. At the same time, they have access to their entire class to find possible study partners; everyone takes the same courses and completes the same assignments.
What’s being taught in the core is great — just not when. Every school day for first-years starts before 9:00 a.m., with most students powering through 7:40 and 8:00 a.m. classes. In fact, there’s widespread jealousy of students with 8:50 a.m. chemistry classes, a hard-to-believe reality for those from other colleges whose classes might all start after lunchtime. Worse, it’s not that some naive first-years dreamed of being early bird students and fell short; rather, they can’t choose their core class times.
Still, one can infer the philosophy behind this seemingly torturous schedule. If students have early class, they are forced to wake up early and be productive, in contrast with the “lazy” students that may sleep in for half the day until their classes start in the afternoon. Thus, the much-dreaded alarm acts as a temporary nuisance that culminates in more time to work throughout the rest of the day.
As one may guess, though, this isn’t exactly how it plays out. Mudd first-years work hard, and working hard doesn’t exactly go well with no sleep. After their morning classes, many of my peers just hop back in bed, more than eager to make up for their lost sleep. This effectively negates any benefit of waking up early: Students only woke up for their class, not for the rest of the day. If anything, their sleep is disrupted by the unwanted interruption, and it only harms their overall restfulness.
Yet, this aforementioned scenario is still the most tame out of all the possibilities. More often than not, even if students do attend class and go back to bed afterwards, they aren’t exactly the most mentally present during their lectures and discussions. Forcing students teetering on the brink of sleep to attend class has minimal benefit on academic outcomes; no one learns when they’re about to pass out. In fact, I’ve sat in lectures where the entire back row is knocked out with heads laying on desks — even the desire to show the teacher respect is outweighed by a simple lack of sleep.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. As the semester progresses, students increasingly contemplate ditching class; simultaneously, I’ve watched the numbers in my morning chemistry class drop week after week. If students simply choose not to wake up, all the benefits of early class go out the window — and they most definitely aren’t learning effectively, if anything at all.
This isn’t just empty rhetoric; schools across the country that have shifted their start times later have seen improved academic performance, even when it means students spend more time sleeping rather than working. A significant contributor to this effect is circadian rhythm. Teenagers and younger adults, which describes most first-years, have a circadian rhythm that prefers waking up and going to sleep later, something that is unique when compared to older adults. In other words, it is far more comfortable for the body to stay up and sleep in, so later start times would reduce the need for first-years to battle with what feels natural. That doesn’t mean they would become any less productive; aligning our schedules with our circadian rhythms intuitively improves academic performance and attentiveness.
The solution is simple: HMC needs to push its core course start times back. Even if for just half an hour, the benefits of this change for student health and grades are widely seen in experiments across the United States. Even California recently passed a new law requiring middle and high schools in urban areas to start later, further bolstering the argument for later start times. For the sake of the physical and mental well-being of its students, HMC needs to follow in the footsteps of its home state. Although the idea behind the infamous 8:00 a.m. is commendable, Mudd first-years need more time to snooze.
Serena Mao HM ’25 is from Fremont, California. She’s tried practically every method to stay awake in class except going to sleep earlier.