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4 Reasons Your Student May Be Struggling in College

Jennifer Sullivan


It can be heartbreaking to get phone calls from your college student when they are upset, sad or overwhelmed. It's common for students to struggle in college and parents often see the symptoms of their student's struggle before identifying the cause. Read on to learn about four common challenges that could be at the root of your student's struggles in college.

1. Learning New "College Systems"

It probably took your student four years to understand the systems that were in place in their high school. Transitioning to college immerses your student in an entirely new network of systems.

College systems can include anything from the number of classes your student has each day to how to contact their teachers (email, in person, office hours, etc.). Colleges have systems for how students can pick up and eat their meals (dining halls are open only certain hours and these hours often change on the weekend) as well as systems for how students should submit homework (some professors prefer hard copies in person while others want assignments submitted online). Student athletes need to learn new practice schedules, conditioning routines and additional academic expectations.

Your student's ability to identify and learn these new systems will determine their ability to "go with the flow" or stumble with each new system to learn. College freshmen, in particular, may face setbacks in their first year related to adjusting to these new systems but excel in their sophomore year as things just seem a little easier. Although this year during the pandemic systems have been in flux and students of every year have had to continuously adjust and readjust.

2. The Demands of Increased Critical Thinking and Writing

Higher education encourages students to develop the ability to question pretty much everything. Professors challenge students to look below the surface and search for connections between ideas, make inferences and suggest alternative perspectives.

Bloom's taxonomy identifies these skills as necessary in forming critical thinking skills — which are necessary to college success.

In high school, students are often not told about this shift in teaching and learning and they enter college expecting tests that measure their recall and memory of already learned concepts — high school level skills. This thinking can be misleading when college students are expected to see what isn't there and question ideas they are taught instead of merely regurgitating them.

Furthermore, college professors expect students to expound upon their ideas in lengthy written essays. It can be hard enough to understand an ethical theory in Philosophy 101 but explaining said theory in 2–3 pages can be painstaking for some students. If your student struggles with abstract thinking or is a very concrete thinker, the increased critical thinking and writing demands of college may be part of their struggle.

Learn more about the academic adjustment from high school to college here >

3. Executive Functioning Weakness

Students at every stage of college can struggle with time management and organization, also known as executive functioning skills.

In high school, these skills are often supported by teachers, guidance counselors, special education teachers and parents — all of whom are absent in college. I know I'm guilty of nagging my high school daughter to turn in assignments that I've checked in her online portal. This well-meaning behavior on my part is actually undermining her ability to organize herself and develop the skills needed to manage her time.

In college, students are responsible for keeping track of their weekly schedule of classes, all homework assignments, social events, financial aid/tuition deadlines, doing laundry each week (hopefully!) and medication management (if this applies to your student). In addition, being able to regulate and plan how they'll use their free time outside of class requires a well-developed pre-frontal cortex (the location in the front of the brain where executive functioning skills are housed).

If your student struggles to turn in homework on time, spends a lot of time playing video games, or doesn't remember to check their email, executive functioning skills may be at fault.

4. Inability to Ask for Help or Self-Advocate

Many new college students, particularly those with learning differences who may have spent years receiving K–12 special education services, tell me that they "want to do college on their own."

I highly respect students who want to be independent and commend them for their determination. However, even with this "I can handle it!" attitude, when students encounter difficulties in college they need to be able to identify who and how to ask for help.

Before college starts, I encourage families and students to identify and make a list of staff and departments at their institution who can help them. For example, who is the student's academic advisor when academic concerns arise? Who is the Director of Residence Life or Director of Accessibility Services? Where is the Writing Center or Academic Success Center located and is their support virtual or in-person? Where is the Counseling and Wellness Center located and how do students make appointments?

Having this information readily available before students need it will increase the likelihood of your student asking for help rather than trying to go it alone.

How Can I Help My Student?

There are other reasons that students may struggle in college and these may be  related to a student's particular disability, personality or unique tendencies. Each student will meet the challenges of college in different ways and their ability to cope and adapt to change will be as individual as they are.

If you begin to see signs of your student struggling, think about the four reasons mentioned above first. Ask them for their own perceptions related to these four areas — this is an excellent way to build their metacognitive skills (thinking about their thinking).

Once you've identified the cause(s) of their struggle, you can help them remediate the concern by reaching out to a campus support system, or you might consider an outside professional such as an executive functioning coach.

I guarantee your student is not the first to struggle in college. Referring to the common areas of struggle described above will help you have meaningful and productive conversations that will guide your college student toward college success.

Jennifer Sullivan, M.S., has over 18 years experience in both higher education and K-12 schools as an academic advisor, adjunct faculty, learning specialist and former Director of Parent Programming on a college campus. Currently she is the founder of Fast Forward College Coaching (www.fastforwardcollegecoaching.com) and a private executive functioning coach supporting college students with learning disabilities, autism, ADHD and anxiety and offers virtual college readiness workshops for high school seniors.

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