How to succeed in college: Prevention and proactive strategies soften the transition

College can bring some of the most precious times, offering life-changing and beautiful opportunities. However, it can also be a stress-filled time, full of change, uncertainty, and hard work.

College is unique in that you are learning to function in a new academic environment as well as learning to function as an independent human being. With all of that responsibility now resting on you, it can be difficult to know how to set yourself on the path of success.

For many students, managing issues with stress, anxiety, procrastination, and executive functioning alongside the new levels of independence they’re experiencing can quickly make college feel overwhelming. However, there are ways to manage and reduce stress levels so that the demands of college are less overwhelming, allowing students to enjoy the independence and freedom that college provides.

Why Is It Hard to Succeed in College?

Results from recent studies show that the high demand from academics, altered sleep and eating patterns, homesickness and lack of communication with family, and financial concerns can test even the most qualified students. 

In fact, approximately 80% of college students say that they experience stress daily, and many believe this stress has had an impact on their academic performance. These daily stressors can increase the risk of depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns in college students that can potentially hold these students back. The buildup of these burdens—oftentimes causing burnout—is also one of the key causes of college students choosing to drop out.

Don’t forget that there is a wide range of “normal” during college transition. Nearly 70% of incoming freshmen change their major, and the sheer volume of new people, expectations, and physical changes requires some normal periods of adjustment. What prevention and proactive strategies offer is a way to soften these natural transitions and offer authentic hope for not only getting through but doing well in college.

How Will I Be Successful in College?

One of the best ways to prepare yourself for success in college is to be proactive. It’s good to manage your stress as it happens, but preventing stress and keeping yourself from getting overwhelmed is important, too, and can be even more effective. 

To do this, you must make sure you have some solid coping strategies in place that you can reach for when needed. With all of the learning and growth that happens in college, life can move from exciting to overwhelming very quickly. It’s easy to start feeling out of control or like too much is on your plate, which is why it’s good to develop coping strategies before you need them, and to use them to regularly manage your stress rather than only putting them in action when you’re in crisis-mode. 

Whether it’s taking a few moments to take deep breaths and use positive self-talk or planning out how to use your time effectively—or anything in-between—learning what works best for you in terms of self-regulating and managing your stress is the best way to set yourself up for success.

What Are 5 Strategies for Academic Success?

The science of positive psychology, developed from the work done by Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, has concentrated on five factors known as “PERMA” that assist people in thriving and collectively identify the elements of well-being: 

  • Positive emotions 
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Achievement 

Lessening symptoms like stress, anxiety, and executive dysfunction has the ability to keep students from entering a downward spiral, additional strategies like these can be put in place to help students increase joy and experience a more persistent sense of well-being. These interventions are mainly being pulled from a fresh, innovative field: positive psychology.  

The work done by Seligman, as well as many researchers around the world, has created a new sub-discipline in the psychology field that involves using precise interventions and new tools to increase positivity. Essentially, these principles aim to increase positive emotions, while shaking off the aftereffects of a setback.

What Habits Do Successful Students Have?

Beyond studying, going to class, and working hard, it’s important to offset that hard work with rest, restorative practices, time-management, self-care, and other coping skills. Without these elements, burnout can happen quickly and make motivating yourself and getting work done even harder than it already is.

It’s also important to work on ways to regulate your emotions. With the stress, anxiety, worry, homesickness, and variety of other emotions that you’ll experience in college and throughout the rest of your life, self-regulating will help to bring yourself back down from heightened emotions. A good process to follow is:

  1. Take a moment: Give yourself a moment to let your feelings come to the surface.
  2. Notice how you feel: Assess the emotions that come up. Can you name them?
  3. Consider what triggered those emotions: What made you feel like this? Why?
  4. Work to soothe: Now that you know the part of you that was affected, you can more accurately treat the problem, whether it’s correcting any incorrect assumptions that your brain made or thinking of ways to avoid this hurt in the future.

Finally, boundary setting is a great practice to get into. College is fun and exciting, and making new connections is an important part of the experience. Sometimes, you might need to have boundaries with yourself to keep yourself from overworking and burning out. Take a break, see friends, go to a concert, or do something that brings you joy and energy. Other times, you might need to manage your FOMO and set a boundary for studying or alone time. Get to know your needs and learn how best to cater to them.

Table of contents

Why Is It Hard to Succeed in College?

How Will I Be Successful in College?

What Are 5 Strategies for Academic Success?

What Habits Do Successful Students Have?

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Hannah DeWitt

Hannah is a Junior Copywriter at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree in English: Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Seattle Pacific University. Previously, Hannah has worked in copywriting positions in the car insurance and trucking sectors doing blog-style and journalistic writing and editing.

We only use authoritative, trusted, and current sources in our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our efforts to deliver factual, trustworthy information.

  • Zwart, H. (n.d.). College Student Stress Facts | BetterYou.

  • Is it too late to change my major? – College rank. (2022, February 13). College Rank.

We update our content on a regular basis to ensure it reflects the most up-to-date, relevant, and valuable information. When we make a significant change, we summarize the updates and list the date on which they occurred. Read our editorial policy to learn more.

  • Originally published on October 8, 2019

    Author: Dan Tamasulo, PhD

  • Updated on August 8, 2023

    Author: Hannah DeWitt

    Changes: Updated by the Thriveworks editorial team, adding advice about how to manage stress, regulate emotions and develop coping skills; added details about why college can be difficult and why it may be difficult to succeed; included good habits and coping skills to develop.

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