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How Stress Affects College Students' Academic Performance

Don't allow stress to stop you from fulfilling your academic goals.

Don't allow stress to stop you from fulfilling your academic goals.

Stress in College Students

According to Hans Selye, "Stress is the nonspecific response of the body to any demand, whether it is caused by, or results in, pleasant or unpleasant conditions." These demands are called stressors and are the stimuli that lead to stressful external events resulting in a number of responses. Common stressors for students in college include:

  • critical adjustments to college life
  • academic requirements
  • demands of studies (e.g., assignment deadlines and increasing workload)
  • pressure on interpersonal relationships
  • unsatisfactory housing arrangements
  • lack of a support system
  • ineffective coping skills
  • extended commute time
  • greater levels of independence

Further, Dr. Sian Beilock, psychologist, points out that her research indicates that stressful academic situations impact the performance of students. If stress is not managed properly, it can prevent students from successfully achieving their academic goals.

While students want to perform well in their studies, in their quest to achieve these goals, they could experience situations and events that cause stress. Students are expected to balance their school work with other things such extracurricular activities and even jobs.

If students are unable to manage and complete their work in the set time, this could cause them greater stress and feelings of being overwhelmed. They could also be trying to please others and living up to their expectations, leading to greater stress.

The American Institute of Stress points out that "stress can have wide ranging effects on emotion, mood, and behavior." Stress affects both students' physical and mental functioning, and eight ways are discussed in this article. These negative symptoms could affect the quality of students' academic performance.

College Life Stress Poll

Stress Affects Your Academic Performance

Physical Symptoms

High levels of stress could lead to physical symptoms that could have a negative effect on student performance. These signs and symptoms include:

  • frequent headaches
  • tremors, trembling of lips
  • neck and back pains
  • nervous habits, e.g., fidgeting
  • rapid or mumbled speech
  • upset stomach
  • elevated blood pressure
  • chest pains

When you experience these symptoms, you might not feel the motivation you once had to do your best on academic tasks such as preparing for tests or completing assignments.

Poor Management Skills

Students who are are suffering from high levels of stress could become disorganized and uncertain of their goals and priorities. This could lead to an inability to effectively budget and manage their time.

Moreover, students who are highly stressed tend to procrastinate and neglect responsibilities such as completing assignments and meeting deadlines. Of course, this will affect their study skills and the quality of their work.

Concentration Difficulties

A high level of stress reduces students' ability to concentrate on their studies. Consequently, it makes it difficult for them to memorize facts for tests.

Even more, poor concentration could limit students' ability to think critically or at optimal levels when they write their papers or during tests. So poor judgment could lead to weak responses on exams and on their course work.

55% of students, nationally, claimed their biggest stressor to be academic in nature.

— Dusselier, L., et al (2005)

Memory Problems

Memory is vital to students' academic success, and forgetfulness is one of the symptoms of being stressed. It is clear then that this could adversely affect students' quality of work,

When students are unable to recall necessary details to answer questions, this could lead to poor exam results and limited participation in class activities.

Constant Worry

Stress is characterized by persistent daily worry and restlessness. So when students are constantly worried, this takes the focus off important tasks to be completed at school.

Because of excessive worry about different problems, students might find it difficult to fall asleep. Consequently, the work they complete could be mediocre or they could miss assignment deadlines. They could end up failing courses.


I will think of solutions.

I will not let worry control me.

I will simply breathe and it will be okay because I don't quit.

— Shayne McLendon

Self-Defeating Thoughts

Students who are experiencing stress, are likely to be consistently thinking about the adverse situation that they find themselves in. They could also be constantly be focused on their failures and weaknesses.

These self-defeating thoughts affect how they feel and how they behave. This results in lack of confidence in their abilities which hinders them from performing to their highest potential and succeed in school.

Irritability and Short Temper

One of the symptoms of stress is irritability which could affect students' relationships with peers, family members, and teachers. Students could find that a significant amount of the work in some courses take place in groups.

Students are required to work with other students to achieve the learning objectives. If they are stressed, they could be short-tempered and irritable, and this could affect the cohesiveness of the group. The result could be the group’s inability to effectively achieve its goals.

Social Withdrawal

Students who are highly stressed, tend to isolate themselves from others. In doing so, they cut themselves off from a valuable support network. Family, peers and other connections could be helpful links in assisting them in achieving their personal and educational goals.

In response to stressors, students could get preoccupied and overwhelmed with the stressful situations giving little attention to relationships. Lack of nurturing relationships could affect their mental health leading to problems such as reduced productivity in their school work, in the form of failed projects and poor test scores.

Find Ways to Manage Stress

College can be demanding, and this leads to a high level of stress for many students. This requires you to develop a healthy, balanced lifestyle and access the resources that are available at your school.

If you are a student and you are experiencing stress, take steps to manage it, considering the effects it could have on your health, well-being, and academic performance. Get advice and help regarding managing stress from your university or college. For example, New York University outlines specific stress management resources that are available to its students.

In addition, you could find the following articles helpful:

References and Resources

Beilock, S (2011). Back to school: Dealing with academic stress. Retrieved from the American Psychological Accessed August 9, 2015.

Best Colleges Resources (n.d. ). A Student's guide to balancing stress. Accessed August 9, 2015.

Health News (2015). How stress affects academic Performance. Accessed August 9, 2015.

New York University ( n.d.). Stress. Accessed August 14, 2015

The American Institute of Stress (n,d.). 50 Common signs and symptoms of stress. Accessed August 20, 2015.

© 2015 Yvette Stupart PhD


K on October 24, 2018:

Are there statistics that show that stress negatively impacts students' performance at school?

Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on September 02, 2015:

Thanks teaches12345. It is important that students be aware of how stress could impact them in college, and know how to access the resources available to help them.

Dianna Mendez on September 02, 2015:

College is a stress factor for many young people. Your advice is wise and will help students face these challenges with a positive attitude.

Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on August 22, 2015:

Thanks for commenting BlossomSB. I agree, stress is a major challenge for students. However, they need to take steps to reduce stress in their life. While some degree of stress might be desirable, high levels of stress could negative impact their health and academic performance.

Bronwen Scott-Branagan from Victoria, Australia on August 22, 2015:

The stress of student life is not fun, but the goal at the end is worth achieving, so long as the stress is not allowed to take over, but used as an impetus to do better.

Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on August 21, 2015:

Thanks FlourishAnyway. Comprehensive exams can elicit a great deal of stress, even for well able students. I saw it in many of my students earlier this year, they felt so much was at stake, and this elevated their stress level.

Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on August 21, 2015:

Thanks for commenting lindatp. Students will respond differently to stressors. Various factors could explain the difference including support network, students' awareness, and the steps they take to manage stress.

Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on August 21, 2015:

Thanks MsDora. Stress is an ever present reality in modern life, college is no different, and for some students the impact is even greater. College students need to be aware of how stress affect them, and how to prevent or reduce its impact on their well-being and school performance.

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 21, 2015:

During grad school there were horror stories about students who came out of comprehensive exams following their third year and were unable to make basic decisions for themselves like ordering from a menu or recalling their SSN they were so exhausted and stressed out. And I was in a psychology program. Glad that's history.

lindatp on August 21, 2015:

Have been helping out at And as I observe, stress can certainly affect student's performance. I've seen both kinds of students who excel under some stress, and those who broke down under excessive stress...

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on August 21, 2015:

Just happy that college-life stress is behind me, and glad that you can offer such valuable help to those who need it now. They may not even be aware of the correlation between stress and these negative issues you mention. Will definitely recommend this article. Thanks!