Surviving College: Tips from Someone Who Almost Didn't

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In May of 2015, I dropped out of college.

The public-facing explanation was that this was only temporary. I was still going to school on the east coast at the time, and my family would soon be moving to California, so my claim was that I was leaving college to help them move, then I would find a new school out west. But the truth was, deep down, I intended to run from higher education and never look back. I was exhausted beyond the point of function, badly depressed, and full of crippling self-doubt about my direction in school and in life. I had nightmares about starting school again and woke up in tears. It would take another three years of struggles and personal growth before I decided to set foot on a college campus again.

The truth is, this isn’t an entirely uncommon story nowadays. As many as 1 in 5 college students has some form of anxiety and depression, and according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 85% of college students report feeling overwhelmed by their workloads. A 2017 study by the National Student Clearinghouse further revealed that only 57% of students completed college within 6 years, with 12% remaining enrolled but not graduated, and 31% (nearly one in three!) dropping out entirely. Other studies indicate as many as one-third of all college students leave during their freshman year, often because the transition from high school to college proves too stressful to bear.

Many of you reading now are probably new to college. Even more of you are probably overwhelmed, to some degree or another, with your current workload. So how do you keep yourself from becoming one of those statistics - a college student overcome with anxiety or depression, or even on the verge of dropping out?

The one benefit of my becoming one of those statistics is, it gave me insight on how to avoid having such a breakdown happen again.


You have limits - accept that, and work with them

Have you ever heard the expression “give 110%”? The first rule of surviving college is to accept that’s not only impossible, but extremely dangerous.

As a human being, you have limits to what you’re able to do each day, and overall in your life. Sometimes, those limits can be overcome - if you can’t fix a car, you can buckle down, study hard, practice, and eventually be able to fix that car. But other times, those limits can’t or won’t be overcome, no matter how much you want them to. Maybe you’re just not a car person, and even after all your practice and studying, you just can’t remember what goes where. And though the instinct is to buckle down and work until you surpass your limits, the sad truth remains: there are some things that you, as an individual, simply will not ever be able to do. Not only is this perfectly okay, it’s more normal than you may imagine.

So how does this tie into college? Well, simply put, if you try to give 110% to everything in your college life, you will burn out. That extra 10% isn’t coming from nothing, after all; you’re pulling it from your reserves until, eventually, there’s nothing left for you to muster up for even the most basic tasks.

It’s the mistake I made during my first go at college - I wanted so desperately to do well, learn everything, and impress my professors and colleagues, that I was putting 110% into everything, blind to the consequences. I spent most of my first semester perpetually sick and chronically exhausted from pulling all-nighters to finish projects. And sure, I was making some beautiful and impressive projects my first year, but I could have easily made something equally competent, if less over-the-top, in a fraction of the time. The extra effort wasn’t benefiting me, either, as colleagues with effortless talent and a gift for gab would still charm professors away from paying my work even the slightest attention. And of course, by my sophomore year I had run the tank empty, and was so thoroughly burned out that I struggled to muster up the motivation to so much as attend several of my classes.

The solution is simple: recognize and accept your personal limits. You cannot stay up until 3 AM every night and still function. You cannot make every paragraph a literary masterpiece, every art project Louvre-worthy, or every science lab life-changing. You can keep hitting the books and trying to learn German, but maybe you just aren’t the type of person who can pick up languages, and the extra time and effort studying isn’t going to completely negate that disadvantage. By accepting this, you lift huge amounts of pressure off your shoulders, and you can set goals and expectations that are realistic for your individual capabilities. Your future employer won’t care if you only got a C instead of an A in that one class, and - as childish as it sounds - setting yourself a strict bedtime can do wonders for your health. And of course, once you start to figure out and work with your limits, it can lead you into the next step...


Learn to prioritize… even if it means things don’t get done

Time management and study skills are a huge factor in making it through college in one piece, and they’re both things you’re not likely to have been taught prior to attending. I was the type of high school student who could breeze through assignments and studying with little effort or preparation, and this left me enormously underequipped when I started college and started facing more challenging classes. I went from passing classes with flying colors after studying only briefly the night before, to cramming on the verge of tears because I simply couldn’t understand the material I was about to be tested on. It’s not surprising that huge amount of self-inflicted stress led to a breakdown in record time.

