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Stressed About Going to College? 3 Tips to Conquer College Stress!

Stressed About Going to College?

I have been working with a cool young guy named Cam*. He’s about to return to college to start his second year. Technically it’s his third year out of high school, but his first foray into college lasted one month.

By the second week of his freshmen year, he had stopped going to classes and played roughly 40 hours of video games until leaving school. Last year he made it all the way through the year but faltered the last three weeks of the spring semester.

Unfortunately, his drop off resulted in failing to meet his required 3.0 GPA to keep his academic scholarship. We’ve been working over the summer to identify and correct what broke down this past semester.

I have been working with another great guy named Aaron*. He’s about to start college and he and his parents are quite stressed. Aaron is naturally smart and grades are very important to him.

However, his study habits have been mixed and he’s struggled with loneliness and having friends throughout high school. Aaron is hopeful that college will be a fresh start for him, but is nervous and worried that things won’t be better in college.

College Stress and Anxiety Is Very Real

Cam and Aaron are just two examples of how much college is stressing out young adults and their families. Whether heading off the first time or returning to campus for another year of university life, college is showing to be a major stressor for families.

Why has college become such a stressor and anxious time for young people and their parents?

  • Parents worry about the readiness of their kids successfully transitioning to college life
  • The cost of college has been skyrocketing
  • The rates for college completion are not promising
  • The job market for graduates is harsh and unwelcoming
  • College-aged kids are undergoing a mental health crisis

Many parents, despite knowing better, admit to accommodating the needs and wants of their children. As a result, parents worry about what will happen when they are no longer a part of their kid’s day-to-day life. They worry about the level of autonomy and self-discipline within their college-aged kids.

Parents and teens worry about the landscape of the university years. The cost of college continues to rise. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2016–2017 school year was:

stress in college students is very real and tuition plays a role in thatAnd if the cost of college doesn’t stress families, the rate of college completion is sure to spike people’s blood pressure. I’ve previously written about the educational dilemma facing young men.

Only 46 percent of Americans complete college once they start, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Twenty-nine percent of those who seek an associate’s degree obtain it within three years.

Only 56 percent of students who embark on a bachelor’s degree program finish within six years, according to a 2011 Harvard study titled Pathways to Prosperity. Over the past decade, 30 percent of male college students have dropped out during their freshman year, according to education consultant and blogger Daniel Riseman.

It’s not just stress that is plaguing our college students. The national consensus among educators and health professionals is that we are facing a mental health crisis on our college campuses.

Psychology Today published data supporting the concern for college students, which highlighted worrisome statistics. Almost half of college students had a psychiatric disorder in the past year and 73 percent of students will experience some sort of mental health crisis during college.

  • More than 80 percent of college students felt overwhelmed by all they had to do in the past year and 45 percent have felt things were hopeless
  • 20 percent of female students report sexual assault or threatened sexual assault according to the Center for Disease Control
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college-age students
  • More than half of college students have had suicidal thoughts, and 1 in 10 students seriously consider attempting suicide
  • 80-90 percent of college students who die by suicide were not receiving help from college counseling centers

College directors of counseling services are reporting a steady increase in students with severe psychological problems, such as college stress. The demand for counseling services has grown at least five times faster than average student enrollment.

Only 25 percent of students with a mental health problem seek help, and yet, there still is a lack of services in colleges and universities for those who do seek help.

In my work as a mental health professional, I interact with college students dealing with all types of stress or mental health struggles. Some students struggle with loneliness and making new friends.

Other students struggle with self-discipline and self-direction, having become dependent on parents and teachers to help them keep up with their academic obligations. But all the college students I see want to change and want things to improve. Most just struggle with figuring out the “how”.

3 Tips to Conquer College Stress

1. Attend to Mental Health Right From the Start

Listen, the data is there. College students will likely experience anxiety, depression, or substance use problems during college. And yet, despite the data predicting problems, most college students do not seek out proactive and preventative measures to deal with college stress.

