Top College Stressors That Affect Academic Performance

Stress is inevitable in college, but not all stress is bad. This article identifies the major sources of stress for college students. 

Some people have idyllic visions of what college life is all about -- "the best time of your life" -- and while college is often a positive time for intellectual and personal development, it is also a time filled with stress. 

Stress isn't all bad. In fact, moderate levels of stress actually can improve performance. It's when students let the stress build and begin to become overwhelmed with it that academic performance can be adversely affected. 

Where does the all stress come from that students face?

There are five major stressors for college students: academic, personal, family, financial, and future. 

Academic Stress

Attending classes, completing the readings, writing papers, managing projects, and preparing for exams all put a heavy burden on students. Many students complain about professors who assign so much work that they must think theirs is the only class students are taking. For new college students, the sudden amount of free time -- class that only meet two or three times a week for an hour or so -- leads to the development of bad habits that can hurt academic performance and increase stress levels. 

Certainly one of the keys of dealing with academic stress is having good study habits and a time-management system. You should be managing your coursework, not the other way around. 

If you are struggling, then seek help from the academic counseling office -- which often has seminars and workshops related to academic performance and study skills -- and your professors. 

Personal Stress

College is often the first time many students are living independently, and this independence often leads to great stress. College is a time for transitions, and the transition to adulthood may be a hard one for you. Some students come to terms with issues of sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and other deep issues. 

You may also face roommate issues and peer pressure to take part in all sorts of activities. You'll also have new friends and significant others who demand your time. There is also your self-image -- socially, physically, academically -- that can be a major stressor for you. Female students, especially, deal with stress related to weight gain and physical appearance, but all students deal with the stress of how they are perceived.

And sometimes it's a vicious cycle because some people are "stress eaters," so while being stressed about their body they actually eat to deal with the stress. Finally, there is the rampant use of alcohol and other drugs on many college campuses. 

If you're struggling with personal issues, the best place to seek help is from your school's counseling center. 

Family Stress

Most students go off to college carrying certain expectations from their families. The pressure to choose the right major and get good grades can be immense. And if you're the first person from your family to attend college, the stress is even greater. You may also face the stress of family dynamics. Some students are too dependent on their families -- going home every weekend -- while others seek some distance to grow into the person they want to become. 

Experts expect family stress to continue, especially with the increasing occurrence of so-called helicopter parents -- those parents (usually baby boomers) who are so involved in their children's lives that they are in almost constant contact. 

If you're struggling with family issues, the best thing you can do is keep in touch with them on a regular basis, but also consider seeking help from your school's counseling center. 

Financial Stress

There's no question that college costs continue to rise, placing increasing pressure on both students and their families to find a way to foot the bill. About two-thirds of all college students have student loan debt, with an average $27,000 student loan debt load for graduating college seniors nationwide. And while $27,000 may seem like a lot, considering that public college costs an average of about $18,000 a year and private schools cost $44,000, the debt load could certainly be much higher -- and is much higher for some students. 

There are also a lot of other hidden costs related to college, such as books and school supplies, cell phones, personal care and clothing purchases, items to decorate dorm rooms, social outings, fees for joining various student clubs and organizations, and miscellaneous charges and tickets. Besides the stress of having to have the financial resources to pay all these bills, some college students also work part-time -- either through work-study in college or with a local employer. Because working hours take away from studying hours, the need to work also causes stress. 

If you're struggling with your finances, consider developing a budget and carefully monitoring your money. A trip to your school's financial aid office may also provide some stress relief. 

Future Stress

While attending college is about learning and becoming better educated, it is, of course, also about preparing you for a future career. And students who have yet to choose a major or career path feel incremental levels of stress as each semester passes without a clear solution. Additional stress comes from wanting a better life than your parents, but because the baby boom generation has been one of the most successful, there's even more stress in attempting to do so. 

In fact, many students seem to want to avoid the future by taking what we call the "Peter Pan Syndrome," in which you go to great lengths to avoid any kind of discussion about the future (and growing up). 

If you're struggling with stress related to career issues, make an appointment with your school's career services office and one or more of your professors. 

Final Thoughts on Dealing With Stress in College

Stress is everywhere in college. The key for you is first identifying it, owning it, and remembering that not all stress is bad. 

How stressed are you? If you are regularly suffering from one or more of these stress symptoms, talk to a trusted professor or staff member, or seek the guidance of a professional from your school's counseling center:

  • High levels of anxiety

  • Feelings of depression

  • Abuse of alcohol/drugs

  • Over-eating or under-eating

  • Difficulty making connections

  • High levels of irritability, mood swings

  • Constant headaches

  • Too much -- or not enough -- sleep

  • Lingering illnesses and aches and painsHarming yourself 

Finally, find tips and tools for happy and healthy living -- including ways to help you deal with stress -- in our sister site, 

Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary

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