The thing about college is, it’s a lot of work. You’re juggling four, five, maybe even more classes with individual requirements for study, homework and projects. At least some of those classes are probably outside your usual comfort zone, and thus force you to spend even more of your time working and studying. Most of you probably have a part-time job, or even multiple jobs to pay for classes and rent. You have a dorm, apartment or other home to maintain, which means cooking, cleaning, dishes, laundry and more. You may be part of one or more clubs, sometimes with leadership responsibilities. And of course, you almost certainly have friends, family, or even a romantic relationship that require your time and commitment. That’s a lot to juggle, especially if, like me, you weren’t forced or taught to pick up proper study and time management skills prior to college.

Now, here’s the hard truth that many people won’t admit to: that’s too much for you to get done, especially if you’re trying to do all those things to the best degree you’re able. (And for that, see point #1 about putting in 110%.) Even when you learn to better accept your limits and stop demanding perfection on everything you do, chances are there’s still not going to be enough hours in the day for everything.

So what does that mean? Well, if you remember the heading of this section, it means learning to prioritize! This can be as simple as looking through your to-do list (which, if you don’t already, start making those - they can be a lifesaver when the tasks start piling up and your memory isn’t up to the challenge) and organizing everything in terms of what’s due when. However, to really lower the pressure on yourself and take the best advantage of your limited time, you’re also going to have to take your personal limits and capabilities into account. Maybe you’re really struggling to remember those verb tenses for that German test, which means you’re going to have to spend more time studying to ensure you pass, but you also have an English paper due and you know you’re practiced enough to pound out a solid essay overnight. In that case, you may put the paper lower on your list of priorities, and dedicate more of your time to studying those verbs and putting yourself in a better place for the test.

The toughest part of this prioritization process is, sometimes, you’re just going to have to accept that not everything’s going to get done. Maybe an emergency came up, or you underestimated how much time you needed for that paper, or you just plain wrote a date wrong and had to scramble on an assignment due way sooner than expected. So long as you’re not missing more deadlines than you meet (in which case, sit back and take a hard look at your prioritizing and time-management again), this is normal and expected, and you can work through it to minimize your stress. Figure out what’s lowest-priority on your list, or what can be safely sacrificed to get things done - and don’t always assume that “safe sacrifice” is going to mean cutting out breaks or social time, which is a fast way to speed up the burnout process! Sure, maybe you’ll have to turn down a night out with the girls in favor of finishing a last-minute paper, but maybe your professor will be willing to hear you out and accept the paper a day late so you don’t have to skip the club meeting you’ve been looking forward to all week. And sometimes, you might need to take an absence in class so you can catch up on dishes and sleep. Taking care of yourself really is just as important, if not more so, than a perfect attendance record.

So, now you know how to cut yourself some slack and better prioritize your limited time to minimize stress. What else is there to consider as you make your way through college? Well...


Things in your life will change, and that’s okay

The very nature of college tends to be a major stressor. Kids barely on the cusp of adulthood, most of whom have spent their lives required to listen to and follow the direction of adults, are suddenly thrust into near-complete independence and asked to choose a career path for the rest of their lives. But the fact of the matter is, you probably don’t know what you want to do for the entirety of your life when you’re seventeen years old. Yet here you are, being asked to place hundreds of thousands of dollars and four-plus years on just that!

When I first started college, I was deeply confident that I knew what I wanted and where my life was going. I knew without a fraction of a doubt that I wanted to be an artist, and the general area of the industry I wanted to focus in. I was attending an art school in a lovely town I’d been visiting since I was a baby. I had a partner I cared for deeply, a bubbly and idealistic personality, and generally was happy with the direction of my life.

By the end of my freshman year, all of that had changed - I’d taken an internship in a part of the industry I’d never even considered, my partner and I had amicably parted ways, I was questioning my sexuality, and of course, I was struggling with the beginnings of a long-lasting and catastrophic burnout. I remember, distinctly, a professor looking up at me with a condescendingly sympathetic look during my portfolio critique, and telling me perhaps illustration just wasn’t right for me, something that continues to rattle me at the very core of my being. After all, I’d spent my entire life building up to a career as an artist - if I didn’t have that, who was I?

