College expert Kelci Lynn Lucier will be the first one to tell you: college is stressful! Of course, she doesn’t stop there. She was kind enough to offer some of her top tips for combating college stress by sharing an excerpt from her book College Stress Solutions: Stress Management Techniques to Beat Anxiety, Make the Grade, Enjoy the Full College Experience. When you imagined your life in college, you probably pictured some basic scenes: Classrooms with professors and attentive students. Living in a residence hall or apartment with other people. A fun social scene. Hanging out in the quad on a warm day. You were also probably excited about the ability to make your own choices about where to go, what you wanted to do, and with whom you wanted to spend your time.
While you will find all of those things within the college experience, they take place within a relatively stressful context. You might need to be that attentive in class because the professor moves so quickly through the material. You might enjoy living in your residence hall, but you and your roommate aren’t getting along too well. You might love hanging out in the quad, but you’re struggling to find a balance between your need to get things done and your desire to relax every once in a while. And while you’re grateful for the independence and the freedom to make your own choices about nearly every detail of your college life, that kind of open decision-making can sometimes feel overwhelming. You don’t have to be stressed, however, just because you’re in a stressful environment. The key is learning how to soar through the stressors of college without becoming a stressed-out, burned-out mess.
The main goal of attending college is, of course, to earn a degree. Consequently, doing well in your classes should most often be your highest priority. Knowing that your schoolwork is most important can help you prioritize the stressors you face—but it can also add stress to an already stressful situation. After all, the academic and intellectual challenges of college are much different from high school. The stakes are higher for each assignment, and passing some classes can depend on your performance on a single exam, lab report, presentation, or paper. College courses often require different and more advanced study skills, the ability to work collaboratively on group projects, and excellent time management. But how can you make your academics the most important thing on your to-do list without also making them the most stressful? Fortunately, doing so might be easier than you think, with a few smart approaches, of course.
Identifying the sources
The most critical—and most helpful—step to take when dealing with academic stress is to figure out the source of that stress. If you’ve been in college for a while, try to remember the exact areas that have caused the most stress in your academic life so far. If you’re just starting college, think back to your high school years. When and in which subjects did you struggle the most? (Even if you’ve been a top-notch student, you’ve undoubtedly had some ups and downs in your academic career.) It can be very easy to feel stressed-out about your classes without really understanding what that means or where, specifically, that stress is coming from. Do you struggle with study skills? With writing? With reading comprehension? With group work? With test anxiety? With leaving things to the last minute? Spend some time thinking seriously about what makes you the most stressed when it comes to your academic responsibilities. As you work to identify the main sources of stress in your academic life, consider the following questions:
What academic requirements must I meet this semester?
Determine what your most basic goals are. Do you have to earn a certain GPA to keep your scholarship? Do you need to carry a certain amount of units to keep your status as a full-time student? Do you need to pass the first in a series of courses (for example: Chemistry 101 so you can take Chemistry 102 next semester) to stay on track academically? Do you need to complete certain general education requirements (like a foreign language) by the time this academic year is over?
What would my ideal academic performance be this semester? Is this a reasonable goal?
Is it important for you to earn straight A’s? To get A’s in the courses required for your major? To pass your science requirement? To get to know a specific professor so that you can approach him or her about doing research this summer? To improve your GPA by a certain amount? Further ask yourself: Is it realistic to aim for straight A’s, or is that going to cause you unnecessary stress? What kind of academic performance will you be happy with? What can you reasonably aim for given your own academic strengths, weaknesses, and previous performances?
What resources can I use to help me meet my goals?
Have you been part of a study group in the past that worked well (and productively) together? Do you know students in some of your classes with whom you can partner early in the semester? Have your professors recommended external texts, websites, or other resources that can help supplement the required course materials? What materials can you utilize from previous classes that might help you with this semester? What offices on campus can help you if, for example, you need help with a paper or with learning some additional study skills? What people can provide individual support? What networks can you tap into that can help you deal with academic stress?
How will I know when I should ask for help?
What in the past have been indicators that you are falling behind? Not understanding the material? Not studying well for an upcoming exam? What are the signs for when you are starting to feel overwhelmed? How do you normally approach a situation when you are having trouble academically? What kinds of grades do you need to watch out for that will indicate your need to ask for assistance of some kind? Once you’ve identified the sources of your stress, it’s much easier to find solutions for each one. As you think about your answers to the questions you just asked yourself, themes will probably arise. When you’ve highlighted a particular stressor as a key one, you can break down your stress into parts and find ways to avoid or resolve each part.
Your best resource: Your professors
Fortunately, your professors can be some of your best allies when it comes to preventing and dealing with academic stress during your time in school. Unfortunately, however, professors can also be intimidating if you aren’t sure how or when to approach them for help. Try to keep in mind that your professors were once college students too. They likely needed help, struggled with certain classes, were frustrated with group project assignments, and had general questions about course requirements, grades, and exam preparation—just like you do. Professors help their students learn; they want you to be successful. To that end, they expect to interact with students regularly, to answer questions, and to solve problems.
Planning your meeting
It’s perfectly understandable to feel intimidated by someone who is incredibly smart and partly in control of your success in a class. Don’t let that discomfort stop you from asking for help, though. In a college environment, one of your responsibilities as a student is to seek out resources when you need them. And your professors can be a great asset for dealing with academic stress, whether it’s being proactive and helping you do well on an upcoming exam or being reactive and helping you understand why you did so poorly. You might be pleasantly surprised at the reaction you get. If you aren’t sure where to start, follow these steps:
- Check to see when your professor has office hours; he or she will usually post them online, outside his or her office door, or even on the course syllabus. To set up a time to talk, you can send an email, call, or even ask in person after class.
- Talk with other students about what your professors are like outside of class. The professor you find incredibly intimidating just might be the friendliest person imaginable when he or she is not in class. Conversely, it would be good to know that your seemingly low-key professor prefers if students come to office hours with a specific list of questions or concerns.
- If you aren’t sure exactly what to say during your meeting, use the five questions mentioned at the beginning of this chapter as a springboard for topics. Write down two or three key points that you want to bring up.
- When it’s time for your meeting, arrive a few minutes early. Make sure to introduce yourself, say what class you’re in, and describe why you want to meet. Professors meet with students for a wide range of reasons, so identifying why you’re there will help focus the conversation.
College can be one of the best times of your life. And while stress will undoubtedly be part of your college experience, you can learn how to make it a manageable aspect instead of something that completely overwhelms you. Finding the sources of your stress, confronting them, and coming up with approaches to prevent them from resurfacing whenever possible are skills that can help you focus on the more enjoyable parts of being in school. Ideally, with your stress under control, you’ll be able to stay on track to graduate, grow and learn as much as possible along the way, and toss your cap with pride— instead of relief—on graduation day.
You can check out more stress and mental health resources for college with our Student Life—College Health and Safety articles.
Excerpted from College Stress Solutions: Stress Management Techniques to Beat Anxiety, Make the Grade, Enjoy the Full College Experience by Kelci Lynn Lucier, EdM. Copyright © 2014 F+W Media, Inc. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.