Managing Anxiety in College

By Michelle Berg, MA, Psy.D


The transition from high school to college can be difficult, particularly for students with learning challenges • Selecting the right school, making smart decisions about courses, and learning to prioritize activities will go a long way to alleviating college anxiety

Moving from high school to college is one of the most significant transitions in a student’s life. Unlike high schools, colleges expect students to be self-aware, understand and identify their needs, and seek support as necessary. Yet as freshmen, many students have not yet developed organizational and time management skills, and/or skills related to daily living, social life, and academics. The result is that many college students experience a significant amount of anxiety that first year—and sometimes beyond.

Learning how to balance various aspects of college life is critical to lessening anxiety. For example, how do you prioritize hanging out with friends, creating a study guide, going to the writing center for help with a paper, or taking care of everyday tasks like laundry?

With new-found freedom and flexibility, you must be proactive, well organized, and able to execute a study plan. You must categorize, organize, and prioritize the activities you want or need to do, and have the discipline to stick to the plan—all of which require skills that are still evolving.

Plan Intentionally

When selecting colleges, it’s essential to understand your strengths and weaknesses. Determining your level of academic, social, and emotional functioning is critical to finding the right college fit and being successful there.

Once at school, the next challenge is to select classes and activities that you can succeed in without becoming overwhelmed. Approach this task by asking yourself the following questions:

  1. Is the curriculum challenging and does it move at a pace that I can handle? The answer impacts which classes to take and how many per semester.
  2. Can I find like-minded people on campus and make connections?
  3. What is the best way for me to unplug and relieve stress?

The answers to these questions will help you begin to understand yourself, what the best choices are for you, and aid in planning, prioritizing, and structuring your time.

Master Self-Advocacy

Learning to advocate for yourself is a big part of acclimating to college life and moving toward independence. The logical place to start is by setting up meetings with an advisor or learning specialist to discuss your learning style and ask questions about potential professors and the structure of their classes.

It’s also important to remember that if you hope to receive accommodations, you must submit documentation of your learning differences (most likely in writing). Many colleges require that the request be renewed each semester. Having this knowledge and establishing a strong working relationship with your advisor or learning specialist can go a long way toward reducing anxiety.

Advocacy and self-awareness are not just for academics. Advocacy might also be needed to navigate the social landscape in the dorms; it’s important for example to be able to communicate clearly with a roommate or residential advisor and not let grievances build up.

Seek the Support You Need

Being organized, feeling connected, and having a way to unplug and relieve stress are important ways you can reduce anxiety. Find the resources on campus that can help you accomplish these tasks. In dorm life, a residential assistant can help resolve personal conflicts. For help with curriculum planning, you can go to your advisor or to the Office of Disability Services to work with a learning specialist. There are also resources such as the writing center and computer lab that can help with assignments and understanding material. Finally, every college has a counseling center where you can talk about anxiety and other issues with a mental health professional.

Arguably one of the most valuable resources is you and your ability to self-evaluate and determine the root of your anxiety and how to best address it. If you’re unsure of the steps to take to better cope, or if you feel you need more support than what is offered on campus, you can always ask the counseling office, your advisor, or learning specialist for additional referrals.

Dr. Michelle Berg is an educational consultant who specializes in educational advising and placement for students with LD, ADHD, and related learning issues. She consults for the School Counseling Group in Washington, DC and is a member of the Smart Kids Professional Advisory Board.

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