What I didn’t realize was, everything I was feeling in those dark, directionless moments was entirely normal. Things in life will always change, and at no time more so than your college years and associated young adulthood. You may doubt your chosen major, or find something new that you never expected to have a passion for, or even start your “dream job” only to find yourself miserable. You may drift apart from friends you’ve had for years, or worse, find your worldviews shifting so far apart that they ultimately come to heads. You may come to reassess your gender or sexuality in a way that necessitates a major life shift. Your life will change, sometimes in ways that are incredibly difficult - and that’s absolutely, perfectly okay.

Now, just because that kind of change is normal doesn’t mean it’s not scary, often debilitating so. This is especially true when those changes have farther-reaching effects on your college life; what are you supposed to do when you realize medicine isn’t for you five years in? The best way to deal with it is simply to be open to the possibility of change before it starts to wreak havoc. By being cognizant of early warning signs, you can start to consciously and rationally explore these shifts, and thus minimize their impact as you let the changes take their course. And this can all be helped if you can remember...

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Don’t be afraid to use resources and ask for help

In the midst of stress, change, and outright disaster, it can be borderline impossible to think about reaching out. When my stress started to give way into outright, crippling depression, I retracted from the outside world as much as possible. I rarely, if ever, spoke with my professors except to ask for a minimal deadline extension without further explanation. I kept only in sporadic touch with my friends back home, rarely went out with my few companions at college, and kept my increasingly poor mental state and living conditions from my family for fear of worrying them. It wouldn’t be until two years after I left school (and in the midsts of another, near-identical breakdown to boot) that I finally decided to start seeing a therapist. Overwhelmed by college life, I isolated myself, and that only made my problems worse.

It’s crucial to remember that, ultimately, no person is entirely, independently self-sufficient. Behind every successful individual is an extensive, well-constructed system of support, including but not limited to family, friends, partners, co-workers, classmates, doctors, therapists, and so on. Only by constructing and utilizing this support system can you truly be your best self; the more you try to take on yourself, without any form of direct or indirect support, the faster you’ll be driving yourself to burnout.

First and foremost, find resources that are available to you right on your campus. California Lutheran, for example, has Academic Services, Health Services, Disability Services, counseling, and more, all ready and available to help you with whatever issues might be plaguing you. Many professors will be willing to work with you under the right circumstances as well, especially if you have documentation or support from one of the aforementioned departments. Classmates might form study groups to help each other prepare for especially tricky assignments, or maybe your friends would be willing to drop by your dorm and help you with dishes in exchange for dinner.

The biggest key, aside from just acknowledging that these resources exist, is to do the major research before you reach a point where you desperately need them - if you’re anything like I was, bouts of burnout and depression are going to significantly hinder your ability to do that tough work and find help. By doing that work ahead of time, all you have to do once things go south is muster up the courage to make the call. And if (again, like me) you should ever feel embarrassed or ashamed of your needing help… well, there’s one more crucial thing I have to tell you that should alleviate some of that concern.


Remember - no one else knows what they’re doing, either

This, above all else, is the most important thing you need to remember as you head through college and into adulthood: not a single person in this world really, truly, absolutely knows what they’re doing. Your classmates? Your professors? Your parents? That one gorgeous, funny, immaculate actor you really, really love? All of them are filled with the same uneasiness, confusion and doubt you’re feeling. No one knows what they’re doing. At its core, adulthood really is a never-ending stream of “fake it till you make it”.

So as you head off into the wilds of college life, remember these lessons that I learned the hard way. You have limits, and recognizing them will help you work better. Learning to prioritize will save your skin, even if it occasionally means accepting something won’t get done. Change is not only expected, it’s inevitable, and being open to it will help minimize the impact it has on your life. Make yourself aware of the resources you have in your life, and be prepared to reach out for help when you need it. And of course, don’t worry that someone’s going to notice you don’t know what you’re doing - they don’t know either. None of us do.