Students Who Feel Emotionally Unprepared for College Struggle in the Classroom

By Kate Stoltzfus OCTOBER 08, 2015 from the Chronicle of Higher Education

Students who feel less emotionally prepared for college than their peers tend to have lower grades and other negative experiences on campus, according to survey results released on Thursday.

It’s no surprise that the transition from high school to college can be a challenge. But the study’s findings emphasize how many students feel emotional needs take a back seat to academics during their process of preparing for campus life. Two out of three students surveyed said they felt more emotionally unprepared than their peers in both their final year of high school and their first semester of college. The effects of that perception manifest themselves in a variety of places, including the classroom.

The study’s conclusion: To ensure students’ academic success, high schools, colleges, and parents must do more to teach students how to cope with what they may feel — not just how to study.


The survey, administered online by the Harris Poll, was a joint effort of the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit group that works to protect the emotional and mental health of students, the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, and the Jordan Porco Foundation, which tries to prevent suicide among high-school and college students. About 1,500 college students weighed in, a majority attending public colleges or universities on a full-time basis.
Several factors can contribute to “emotional readiness,” including students’ ability to adapt to new environments, handle negative emotions in constructive ways, and forge healthy relationships. The survey found that the more prepared a student is for the emotional challenges of college — and for the anxieties that might come with it, such as covering expenses, making friends, and dealing with increased independence — the better and more successful that student’s college experience is.

Students who feel less emotionally prepared than their peers tend to earn lower grades (their first-term GPA was 3.1, compared with other students’ 3.4). Those students are also more likely to rate their first year as “terrible” or “poor” (22 percent did so, compared with 5 percent of their peers), or to refrain from seeking outside support (14 percent did so, compared with 8 percent of their peers).

Some student groups are more affected than others. Sixty-one percent of students who described themselves as less emotionally prepared were female. Forty-two percent of the students who fit that description had parents who did not graduate from college, and 15 percent of those students were African-American. Students who had previously struggled with depression or anxiety were also disproportionately likely to feel unprepared.

‘Difficult to Accept’

Sonia D. Doshi, a senior at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, was among the students who struggled in their first year, and she has had conversations with underclassmen about her own difficulties. Ms. Doshi’s freshman grades were the worst of her academic career, she said, because she didn’t have time to focus on developing sound learning habits. She was consumed instead by establishing a network of friends and learning to live on her own.

“It was difficult for me to accept that I was challenged, that I had limits, and that I needed emotional support,” she said, “when I so badly wanted to prove that I could be independent.”

Those feelings often lead students to feel anxious, depressed, and lonely. Many feel little motivation to seek outside support, in part because it appears that everyone else has it all together, said John A. MacPhee, executive director of the Jed Foundation. “If we can let high-school students know that loneliness is not unusual, that many students feel the same way, we can brainstorm how they address those feelings,” he said.

Meanwhile, high schools and colleges lack many of the emotional-support resources students need. Instead, the emphasis is on academics, and the pressure to go to a prestigious college can take priority over finding the college that is the best fit. Most students want help and “want to have conversations about these issues,” said Marisa Giarnella-Porco, president of the Jordan Porco Foundation. “I think we need to listen.”

Ms. Doshi, who received the Jed Foundation’s Student Voice of Mental Health Award in 2015, agreed. At all levels of education, she said, schools must emphasize that “struggle is normal but needs to be discussed.”

“College truly can be some of the best four years of your life,” she said, “but not without a whole lot of support, guidance, and balance.”

How to Help Anguished Students

As a campus professional, you may wonder what your colleagues or you can do when you think a student needs assistance.

That’s why we’ve printed a booklet, downloadable below, that’s designed to be shared. In it, we examine the forces behind the growing wave of students with mental-health struggles, and what innovative campuses are doing about it. We look at effective approaches the leading community colleges and graduate programs are taking. And we offer a guide to online resources.

Downloading is simple: Click here.


Correction (10/8/2015, 12:25 p.m.): This article originally stated that Sonia D. Doshi, a student at the University of Michigan, took the Harris Poll survey. She did not take the survey. The article has been changed to reflect this correction.

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