It’s now common knowledge that college students are struggling. Results from the 2019 American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment found that 50% of students report high levels of distress, including feeling overwhelmed by all they had to do in the past two weeks. At the same time, bouts of distress are common in emerging adults navigating and negotiating new demands, and we see high rates of diagnosed mental illness in the early 20s.
We are psychology researchers who study young people’s mental health during the transition to adulthood. In our research on university student stress and well-being, we’ve searched for patterns and predictors of distress to answer two related questions: When do students need help with academic demands? And which students need the most support?
Our findings offer students a map of what to expect as they mentally prepare for the stresses of college, as well as insights for parents and educators who want to support them in this journey.
What college stress looks like
Academic demands are a key source of stress for college students. Unlike in high school, students in college are expected to manage their workload without much guidance from teachers, and it’s easy to feel lost in a class with several hundred peers. Our research suggests that, on average, distress goes up as academic demands go up, peaking ahead of final exams and then falling again. Some semesters are more demanding than others, and when students have more work to do than usual, they also (unsurprisingly) report more academic stress. This can happen when students take a course overload or an elective in a new department, for example.
It can be comforting to know that academic stress is a shared experience, with predictable patterns of intensification and recovery, where some semesters will be more challenging than others. It may also help to know that temporary increases in stress can benefit students under some circumstances. Our longer-term research across four years found that students earned higher grades in semesters when they experienced bouts of negative mood. An uptick in negative mood one semester may reflect that extra effort was needed to meet academic challenges. The important caveat here is that we only observed this effect for students who were typically happy overall, showing the importance of maintaining good emotional balance.
Some students start their college journey at a disadvantage, having experienced more stress in other areas of their lives. We are currently analyzing data we collected that suggests that students who come to campus having previously experienced more stressful life events are more likely to start the year with higher academic stress and distress. These students are also more likely to experience even greater stress at final exams and during especially challenging semesters.
From our research, a good example of a factor that makes students vulnerable is financial stress. One powerful indicator of financial stress is food insecurity—a spectrum that includes worrying about running out of food to going full days without food. In 2020, 34% of college students in the U.S. experienced food insecurity. When basic needs are not met, academic success is compromised. Our research in Canada found that first-year students experiencing food insecurity had noticeably poorer mental health than their food-secure peers, a disadvantage that was sustained across the entire academic year. Many campuses are attempting to tackle food insecurity by funding food pantries, creating free- or low-cost food programs, and offering emergency financial aid.
Other groups of students who may need supports tailored to their individual experiences include first-generation students, who often don’t have the same family resources as students whose parents went to college themselves, and international students who live further away from their families. Students with disabilities and mental health difficulties often need accessibility support in classrooms and around campus. With increasing diversity on college campuses, it is now standard practice for colleges to have offices dedicated to supporting students with the range of life experiences they bring to campus.
Finally, maintaining friendships and balancing social demands with academics is another key source of stress for college students. Going to college often means making new friends and leaving others behind, and when conflicts over competing needs and wants crop up or friendship expectations are violated, it can be stressful. On the positive side, friends can be a great source of support for college students. For example, in research we recently conducted we found that college students felt less distressed when they discussed their problems with a friend who was good at thinking through problems in new ways. The college experience expands emerging adult social networks, and there are many opportunities on campus to find and build supportive friendships.
Stress resilience for students
With these patterns and stressors in mind, we recommend that you be proactive about managing your academic demands, participating in activities that boost and sustain positive mood and relationships, and seeking out supports that address your particular needs. Doing so will help you get the most out of your experience and avoid feeling overwhelmed when busy periods inevitably hit.
Colleges and universities offer many programs aimed at helping students manage academic demands and stress. Programs may be offered by health and wellness services, counseling and psychological services, and academic support programs. Look for student success centers on your campus and take advantage of the resources they offer!
Mindfulness meditation and self-compassion training are popular options at our universities that give students tools to manage stress and setbacks in the moment. Time management and tutoring programs give students tools to manage academic demands in a more sustained way.
As with support programming, colleges and universities offer countless clubs, sports, governance, and performing arts activities. These are often student-led and organized around diverse interests and identities. Our research found that students who kept up with extracurricular activities in university had better self-management skills and in turn higher well-being. These activities are also great places for making new friends.
Even if you don’t think you need support right now, it’s a good idea to be prepared for more challenging times. We encourage students to seek out support programs and activities early to establish strategies and habits to manage stress that can carry you through the busiest times of the year. Get involved!
The same kinds of strategies and habits will serve you well as you make the transition out of college. In our research, when we asked recent graduates to describe their experiences in the year following graduation from university, everyone said it was challenging. What distinguished the students who reported less distress and more satisfaction across the year, including during their job search, was their outlook.
Several related skills seemed to matter. Perseverance and grit refer to the ways people manage goals, challenges, and setbacks. Despite plans not working out exactly as hoped, recent graduates with greater well-being were able to increase effort, adjust their goals when needed, and keep moving forward through challenges. These graduates were also moving forward with a sense of purpose, or a general sense that they were on a meaningful path, and optimism about the path they were on, expecting good things to happen in the future. Additionally, their expectations about how and when their goals would be achieved were flexible, and they were open to new or unexpected opportunities. Finally, recent graduates with greater well-being also had more supportive social networks that they could rely on for advice, comfort, and help along the way.
With all the changes of the transition to college and the transition to adulthood, parents may wonder how involved they should continue to be. In our research with first-year students, we found that students who did best were those whose parents were warm and involved in their lives. These kinds of parents are loving, caring, and accepting of their children for who they are. They talk to their children and spend time together. They also support their children’s growing independence by listening, allowing their children to make their own decisions, and being a sounding board when problems arise. Despite negative media attention to overinvolved or “helicopter” parenting (like calling the dean to dispute a bad grade), these kinds of behaviors are really rare, and most college students welcome their parents’ healthy involvement in their lives.
Feeling stressed at some point is inevitable, especially for young people simultaneously navigating the transition to adulthood and the academic expectations of college. Our advice? We encourage all students to make the most of the wide range of available services, programs, and opportunities for engagement on your campus. Proactively seeking out personal growth experiences, building a strong social network, and getting help when needed will develop strengths that will allow you to effectively manage stress, now and in the future.