My College:

How to Support Your Struggling College Student

Suzanne Shaffer

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As the parent of a new college student, I always hoped that the study habits my student developed in high school would allow them to thrive in the fast-paced college environment, and that by the time winter break rolled around, they would have gotten used to the challenges of college and be confident and thriving.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. Many freshmen struggle when they first get to college — my student included.

College is a challenging, distraction-packed environment where our students have to figure out their own routines all by themselves for the first time.

Some students are tempted to spend their free time socializing instead of studying, while others too easily give up when they get a poor grade. And for students with a job, balancing school and work can prove difficult.

These struggles aren’t only for first-year students. Upperclassmen and sophomores can struggle, too, particularly later in the term when the workload seems to increase exponentially (and in the fall there's the depressing effect of shorter, colder, darker days while spring brings the distraction of balmy weather).

Take all of the challenges of college and mix in maintaining personal relationships, managing finances and staying healthy — and in 2020 the pandemic! — and what do you get?

A recipe for overstressed college students. That stress can lead to college depression, which is something none of us want to see our students experience.

Parents don’t have to stand on the sidelines while our students struggle. There are things that every parent can do to help their student get through a difficult course with better than just a passing grade.

How to Help Your Student with Their Tough Class

When our students feel vulnerable, they often turn to us and other family members for guidance. Home is a safe space where they can count on finding loving support and encouragement.

Maybe you've sensed that your student has been struggling, and you’ve been waiting for this phone call or text. Naturally, you want to help.

Rachel Nelson, an academic adviser at the University of Florida, told The Washington Post that she recommends parents be supportive but also stay open-minded. “Too often, students feel familial pressure and guilt to pursue certain majors, earn certain grades. Recognize that their journey to success and happiness may be very different from your own. And that’s okay.”

Communication between parents and college students plays an essential role in helping students find academic success.

My advice? Start by listening. Ask questions before offering guidance. Once you understand the problem, help your student by sharing practical tips.

Maybe your student needs to talk to their professor or an academic advisor, or get help at the college’s tutoring center. They could also turn to their fellow classmates for help. And of course, working on better time management could make a big difference.

Here are my 5 tips that you can share with your student who is struggling with that one tough class.

1. Talk to the Professor

Professors and instructors are available and willing to help students who ask.

Your student should reach out by visiting their professor during office hours and discussing their questions or concerns. Professors are happy to review material with students, give guidance about how to tackle a project or prepare for an exam, and should be able to provide information about tutoring opportunities, either privately or through campus resources.

Making the effort to develop a relationship with their professor will show your student’s willingness to take ownership of the problem and do what's needed to improve. That’s likely to make their teacher more open to helping your student succeed in the class.

My daughter experienced this while in college. She was struggling with a non-major course, and more than halfway through the semester it looked like she might fail the class.

After meeting with her professor, he arranged to get her tutoring help before the final exam and was generous with her final grade. She passed the course and gained a mentor. Being proactive saved her from having to retake the class the following semester.

2. Talk to an Academic Advisor

Academic advisors are an essential resource for all students, but especially ones who are struggling with their classes. Advisors can help students come up with a plan to better manage their course load, or offer tips on how to succeed in a certain professor’s class. Your student's advisor might also be able to provide your student with names or contacts to form a study group.

If your student reaches a point where dropping or withdrawing from a class is wiser than failing it, the advisor can help navigate that process, too.

3. Seek Help at the Tutoring Center

Colleges know that students will require academic support. The campus tutoring center (it may also be called the "writing center" and there may be a math/quantitative center, too) is part of what you pay for in your tuition and fees, and your student should take advantage of all the services offered.

Your student can make an appointment with a peer or professional tutor to receive help with a specific course or subject area. There may also be workshops to help with time management and study skills.

4. Form a Study Group

The tutoring center should also be able to help your student connect with a study group of fellow students who are also finding a particular class challenging.

Or your student can take initiative and form a study group with students in their class, or with dorm mates who are taking the same course.

Study groups provide encouragement and help students stay accountable. Sometimes a classmate can explain something in a way that makes more sense than the lecture notes. Plus, the moral support found in a team effort is worth a lot.

5. Practice Better Time Management

The choices your college student makes every day impacts their academic performance. If they're not doing well in one or more class, chances are poor time management is a contributing factor.

They can still turn things around — they just need to follow these simple suggestions for more effective time management for students:

Write everything down

    • Your student won’t miss important deadlines or exam dates if they are written down either in Google calendar, in a time management app, or in an actual planner.


    • Make a to-do list at the start of every day and put the most pressing items at the top.

Differentiate between academic and personal time

    • Study time should be study time; social time should be social time. Neither should interfere with the other.

Balance schoolwork and employment

    • If your student works part-time, it’s crucial that they schedule work and study time, keeping a balance.

Value sleep

Dont overcommit

    • Extracurriculars are an important part of the college experience but overcommitting can have a negative effect on academics.

Beyond Failure: What to Do Next?

Remember that, more than anything, your student needs your love and support. The transition from high school academics to college courses can be difficult, but with a little advice and a lot of encouragement, they are sure to settle in and excel.

But sometimes, no matter how hard we try, our students still end up failing a course. An F doesn’t have to spell failure forever. With a little help and a lot of hard work, your student can get back on track.

One of the best ways to ensure academic success is to plan ahead. Check out our academic success checklist >

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Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been featured in print and online on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College, TeenLife, Smart College Visit, Road2College and more.
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