What Are the Common Causes of Stress in College Students?

Updated on September 22, 2018
slappywalker profile image

Kieron graduated from Vanderbilt University in 2000 with a Bachelors degree in Psychology.

The college years have often been called "the greatest years of our lives" due to the fact that there is rarely a time when people learn so much, meet so many people, and experience so many new things at one time. With so many positive stories around, it can be easy to overlook the fact that there are also a large number of challenges present at a university. For many young students, it is possible that college could also end up being the most stressful years of their lives.

The unique thing about being a college student is that there are so many possible sources of distress at any given point in time. Some people may not feel any of them during their time on campus while others can be overwhelmed by all of them at some point.

Academics, culture shock, finances, and social life all come together to make the college experience more challenging. A glance into each one demonstrates reveals some of the more common types of stress students deal with on a daily basis.

Maintaining Academic Success

Trying to stay at the top of the class an be tough.
Trying to stay at the top of the class an be tough. | Source

The most obvious source of stress for a college student is trying to maintain a healthy GPA through graduation. A student's grades can impact class ranking, graduate school acceptance, future financial aid, and possible job offers. If for some reason grades start to fall, it is possible that scholarships can be revoked or students may be asked to take time off from school. This puts a huge amount of pressure on every term paper or exam that an undergrad faces.

Another academic-related issue facing scholars is choosing a major or career path. Although many schools give students time before having to declare a major, there are some programs that require individuals to start taking pre-requisite classes right away in order to graduate on time. This leaves young people fresh out of high school making major decisions about what they want to do with their lives once college is over. Unfortunately, some people also have parents that may be exerting a certain amount of pressure on them to follow certain career paths.

Trying to keep up a certain grade level while also mapping out an appropriate major can be a huge burden, and some students can let it get the best of them.

Dealing With Homesickness

Homesickness can make a distance seem even farther away than it really is.
Homesickness can make a distance seem even farther away than it really is. | Source

One of the most difficult things about going to college is getting used to the idea of being away from home for an extended period of time. For many students, the initial excitement of finally being on their own gives way to anxiety and sadness upon realizing how far away their family and friends are. Being thrust into a situation where they have to learn how to take care of themselves can have a negative impact on those students that are not prepared for it.

Another factor which may lead to homesickness is the sense of culture shock one may feel on campus. Students from smaller schools could feel overwhelmed at the sheer number of students at their university. Others from small towns may not be used to the city-life that surrounds colleges and universities in an urban area. Undergrads from the city could feel lost and bored at a college in Smalltown, USA.

Much like a child who goes away to summer camp for the first time, students could eventually become consumed with thoughts of family and friends back home. If unchecked, these feelings could lead to depression, bad grades, and dropping out of school.

Building New Friendships

Getting up the courage to make new friends can be difficult.
Getting up the courage to make new friends can be difficult. | Source

The friendships made in college are often ones that people carry with them throughout life. However, learning how to make new friends can be a difficult, uncomfortable process for new students. Many of them are coming from high school where they have been surrounded by the same social group and have not had to make new friends in a number of years.

Although most universities recognize this and set up a number of icebreakers in the first few weeks of school, it can still be hard for undergrads to figure out where to go to meet new people. Depending on how comfortable a person is with approaching new people, the situation can be extremely stressful.

Some questions that may run through a student's mind in the early days of class:

  • Where do I go on campus to meet new people?
  • Should I just hang out with people from my dorm?
  • Am I isolating myself too much?
  • What if I'm not good at starting conversations?

Being exposed to people from different backgrounds can make things more challenging because it may force a student to associate with people outside of their normal comfort zone. Others may be going through the process of learning more about themselves while also trying to build close lasting friendships.

Do you make new friends easily?

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Balancing the Social Life

Binge drinking can lead to a variety of different problems.
Binge drinking can lead to a variety of different problems. | Source

Parties, late nights, road trips, concerts, and sporting events. These things are often every college student's dream, but if they are not kept under control they can become a nightmare.

Going away to college can be one of the most liberating experiences ever, but many students have never had to deal with so much independence at one time. With the new experiences comes new responsibilities and decisions. Some undergrads fail to adjust to not having their parents around to regulate the balance between academics and their social lives. Ultimately, their grades could suffer because of it.

Many colleges have events or parties happening on an almost daily basis, and many new students feel the need to be involved in every one of them. However, falling in the trap of partying every night and not studying enough can have terrible consequences. Missing classes to make up for lost rest or pulling all-nighters to make up for lost study time will eventually begin to take a mental and physical toll on a student.

Another temptation many undergrads are not prepared for coming out of high school is the use of alcohol and other drugs. Although many students may have tried these in the past, they may not be prepared for how easily available it may be. Coupled with the absence of their parents, students may feel pressured to try much more than they should. Those who are unable to control themselves could eventually end up on the difficult road of alcohol and drug abuse.

Handling Roommate Drama

Conflict with a roommate can leave you feeling deflated.
Conflict with a roommate can leave you feeling deflated. | Source

Although not every college student ends up with a roommate, the majority of them will have to share their dorm room with another person. Depending on daily habits, personalities, and pure chemistry, there could be a clash waiting to happen at any point.

Some people come to college without any experience sharing a room or possessions with anyone else. Being suddenly tossed into a living arrangement with a virtual stranger can be frustrating. It can be even more stressful when the two individuals do not get along as the semester goes on.

Here are some of the more common roommate problems:

  • Making too much noise
  • Different sleep/study schedules
  • Not respecting each other's property
  • Personality clashes
  • Cleanliness/hygiene issues

As with many of the other issues mentioned above, this issue can slowly start to affect a person's mood and possibly have a negative impact on their grades as well.

