How to Be Stress Free and Successful in College

According to the Daily Beast, Columbia University, my school, offers the most stressful undergraduate experience in the country.

Admittedly, taking a tour of any campus library during midterms or finals is enough to set your nerves on edge. Under-eye bags are as common on campus as Longchamp bags. Many students (especially first-years) constantly complain about their work overload. However, during my three years here, I have never pulled an all-nighter, missed a deadline, asked for an extension, or taken Adderall, caffeine pills or any type of energy drink (though, admittedly, I was studying abroad during the era of Fourloko).

Is this some sort of miracle? Am I a genius? Do I have photographic memory? No, I wish, and that actually doesn’t exist. But that’s another story. What I am is organized and realistic. And successful.

Here are some of my tips for keeping it all together.

My first tip applies to registration. Try to choose at least one class that will lift your spirits. Whether it is a new language class, an art class or a P.E. class, getting credit for something you enjoy will make your whole course load feel lighter. You might even think about taking this class Pass/Fail.

Secondly, buy a planner or agenda and do everything you can to make sure you use it. For me, this means colored pens, stickers and the compulsion to always have it in my bag and write everything down as soon as I find out about it. Knowing where you need to be can make your day feel less cluttered and give you peace of mind.

On the subject of clutter, keeping your living spaces organized and clean can free can be therapeutic. There are a lot of nice things in the world that are expensive, but the one nice thing that is absolutely free is cleanliness. On a day where nothing seems to be going your way, organizing your dorm room, desk drawers and clothes can be a step in the right direction. (Don’t know where to start? Check out organization expert Peter Walsh’s tips for organizing your space.)

Try to take really good notes. Focusing on making them look nice can keep you from zoning out in class. Resist the urge to check your email or Facebook on your phone. Doodling on a notebook is better than connecting to the outside world. This is why I don’t bring my laptop to class; the act of physically writing down key lecture points keeps me engaged. Skyping your long-distance boyfriend during that history lecture is a bad use of your time and will only make it harder to study down the road. Trust me – I’ve done it.

Take care of your body. Eat well, keep a fairly regular sleep schedule, exercise and meditate. A half hour of cardio is a great way to work through stress. It clears your mind, boosts your self-esteem and gives you the energy to help you attack the rest of the day.

Laugh! You don’t need to have a crazy late night out to have fun. Get dinner with friends, share ridiculous YouTube videos, have impromptu karaoke competitions or dance parties in your hallway. These are the moments you will always remember…and the moments that will keep you sane.

Try to always look presentable. Sure, slumping to class in your sweatpants is comfortable, but taking five minutes to put on jeans and a cardigan will make you feel more put together and less stressed. A scarf and a headband can be the perfect final touch to your messy bun.

There was a great article in the New Yorker about procrastination last October. It differentiates between people who procrastinate out of laziness and those who do it out to self-sabotage. If you are in the second category, you need set your own attainable standards. Maybe you should strive to get A’s in the classes you excel in and A-‘s or B+‘s in the classes you really struggle with. Be accountable to someone, either a tutor or a study group and feel the satisfaction of checking off to-do lists on your planner.

If I am dreading working on something, a problem set or an essay, I divide it up into manageable portions spread out over several days. It is easier to work on something if you know that you will only devote an hour to it per day than to sacrifice a whole Sunday. I also find it easier to do my work in the mornings. I also like to pretend that my deadlines are a day or two before the actual day so that I can get someone (a professor, T.A or savvy friend) to look over my work to make sure I haven’t missed the mark. Additionally, moving your deadlines forward is an insurance policy against the unpredictable.

This technique also applies for studying for exams. I take the time about two weeks before the exam to figure out what I’m going to study on what day, leaving the last two days before the exam open for review sessions and study group meetings. Remember that studying in a group should help you polish what you already know and fill in gaps of things you didn’t completely understand. It is a compliment to, not a substitute for, time spent studying by yourself.

Talk it out. If you are really feeling overwhelmed, try to figure out where the pressure is coming from. Talk to a trusted friend, family member or a counselor. Furthermore, keep noxious self-deprecating thoughts out of your mind. Ask yourself if you would criticize a friend the way you criticize yourself.

Sometimes I joke to my friends that I feel like a school robot. In fact, I feel more like a high-performance athlete. Following all these steps and taking care of myself sets me up to perform my best and take the time to enjoy this time in my life. My strategies, though arguably elaborate, ensure that I don’t have to pull all-nighters and I am always free to go out Friday or Saturday night.

And that’s just the thing I need to stay sane amid this sea of stress.



