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Tips on How to Manage Stress While in College

written by: Haley Drucker•edited by: Laurie Patsalides•updated: 10/10/2011

Most first-time college students experience a mixture of excitement and stress—excitement because of the new opportunities and level of freedom, and stress due to the challenges and responsibilities college brings. These tips will help you prepare to navigate the college years successfully.

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    The Ups and Downs of College Life

    The college years have at times been called the “best years of your life," and for good reason. College is a time of opportunities, when you have an unprecedented level of freedom and lots of choices. The traditionally aged college student is at the start of his or her life and career, with much to look forward to.

    At the same time, college life introduces stresses both familiar and new. Many students are living on their own for the first time, whether in a dorm or an apartment—a change which is exciting but difficult. You’re taking on more and more responsibilities, negotiating the transition to becoming a full adult. At the same time you have to deal with increasingly tough classes, many on subjects you know little about. Most students have to juggle multiple obligations, such as a job, internship, and clubs or activities, and it’s difficult to find time for everything. And then there are the financial burdens—many students are paying for some or all of their own tuition, and even those who aren’t usually have to pay for their own books, transportation, and other necessities.

    So how do you deal with all these responsibilities? College students face a high stress level, and to get through these years successfully it’s important to develop strategies to manage your time and energy. Because college doesn’t have to be so stressful. Here are some strategies to help set you up for success, strategies that if you learn them now will serve you well in other stressful situations throughout your life.

    Note: The life of the older, nontraditional college student is often more stressful than that of the 18-year-old freshman. Nontraditional students usually have to balance school with a full-time job or a family or both, as well as many other preexisting obligations. Yet older, adult students have typically dealt with stress more often and developed their own coping strategies, and are more prepared to take on the new burden of college classes. While the strategies in this article are geared towards traditional college students, most if not all should also apply to nontraditional students.

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    Get Involved (But Not Too Much)

    College offers a lot of opportunities, such as clubs, sports, and other groups and activities. It’s likely there’s at least one group on your campus that will appeal to your interests. Getting involved in school-sponsored and student organizations can be a great way to relax and meet cool people, and to get a nice change from classes and work. Joining clubs and activities helps you find the social network that’s right for you, and can provide experience that will be valuable to you later in life. Just be careful not to join too many different groups. You want a diverse college experience, but you don’t want to take on more than you can handle or you risk adding to your stress level and not being able to fulfill all of your responsibilities. Figure out how much time you have available in a given week to devote to such activities.

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    Make a Plan

    Chances are you have more than just classes to deal with. In addition to tests and papers and final exams, you’ve got a part-time or full-time job, an internship, a volunteer position, family obligations, or clubs, activities, and sports. All these things are demanding your immediate time and attention, and will only get more difficult to handle as the semester progresses and classes get tougher.

    So make a plan, and start early. Plans can come in all shapes and sizes, from a list of what to do today to an extensive four-year outline, and all are valuable. Know in advance what classes and other activities are going to demand the most of your time and when, so you won’t be taken by surprise. If you’ve got a huge paper due at the end of the semester, try to finish homework for other classes earlier so you’ll have the time to devote to that larger project.

    Weekly schedules are especially helpful; creating a schedule at the beginning of the week gives you an idea of what you need to accomplish and when. That way, if you have an off-day you know just what you need to do to catch up. Daily to-do lists will keep you focused, and once you’ve checked everything off your list you can relax easier knowing you’ve accomplished your work for the day. And planning ahead is especially important at the end of the semester, when those big papers and projects and final exams are looming over your head. Start preparing for finals week early, even a month in advance, and you’ll be much more likely to find the time you need to work hard and get the grade you want.

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    Manage your Finances Responsibly

    People come to college with a variety of economic backgrounds and obligations, but it’s likely that you’ll be responsible for more expenses than you were when you were living at home. Paying attention to how and when you spend your money reduces the stress of not having enough to pay for books or rent when the time comes. Make a budget and track how much money you make and how much you’ll need to spend on all the necessities of college life. That way you’ll know how much you can afford to spend on non-necessary items, social outings, and other entertainments, and you won’t have to worry about running out of money.

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    Find Help

    There are many support systems in college that you can turn to for help when the stresses get too much to handle on your own. Tutoring centers, counseling services, and career centers can all provide much needed advice and assistance. You can read more about these support systems in this series. Just remember you’re not alone—everyone at college is dealing with their own stresses, many of them the same ones you’re facing, and the school and faculty knows this and provides the resources you’ll need.

    Take time to prepare for what's ahead, and don’t let a little stress keep you from making these years memorable.