4 Strategies for Avoiding Burnout in College

Many students start college with great enthusiasm, but then end up feeling burnt out. According to Ryan Korstange, an assistant professor at Middlebury State University who specializes in helping students succeed when they first get to college, burnout is “a stress-related state of exhaustion and often leads to feelings of isolation, low accomplishment and even depression.” He has some tips for avoiding it.

1. Remember that learning can be very satisfying.

The first time I taught the “Introduction to Psychology” course, I told the students not to worry if they did not complete all the readings during the semester. They could finish what they missed during the summer. 

Many of them probably wondered whether they were being taught by an alien. After all, who reads textbooks after a course is over? But I was making an important point: The material, I hoped, was intrinsically interesting. I wanted the students to care about reading the book, not because it was assigned and the material would be on the tests, but because it was fascinating. 

Focusing on what is intrinsically interesting to you is its own reward, but it also has other benefits. According to Professor Korstange, it is a great way to avoid burnout. You will probably also achieve more, academically, if you find learning satisfying. 

2. Have a good sense of what you need to do over the course of the semester or quarter, and when you need to do it.

Look at the syllabus from each of your courses and figure out when your projects and assignments and tests are due. Use whatever helps you to keep track of them all, such as apps, calendars or to-do lists. That way, you can avoid the distressing experience of discovering that you have an exam and two papers due in the next four days, and you have not yet done anything to prepare. 

3. Don’t put off all studying until the last minute. 

The summer before I taught my first college course, I ordered the textbook for the course several months in advance. (That was before students could order their books online.) I wanted everything to go smoothly and didn’t want to take any chances on not having the book available to the students on time. Much to my dismay, when the class started, the books still had not arrived! I called the bookstore, and the person who answered asked me when I had scheduled the first test. I told him it was not for a few weeks. He said I shouldn’t worry, because none of the students would do the reading until a day or so before that. 

I was heartbroken to think that students would really put off the reading until the last minute. Fortunately, not all of them did. But those who did procrastinate, and then tried to master all the reading the night before the test, were making a big mistake. The best way to learn, research shows, is to spread out the time you spend studying. The students who keep up with the reading all along really do understand the material better and they do better on tests. Cramming is a much riskier strategy, and probably a lot more stressful, too. 

4. Take breaks.

When one of my colleagues was going to be considered for tenure within a few months, she was worried about whether the vote would be positive. In an effort to improve her record, she decided that until she had to hand in her materials, she would do nothing but work. No days off, no nights off, not even a movie now and then. She described her plan to her therapist, who told her, in a very tactful way, that it was a terrible idea. 

I think Professor Korstange would agree. He maintains that taking breaks regularly is an important way to manage stress. Working all the time does not increase your creativity or help you remember things better. When you lose your focus, taking a break — rather than pushing yourself to keep going — is what will get you back on track. 

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