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Help, I hate it here! How Unhappy Freshmen Can Survive their First Semester

By Emily Driscoll Columns FOXBusiness

With the semester in full swing and students become more acclimated with college life and culture, some freshmen may be realizing they chose the wrong college or life path.

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College is a transition for students to find independence and choose a field of interest to pursue a career, but some struggle to accept that there are aspects of college that may not go according to plan, says Dr. Gregory Jantz, psychologist and author of How to De-Stress Your Life

“[Students need] to pinpoint what you dislike about college, are my activities bringing me towards my goal? What are my life goals in college? Sometimes they have to go back and figure those out.”

For students who are second-guessing their college decision--whether the institution or a particular school-- here are expert tips on how to identify the issues at hand and ways to cope.

Identify the Source of Stressors

Freshmen face many changes their first year and the culmination of these changes result in elevated stress levels, says Elizabeth Scott, wellness coach and author of 8 Keys to Stress Management.

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“Because stress from one area of life can color experiences in other areas, it can indeed be difficult to pinpoint where the bulk of the stress is coming from, or determine exactly what it is that isn’t working,” she says.

To assess what factors are causing disproportionate levels of stress, she suggests students ask themselves some questions:

  • When (what times of the day or week) do I feel most stressed?
  • What activities drain/energize me the most?
  • If I could choose one thing to erase from my life, what would it be?
  • If I could add one resource to my life, what would I choose?

Keeping a journal and writing about both stressful and positive daily experiences can help students recognize any stress patterns or triggers and put their feelings into perspective.   

“If the source of unhappiness doesn’t become clear within a few days or weeks of maintaining the journal, students can read back over their previous entries and see if a pattern emerges,” says Scott.

To get an outside viewpoint, Jantz recommends students take advantage of campus resources such as peer groups and professional counseling.

Get More Involved on Campus

If students are feeling a disconnect with their school, Andy Dryden, director of Student Success Strategy at Hobsons suggests they get involved in campus clubs or activities.

“Research clearly shows that students that feel connected at their school are far more likely to succeed than students who don't,” he says. “Extra-curricular activities are a great way to connect with students who are sharing similar experiences as you and who share similar interests and goals as well.”

Students should be particular when joining a group and only work with groups and events they are interested in and feel a connection with.  Going out and joining any group for the sake of joining won’t get students very far, says stress management counselor and speaker Barbara Rubel

“What are they passionate about? What kinds of students do they want to work with as they get involved in a project?” says Rubel. “Getting involved on campus will do nothing if it’s not with the type of people they want to associate with and not with involvement that focuses on something they aren’t interested in.”  

Find Academic Interests

While many freshmen wait to declare a major, it’s important that new students focus on their academic interests and character strengths that might make them more engaged.

 “Students should think about their own strengths and how these strengths guide them in making the right choices in their classes, their major, and their overall goals,” Rubel says. “They should also focus on their weaknesses and how they contribute to unhappiness while at college.”

If students are not sure what direction they want to take, Scott suggests completing general education requirements while coming up with a new plan for upper division classes.  

Carefully Consider Transferring

It can be tempting to decide that college life isn’t the right plan during the first few weeks of the fall semester, but every new start at a school will bring challenges and require adjustments, says Scott.

The experts suggest students give themselves enough time to get used to the changes and do what they can to make it work before deciding to switch schools or leave college altogether. 

“Each student is different and there is no one size fits all approach to this--however, every student should think carefully when making the decision to leave college or to transfer,” says Dryden. “These decisions have long term ramifications that the student should consider carefully before acting.”

Seek out Alternative Forms of Education

Not everyone benefits from the traditional college experience, but experts point out that there are other ways to get an education and learn valuable skills.

“Studies consistently show that unemployment rates are much lower and lifetime earnings rates are much higher for individuals who receive ANY kind of degree or certificate after high school,” says Dryden. “College isn't for everyone, but in today's increasingly educated workforce getting some post-secondary education is an imperative.”

If students decide to change paths, it’s important to have a new plan or goal to successfully pursue their passions, says Scott.

“This doesn’t have to be what you do for the rest of your life—you can always make another choice—but it really helps to have credentials for something that you will enjoy doing in the near future.”