As someone who has always taken pride in being as productive as possible, I was highly unprepared for what happened during my senior year as an undergraduate student. As I settled in to study two weeks before final exams, I found myself panicking and feeling feverish. For days, I was unable to function, letting assignments and deadlines pile up as my heart raced. I stopped eating and refused to leave my room until my Residence Assistant suggested that I contact the student health center.
I was reluctant at first, but after some gentle encouragement, I scheduled an appointment. My doctor offered a diagnosis of depression and anxiety. I had spread myself too thin, he said, and I wasn't taking care of myself properly. He recommended I defer my exams.
I swallowed my pride and called my parents to pick me up. As my body began the healing process, my mind slowly followed. I reflected on what I could have done differently and had some tough conversations with myself and others. I came up with a plan to use once I returned to school, which I would later use while completing other degree programs as an undergraduate and graduate student.
While I certainly did not enjoy the challenge of balancing school and life, addressing it head-on was a significant turning point for me. Here are a few tips to help you save time and energy as a college student, and boost your chances of long-term success.
So many people refuse to admit when they're struggling to keep up with the demands of work, school, and other obligations. Why? Because they feel that, in doing so, they are admitting defeat. Students should try to avoid seeing stress or uneasiness as a sign of weakness, and instead, as a red flag that school-life balance isn't happening.
If you find yourself in this situation, start thinking about your daily responsibilities. How can you prioritize your time to leave room for any hobbies or interests you have outside of campus life? After especially hectic periods, it's also crucial that you add time to your schedule just for rest alone. I like to compare it to going to the gym. If you overdo a workout one day, kick back the next to let your muscles loosen up.
This is something I wish I had done sooner as a student. My family was big on "sucking it up" in the face of crisis, and while it worked for me (sometimes) growing up, it caused my downfall later on. After finally vocalizing my issues with mental health and burnout, I quickly realized that I had access to a group of highly supportive people who could support me.
If people don't know you're struggling, they can't help. As a student, you can turn to friends, members of your campus health center team, instructors, tutors, advisors—anyone you feel comfortable talking to. Chances are, they can offer guidance or provide resources to best aid your situation.
It's okay to take time off to care for yourself, whether it's a six-week deferral from college like I experienced, or a weekend spent focused on "me time." Even a short amount of time taken for yourself will help you return to life on campus feeling renewed and rested.
The belief that students must always be available and "on" may have been true 15 years ago. These days, most colleges and universities recognize that mental health in student populations is a huge concern today. If you're unsure how to take time off from school, speak to a campus counselor about your school's policies on deferral and medical leave so that you make an informed decision.
Before taking my leave, I prioritized my classes to the point that the time I spent in the library ended up costing me valuable time with friends and at school events, which were beneficial to my mental health.
When taking stock of the activities I could cut back on, I realized that many of the readings I'd been obsessing over were optional or suggested. I narrowed down those materials by asking professors and teaching assistants which readings they felt were the most important for a given week. Many professors and TAs were happy to offer input. For those who weren't, I came up with another plan.
When it comes to studying or any required reading, college students can save a lot of time by forming a group to divide (and conquer) the number of pages they need to read before a class or exam. Each member can process their section of pages, take notes, and send them to the rest of your group. Set a deadline for sharing notes a few days ahead of class so that you'll have plenty of time to process new material.
As basic as it sounds, visiting your professor or a teacher assistant during office hours will allow you to have a full understanding of expectations for assignments and in-class participation. You might even pick up some hints or critical concepts about what will be on an upcoming exam too. I would often take writing assignments with me, which they would review and then offer advice on how they could improve. By helping identify issues in advance, I found that I stopped overthinking my writing—and was often able to complete these assignments ahead of time.
Students know that leaving everything to the last minute is not the best idea, particularly in programs that have a substantial reading component, such as humanities and social sciences. Instead of crashing and burning in college as I did, try taking your semester's syllabi and creating a calendar of deadlines for midterms, exams, assignments, and any other deadlines. You'll be able to see what needs to get started, and when.
It might feel like a lot of work in the beginning, but this approach is key to managing a heavy academic workload with everything else going on. With time, it may even become second-nature.
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