Have you ever been in a bad roommate situation before?

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Managing Financial Burden

Plain and simple, college is expensive and getting more expensive every year. Whether a student attends a community college in their hometown or a private school miles away from home, the cost of tuition, books, and room and board can add up quickly. Unless a full scholarship is involved, it can be worrisome to figure out how the bills will get paid each semester.

Some students take it upon themselves to get jobs during the school year to help offset some of the costs associated with going to college. These individuals not only have to balance their classes and schoolwork, but they also have to find a way to schedule 20-40 hours of regular employment into their lives. Trying to find enough time to do all of that and get an adequate amount of sleep can be an uphill battle.

Other students take out student loans in order to fund their education. While the loans may provide instant financial support, there is stress associated with them when it comes time to start paying them back. As graduation approaches, many students start to worry about the amount of money that is hanging over their heads. This amount can even start to influence decisions like whether or not to attend graduate school or what types of job offers to accept after college is over.

Clear the Hurdles

There are people that can help students who are stressed out:

  • Resident Advisors (RAs)
  • Professors
  • Academic Advisors
  • Counselors
  • Family and friends

With the right frame of mind and a positive support system, any of the stressors mentioned above can be conquered. Preparation, hard work, an open mind and a good attitude can ensure that the college years remain the best years.


Klainberg, M., Ewing, B., & Ryan, M. (2010). Reducing stress on a college campus. Journal of the New York State Nurses Association, 41(2), 4+. Retrieved from http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A257675201/AONE?u=nysl_ca_sar&sid=AONE&xid=88124c04

Pedersen, D. E. (2012). Stress carry-over and college student health outcomes. College Student Journal, 46(3), 620+. Retrieved from http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A302464025/AONE?u=nysl_ca_sar&sid=AONE&xid=aa3d860f

Ross, S. E., Niebling, B. C., & Heckert, T. M. (1999). Sources of stress among college students. College Student Journal, 33(2), 312. Retrieved from http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A62839434/AONE?u=nysl_ca_sar&sid=AONE&xid=4b237a3b

Questions & Answers

  • How does illness cause stress to students?

    Illness can lead to stress by causing a student to lose sleep. Time management is already difficult enough, but it gets even harder on a limited amount of rest.

    It can also work in reverse where sleeping too much in order to recover leads to a student having less time to study. If the student has to miss class completely, then they have to worry about getting their notes and trying to complete assignments without falling behind.

    On rare occasions, serious illness can cause students to worry about whether to take time off in order to fully recover without damaging their grades.

  • How do college students address sleep issues?

    Here are a few ways college students can address sleep issues:

    1. Follow a fairly consistent schedule on a daily basis. Try to wake up and go to bed around the same time every day.

    2. Don't wait until the last minute to study. Although pulling all-nighters may seem like a normal thing to do, they're actually a quick way to deprive yourself of much-needed sleep.

    3. Exercise on a consistent basis, but not right before bed. A little physical activity will not only keep you in shape, but it will also help you sleep better at night.

    4. Step away from your cell phone and computer at bedtime. The light from the screen can act as a stimulant and keep you awake a lot longer than you need to be.

    5. Watch your alcohol intake. Drinking too much alcohol can sometimes throw off your sleeping patterns. It's OK to have fun but be aware of what binge drinking can do to your sleep habits.

What Other Types of Stress Have You Felt in College?

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    • profile image

      Tibita Majors 

      8 months ago

      I just started college about a month ago and I just moved from Uganda to a totally new environment and the life style here in Nashville is different from back home so I just wanted to say thank you so much for this article. You don't know how much it means to me.

    • profile image


      10 months ago

      Thank you

    • slappywalker profile imageAUTHOR

      Kieron Walker 

      7 years ago from Saratoga Springs, NY

      Thank you!

      The college years were some of the best of my life, but they definitely had stressful moments. Whatever I could do to help someone else is a positive. It never hurts to know you aren't the only one that has gone through something.

    • Purpose Embraced profile image

      Yvette Stupart PhD 

      7 years ago from Jamaica

      College life has its stresses. Thank for discussing the issue, to help students effectively chart the course during their college education.

    • slappywalker profile imageAUTHOR

      Kieron Walker 

      7 years ago from Saratoga Springs, NY

      Thank you kansasyarn!

      My step-daughter went away to college two years ago and I tried to school her on as much as possible without driving her insane. I know that some of it they will have to learn for themselves, but I would hate for someone to be blind-sided in the process.

    • kansasyarn profile image

      Teresa Sanderson 

      7 years ago from Rural Midwest

      This is a great article. My children have graduated from college, but this is great advice for college students and their parents. Great evergreen content! This will be useful for years to come!

    • slappywalker profile imageAUTHOR

      Kieron Walker 

      7 years ago from Saratoga Springs, NY

      Hey noelle! I graduated back in 2000, but I feel exactly the same as you. I was always pretty quiet in high school so it was a little overwhelming trying to meet new people. I eventually met some guys that I still consider my best friends. I've been in their weddings and we've all celebrated becoming fathers. It's kind of cool to see how long-lasting and beneficial those friendships can be.

    • noellenichols profile image


      7 years ago from Denver

      Having just graduated from College this past April, I remember the biggest stress factor was learning to make friends. Sleepless nights were also very hard, especially when balancing a part-time job and a full-time college workload.

      The teachers and friends I made in College have definitely become my biggest source of work right now and the best way to network for my career. I've become even closer to them since graduating. Very good point that there are for life.


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