10 ways to avoid stress, frustration and failure in college

Nobody enters college expecting to find stress, frustration and failure. But it can happen unless steps are taken to avoid common academic pitfalls.

Nobody enters college expecting to find stress, frustration and failure. But entering freshmen can easily lose focus unless steps are taken to avoid common academic pitfalls.

College classes are under way for fall semester 2014. New and returning students have entered the hallways of higher education in Utah Valley with wide-eyed excitement and optimism. Most envision the ultimate outcome to be a degree, a great job and, perhaps, the perfect spouse.

Few, if any, are expecting frustration, discouragement or failure.

Yet some will find just that.

As one who spent 40 years in the classroom as a teacher, professor and university administrator, I have counseled many struggling students. I have also noticed patterns of behavior that lead to academic problems. From my own experience, here are 10 ways college students can improve their chances of academic success:

1. Study — or learn to study.

This one seems pretty basic, but I’m surprised how often it is a problem. The university I taught at expects at least two hours of study/homework for each hour students spend in class. This expectation is foreign to many students just leaving high school, many of whom were spoon-fed information by well-intentioned teachers.

Other students are willing to study, but don’t know how. I suggest taking a study skills course prior to tackling a full-academic load, even though some such courses are often non-credit.

2. Avoid the “Let’s get the hard classes outta the way right off” attitude.

Many freshmen get overloaded on difficult classes. Some say the strategy of getting the hard classes out of the way first will make future semesters more fun. Such logic usually has bad results. I recommend taking a lighter load for the first semester or two.

3. Be realistic in your choice of majors.

Many students choose a major based on potential income. But before you choose pre-med as your major, honestly evaluate your aptitudes and skills. Did you excel in chemistry and biological sciences in high school? Are you willing to devote the time needed to earn nearly all A’s on your grade reports in order to get admitted to medical school? Do you envision yourself scoring high on the MCAT against keen national competition?

It’s best to honestly evaluate your particular skills and interests. Financial success will follow, in most cases, if you are among the best in your chosen occupation. Also, remember the axiom, “If you work a job you love, you’ll never work another day in your life.”

4. Take professors, not classes.

Kim Clark, current president of BYU-Idaho and former dean of the Harvard Business School, has said this advice was key to his academic success. Most academic majors have room for some electives or are sufficiently flexible to get classes from the best professors, even if they do not teach in your major study area. Truly inspiring instruction leads to student success.

5. Video games can become addicting.

Some students can take a break from studying and play a few video games, then get back on task. Others cannot. I know one group of college men who set up their entire apartment, complete with individual recliners, for video games. They often ignored class attendance, homework, church attendance and even personal hygiene. You can guess how the games affected their academics.

6. Manage your time.

[pullquote]Time management is crucial. Take a moment to fill in an hourly schedule before jumping into the day’s activities. No plan results in wasted time, which leads to frustration and failure.[/pullquote]

Time management is crucial. Take a moment to fill in an hourly schedule before jumping into the day’s activities. No plan results in wasted time, which leads to frustration and failure.

One simple technique is to make a list of everything that needs to be done that day. Put the most urgent matter on top of the list, the second-most urgent next and others in descending order of importance. Then begin with the first task on the list. Don’t go to No. 2 until No. 1 is complete. Get through as many on the list as possible.

7. Take advantage of campus academic resources.

If your writing teacher is tearing apart your essays and giving you low grades, find the Writing Lab. Most academic majors have study resources available to help struggling students. They are often staffed by advanced students who have succeeded in the course you are struggling with.  Take advantage of free tutorial services. Don’t expect the personnel there to do the work for you, but they can help considerably.

8. Don’t suffer from sleep depravation.

One of my students told me that after a semester of misery of trying to stay awake in classes, she and her roommates had an apartment meeting and vowed to be in bed no later than 2 a.m. I was a little shocked. “What time have you been going to bed?” I asked. She said it was usually around 4 or 5 a.m.

What’s the old saying? “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Applies to women as well.

9. Don’t obsess over the social scene.

Broken relationships cause stress. Lack of relationships can cause stress. Try to keep your life in balance without pushing for the DTR (define the relationship) talk too soon. Trust the idea that Mr./Miss Right will come into your life sooner or later without your worry and stress. In fact, it might even be better if it happens later rather than sooner.

10. Get involved in campus life/service/church.

The more unselfish activities you can engage in the better. Helping others and working for good causes puts your own problems in perspective and relieves your own stress and worry.


Ron Bennett is a recently retired university journalism professor at Brigham Young University-Idaho, where he taught journalistic writing, editing and mass media classes. He received the Distinguished Faculty award at BYU-I in 2012, and he was honored by the College Media Advisers Association in 2002 with the Distinguished Newspaper Adviser's Award. Prior to entering education, he was a professional journalist at several newspapers, including the Gazette-Journal in Reno, Nevada.

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