They wait until they are in the throes of the struggle before reaching out and seeking help. And for many, it’s too late. Too many college guys don’t visit my office until after they’re on academic probation, have been suspended, have stopped going to class, or have some substance use charge levied against them.

Most of the young men I work with, when they head off to college, they set up an appointment with some type of mental health professional as a part of their transition to college.

For some, they have an initial appointment with a counselor on campus. For other students, they schedule with a therapist in the community. Many therapists continue to engage in remote sessions when their clients head off to school.

Some students will regularly work with therapists throughout the semester. Others may wait, but if problems surface, those students now know where to reach out and get support. Practice proactivity with mental wellbeing.

2. Identify Goals for the Upcoming Semester

There is no one way to problem-solve or accomplish goals. Many folks use the SMART Goals approach. Others may approach goal setting using the WOOP Method.

I often refer my clients to a study conducted at Dominican’s Department of Psychology in the School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences by Dr. Gail Matthews. Her research outlined five specific steps that increase the likelihood a person will accomplish their goals:

how to handle college stressHer study found that 76 percent of folks that followed all five steps accomplished or were on their way to accomplishing their goals. That is twice the success rate for those who only thought about goals but kept them to themselves (43 percent). The Dominican University study can be broken down to

3 KEYS to Accomplishing Goals and Keeping Priorities in Life:

  • Write down goals
  • Translate into measurable action steps
  • Involve others for accountability and follow-up

3. Build a Support Network for College and for Life

What do the first two tips include? Other people. Don’t wait until the problem is so far gone that drastic steps must be taken. As a mental health professional, I cannot stress enough the need and value of involving others.

Whether it is a professional counselor, tutor, friends, mentors, or someone else. In addition to the Dr. Matthews’ study, I often help young guys in working through the following:

  • Identify where “additional help” is needed
  • Identify who or what will “help”
  • Ask for help

College Is a Time of Opportunity

Anxiety and stress often feed off the unknown and what you cannot control. However, having a plan and strategy heading into (or back to) college can alleviate a significant portion of stress and worry.

Both Cam and Aaron have remarked that having a plan in mind helps calm their anxiety. College will include stressors, adversity, and unforeseen problems. But that does not mean that students have to suffer and struggle thru their college experience.

All of my client’s information is confidential. * Represents a pseudonym for any client mentioned in the content above.

Click here for more content by Jonathan Hetterly, LPC!

Jonathan Hetterly, LPC
Jonathan Hetterly is a licensed professional counselor. He specializes in helping teen and young adult men navigate the challenges they face in life. Jonathan is also a writer and his articles are regularly featured on and He has contributed material to several books that explore the intersection of pop culture and psychology, including The Walking Dead Psychology, Star Wars Psychology, and Game of Thrones Psychology.


  1. >By the second week of his freshmen year, he had stopped going to classes and played roughly 40 hours of video games until leaving school.

    Things like this are exactly what I was going to address. Most of the stress college students experience is caused by their decisions. They don’t do homework, don’t go to class, procrastinate on assignments, and then they get stressed when things are due or when they get bad grades.

    Perhaps people like Cam who apparently don’t really want to be in college, just shouldn’t go to college – it’s not for everyone. And maybe if people who didn’t really want to go to college weren’t brainwashed into believing they have to go to college or they’ll be failures at life, or college completion rates would go up since colleges would only be attended by people who actually want to be there and are serious about graduating.

    Imagine being told your whole life you had to play football or you’d be a failure at life. But you’re bad at sports, and you’re not interested in sports, but you take out a 6 figure loan to go to sports camp, because your counselors all told you that you absolutely must! And since you’re not interested in sports, naturally you don’t practice, you spend 40 hours per week playing video games instead of practicing throwing a football, and now your coaches are giving you bad grades and you’re failing out of sports camp. Wouldn’t you be stressed?

    And now we have people scrambling to figure out why you’re stressed out about sports camp. Maybe it’s because you don’t even want to be there? No, let’s look at the cost of the sports camp, and the “rape culture”, and every other possible thing other than the fact that maybe sports camp isn’t for everyone.


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