  1. oldfashioned says:

    i wish i was you

  2. Lola says:

    ^ *were

  3. lifeengineer says:

    Honestly while these are all good tips and help to form a strong study skills base, they don't exactly apply to a lot of people. Anyone taking a challenging science or engineering degree will tell you that you can have the best academic and overall life habits in the world and still be stressed beyond recourse. Many of the engineering programs at my school require a minimum of six courses per semester and usually at least three of those are extremely technical, math-based courses with accompanying 3+ hour labs and workshops. Combine that with at least an extra hour of work per day per course (usually more, even at high-efficiency) and you're already looking at an 8am-8pm commitment seven days a week.

    1. Laya says:

      Yeah, I agree. They're good basic tips, but throw in med school (which has you following over 10 lectures, 4 labs that often take four hours and 6 self study assignments in a WEEK), a job, committee work at my sorority, a social life, sports and there's just no way I'm not stressing out. Especially during finals, because even if you managed to do absolutely every lecture/lab/assignment, there's still just two days to actually study all this shit AND meetings and work in the same week. Not cool, definitely stressing and no awesome planner (though I totally do that) helps.

    2. Jess says:

      Med school or pre-med? Not to split hairs but there is a huge difference. Med students aren't in sororities, mostly take out student loans because having a part time job is discouraged, and deffinitely don't use any limited amount of NCAA athletic eligibility left. I know this because I did these things in undergrad and there's no way I'd still be doing it in med school next year. Just saying. Also, I hate when people in my major and in engineering complain about being way more stressed than liberal arts students. Guys, we chose these majors for a reason. If its too much, choose a different major. Don't get online and complain to someone who's just trying to help.

    3. lifeengineer says:

      I'm not complaining per se, just stating a fact. I don't want an impressionable potential student to read this article and believe that no matter how strenuous their workload, that by using a day planner and going to all their lectures that they'll sail through university stress free. Engineering, along with medicine, law, dentistry etc. are professional programs in that they are designed to prepare you to enter a career upon graduation. Undergraduate science, arts and commerce degrees are not designed that way (these aren't assumptions, ask an advisor). For that reason, they demand more of students and so simply being an effective scholar no longer applies, professionalism has to start in the classroom. That often means giving up a stress-free life.

    4. poodle says:

      Yeah, but learning time management and keeping yourself healthy and organized can probably make attaining these degrees a less horrific experience!

  4. criolle johnny says:

    Part, let me spell that in large letters … P-A-R-T of the function of college is to teach you to deal with stress.
    PART of the reason you go to college is to learn life lessons, including how to deal with stress.
    Term papers don't just teach you the material that you research, they teach you how to do research. They also teach you about deadlines and stress. They teach you how to plan (yes, sometimes how to connive). More importantly, college hopefully teaches you how to prioritize and schedule your work. That's why the SUM of your work is important to a future employer.

  5. shitlist says:

    this list is terrible and only applies to people who don't challenge themselves enough in school. get off your high horse and accept that you haven't discovered the secret to success or anything

    1. fiona says:

      First of all, I'm pretty sure going to Columbia University is a challenge. Secondly, how is keeping a planner and taking good notes "terrible" advice? I don't follow. Lastly, why do you feel the need to trash someone who is just trying to help other students reduce their stress? This is pretty uncontroversial subject matter!

    2. Sab says:

      you're just defending her bc she got so many shitty comments last post. I don't know her, but based on her posts she's a really arrogant girl and she needs to get over herself.

  6. […] Lori A. on April 25, 2011 Brenda at College Candy […]

  7. Ellen Bremen says:

    One recommendation not noted here that can reduce a TON of stress: Talk to your professors more! Ask for feedback early. Check in on your grades regularly. Get clarification on assignments that you don't understand. These seem like no-brainers, but after a decade of teaching, I've seen many students not doing these things, which can take the mystery out of grading/requirements, etc. and reduce a tremendous amount of stress. The students that do stay in contact and ask tons of questions don't have to go through mental olympics wondering where they are with their grades. @chattyprof

  8. […] To Be Stress-Free And Successful In College Posted on April 26, 2011 by Brenda at College Candy […]

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  10. agatha says:

    Thanks for this post – it's really helpful. Now can you somehow send me the self-control to follow your great ideas? =3

    1. Brenda says:

      Thanks for the feedback, agatha.
      There is an app for Mac called Self-control that blocks distracting websites for a predetermined period of time, maybe you will find it helpful:

      If you don't want to go to such an extreme, I've found that limiting the people I follow on Facebook keeps me from getting too distracted. If you "hide" everyone except for 20-30 friends on your newsfeed it tends to not change for an hour or two at a time, meaning that you are more likely to get bored with it.

      Good luck this finals season!

  11. […] Example: Despite the fact that she had two exams on the same day, the student retained a sense of equanimity. […]

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  13. ashish says:

    being stress free is really essential for good performance in study and examination..

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