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How To Help An Overwhelmed College Student

Parents – can you hear the stress hidden behind the empty words “everything’s ok” whispered by your child? Or can you make out the indiscernible words barely breaking through the sobbing? Or perhaps it’s just silence… whatever cues your child gives you about being overwhelmed with college, know you can give them some much appreciated guidance.

First, remember that feeling overwhelmed in college is completely normal. To a certain degree, it’s a good thing. College is supposed to stretch them and challenge them. When we go to a gym and exercise our muscles, we’re supposed to push it to the point where we “feel the burn” yet not injure ourselves.

Similarly, when our child goes to college, they are exercising themselves intellectually and emotionally. They’re going to feel a burn. And they’re probably not used to it…especially at an academically competitive college. I tell students who are used to getting all A’s and being the best, but now are surrounded by other students who also are used to being the best, now they’re just average. Feeling average suddenly means feeling vulnerable…and maybe not so special. And they don’t have a gameplan on how to overcome that feeling because they probably never had to deal with it before.

For many parents, when their child exhibits their stress, the knee-jerk reaction is to step in and “fix” it for them. Sometimes parents want to call the school’s academic counselors or professors and expect them to help their child feel better. But hopefully, good sense will kick in and you’ll hold back on rushing in to save the day. As parents, we need to be savvy -- just listen and reassure your child. Remember this is part of their growing-up process and we need to let them figure it out… perhaps with some loving guidance on our part as well.

If we patiently wait, our children usually allow a small opening where we can gently offer a couple of suggestions that they can implement on their own. When that happens, be ready to offer these suggestions:


  1. Teach them how to use a calendar.
    • It might sound silly and too simple, but so many college students don’t manage their time effectively. They should check their course syllabus and mark down when all the projects, homework, and tests are due.
    • But more important than “due” dates are “do” dates. Students should build into their calendar anywhere from three to six hours of additional time per class per week for things such as reviewing notes, doing homework, and studying for exams.
  2. Learn how to read strategically.
    • When reading a chapter, first read the introduction, section headers along with any highlighted points, and then the chapter summary to get a sense of what is important. Figure out how the main points tie together. Then go back and skim the material and highlight any supplemental ideas brought up in the text.
  3. Go to the Professor’s office hours.
    • As a former professor, I cannot stress how important and helpful it is to visit a professor during their office hours. It’s where you can ask for clarity on a topic. Professors want to see their students succeed. They will take the time to help you understand the material better.
  4. Seeking perfection is often the enemy.
    • Many students feel overwhelmed because they’re trying to do everything and be perfect. I’ve seen the old adage prove true time and time again – C students go on to start or lead companies, B students work for the C students, A students couldn’t hack the “real” world so they go on to teach instead. In the end, remember C’s get degrees.  
    • The only caveat to that is if additional schooling is needed after a bachelor’s degree. If your career path is to be doctor or lawyer for example, then you do need to pay attention to your grades so you can get accepted into the next level of education. 


So right after you reassure your child that feeling overwhelmed is normal and that you love and believe in them, just be a calming force and simply listen for their invitation to suggest these strategies for success.