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Are You a Stressed-Out College Overachiever?

For nearly all US college students, summer vacation is nearly over. But for many of them, “vacation” is a bit of a misnomer. Plenty of college students have spent the past three months as busy as ever: slaving away at competitive internships, for example, or taking summer classes to “get ahead” academically. For those students without much vacation time to unwind and decompress from their previous academic year, the stress level of the upcoming fall semester might seem daunting.

Yes, I was a full-time college student just two short years ago…and virtually every semester felt daunting. Admittedly, I wore myself out. After a full day of classes, I would rush through my mediocre cafeteria dinner and drag myself over to the campus chapel for a two-hour choir rehearsal. Then, depending on the day of the week, I would dart back and forth between (sometimes overlapping) club meetings. As one of the only photographers for my campus newspaper, I had to make a brief appearance at virtually every campus event to snap a few photos. Did I mention that I produced a two-hour radio show every week? And that I worked on-campus, monitoring the computer labs? And that I also worked off-campus, editing digital photos for a local daily newspaper?

I’ll stop before I start typing my complete resume. Point is, I burnt the candle at both ends. I put too much on my plate. I burnt the midnight oil. Insert any other related metaphors here; they’ll all do a fine job in describing my busy college days and my many late nights.

If you’re a serial overachiever like me, you may be looking for ways to stop the endless cycle of joining new clubs and taking on more responsibility on campus. Once you’re caught up in an overloaded whirlwind of activities, it can be difficult to climb back down to safety. Here are a few tips on how to start:

1. Take an in-depth look at your extracurricular activities. If you’ve got way too many of them, ask yourself some questions: Which activities do you look forward to? Is your brain buzzing with excitement as you’re walking across the quad to your Spanish Club meeting? Or are you dreading the upcoming hour of conjugations and translations? If you don’t love it, don’t do it. If you’re in a club or organization for the sole purpose of adding a line to your resume, take a semester off and see if your stress level drops. This doesn’t make you a quitter; it makes you a level-headed person who understands how to budget time. Also, consider the negative stress level of each activity you’re involved in. Are you drinking coffee at 2 a.m. to get enough energy to finish that newspaper article that’s due the next day? If so, you’ve probably got too much on your plate.

2. Demote yourself. It seemed like a great idea at the time to step up and take on a leadership role in the student senate, but now you’re the VP and you’re feeling buried under a monsoon of meetings and agendas. If you love taking part in the organization and can’t stomach the thought of quitting (or even merely retreating for a semester), step down from your executive role and still retain your membership. If pressed for reasons, let your fellow members know that you’ve spread yourself a bit thin and you need some time to figure out your priorities. Classmates and club advisors will likely empathize with your situation, so don’t feel like you need to hide your reasoning. If you truly can’t step down, begin to learn the many joys of delegating a few tasks to other club members! Mindtools has a great primer on how to delegate effectively.

3. You’re going to get a bad grade sooner or later. Don’t be fooled; there’s no such thing as true perfection in academia. If you’re currently a straight A student, come to terms with the fact that you’ll probably end up with a few B’s by graduation. Those lower grades can come from situations completely beyond your control (like professors who outright refuse to give A’s…my old Media Criticism professor, for example). If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent nearly your entire life defining yourself in terms of your high academic grades. But you’re a fantastic person for a thousand other reasons; figure out those other reasons, write them down, and remember them.

4. Learn how to say “no”. Delivering a polite (yet firm) “no” to a plea for help can be a difficult thing. But if you’ve got a big exam tomorrow and the editor of your college paper calls on you to write a last-minute blurb about the new dining hall on campus, you need to make a choice that won’t push you over the edge. The Mayo Clinic’s website has a useful tip sheet on why, when, and how to say no. Learn how to politely decline those extra tasks.

5. Stop studying when your brain has had enough. Consider the law of diminishing returns: let’s say one hour of studying will give you a B on an exam. Doubling that amount of time will probably yield you a better score (a B+ or A-, let’s say). However, there comes a point when it simply isn’t worth it to increase your time spent studying. Sure, if you spend eight hours studying, you might get a perfect score…but what would you be losing? Sleep? Your sense of sanity? Perhaps both. For me, the difference between a B and an A is usually a panic attack.

6. Don’t force yourself to organize time in ways that feel unnatural to you. Carrying around a planner/organizer can be a lifesaver if you find that writing down all of your classes and meetings keeps you on track and calmly gliding from one activity to the next. It’ll also surely keep you on time. But consider the negative side of “penciling in” all of your activities: it’s easy to become overwhelmed when you see five hours of your campus work-study job, four classes, three club meetings, two hours of study time, one choir rehearsal (and a partridge in a pear tree?) written in print when you wake up in the morning. If you’ve never had a problem keeping track of where you need to be and when you need to be there, ditch the planner for a day or two. See if your days feel a little less hectic and your hours a bit less compartmentalized!

It’s pretty obvious that there’s no quick fix for anxiety and no simple cure for stress. At times, you may be tempted to quit all of your collegiate activities — classes included — because of the overwhelming pressure to achieve. If you find yourself in this type of situation, play with the above suggestions. Even one small change in the way you prioritize and handle your activities can trigger a domino effect of positive outcomes. And while it’s probably true that an energy drink or an 18 oz. coffee will keep you awake late enough to finish writing that paper for your sociology class, nothing in a can or a cup will change the way you perceive and react to a stressful lifestyle.

Are You a Stressed-Out College Overachiever?

Summer Beretsky

Summer Beretsky enjoys writing about her experiences with anxiety, panic, and Paxil. She had her first panic attack as an undergrad at Lycoming College and plenty more while she worked toward her M.A. in Communication from the University of Delaware. Summer blogs over at Panic About Anxiety and also contributes to the World of Psychology blog here on PsychCentral. She has also written for the Los Angeles Times. Follow her on Twitter @summerberetsky.

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APA Reference
Beretsky, S. (2018). Are You a Stressed-Out College Overachiever?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 28 Aug 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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