The Hardest Thing About College


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The Hardest Thing About College

(My personal experience with teaching Barrett Students at ASU)

December 12, 2022

I have been asked many times, “What is the hardest thing about College?” and unfortunately there is not a definitive answer. It depends on who you are. Over twelve years as a professor at Arizona State University, I taught hundreds of students from freshman to graduate levels. Many of the courses were for Barrett, the Honors College–one of the top honors colleges in the nation, consisting of the top 10% of students at ASU from every degree program. Teaching so many students, allowed me to observe the biggest issues that students faced as well as the hardest things they encountered at college.

Amazingly, I found that the things that they encountered were not very different from my experience going through college. Although times change and technology becomes better, the same issues stick around. In this article, I will review the hardest things that I observed students experience as they attend college. 

Getting the Right Amount of Sleep

Over my tenure at a university, the ability of students to sleep at night became more and more of an issue. I didn’t notice it as much when I first started teaching, but as time went on, I heard about it much more frequently. Now, as I teach high school students, if I ask a class how many people struggle with being able to fall asleep at night, at least a third of the class will raise their hands. This issue may start in high school, but it becomes even worse in college.

One reason students have difficulty trying to get to sleep is because their minds are being overloaded by new information.

Schooling is a large part of it, but it is also due to how much goes on in college life because it is still a time where students are growing up. Often, it is the first time a student is leaving home and living on their own. They have to figure out things like washing clothes, how they will eat, and if they have enough toilet paper for the first time in their life. They are also likely to face a different social atmosphere than high school, one that can take time to adapt to. By the end of the day, their mind is so stimulated and worried, it becomes very difficult to shut it off and get a good night’s sleep.

Shutting the mind off is not the only reason students can’t get enough sleep in college. There are many distractions such as social activities that go late into the night, accessibility of entertainment like movies and games without any limitations, and then of course their school workload.  This doesn’t even consider the substances that are now available to students to enable them to stay awake and alert for longer and longer times. It is a perfect storm of internal and external influences that make getting sleep one of the hardest parts of getting through college.

On the other hand, there are students that don’t find this to be an issue at all. These are students that developed a good sleeping pattern before they got to college and learned enough self-control to prevent many of the external things that hinder sleep from having a big effect on them. This is a rarity though. 

Sleep is not usually on anyone’s radar. However, not getting sleep might be one of the most detrimental things to a student’s academic, professional, and personal life. A lack of sleep causes many mental issues, slowly breaks down the body, and minimizes a person’s ability to learn and perform well. It can lead to many accidents and issues that can impact a person’s entire life. A good sleep schedule is definitely something that students should be preparing for before they get to college.   

Balancing Your Workload

As mentioned before, a student’s workload is usually much higher in a college environment. Many times, students are not ready for this change, and they usually have to deal with this without the support of a parent. I noticed that students often have an issue keeping up with their assignments and responsibilities in college. Even very capable students. The reason behind this is that more capable students try taking on a larger class load, accept responsibility for one or more clubs, find internship/research opportunities, or get a part time job while going to school.  

Students may have a difficult time due to their own capabilities, taking on too much, or struggling to adapt to the change in workload from high school. However, there are students who have mastered their time management or gone to a very high-performing high school in which their workload was comparable to college, and may not experience an issue. Students should realize their capabilities and know their limits to determine just how much they can do each semester without being overburdened.

Meeting Requirements

Going from K-12 to college includes the obstacle of going from a child to an adult environment. Usually, professors and other adults assume that students are responsible and mature, thus, there is a formal and structured way to do things. I call this “understanding and dealing with requirements”, and it is an issue for many students. For example, when turning in homework in high school, you might only need to put your name and date on the assignment, but in college they might require a  word document with a formal header and specific labeling. There might even be different requirements for how homework is turned in for each class. Registering for classes, applying for jobs, dealing with student administration –  all of these areas will have different requirements to work with to get things approved.

These many requirements are another form of information a student must store in their brain. For students that go to schools with strict rules and have parents that expose them to getting jobs or dealing with adult type organizations, this might not be as big of an issue. 

The Hardest Thing About College

The most common and toughest issue I have seen in the majority of students is growing up. It deals with all the issues mentioned above, but going to college is a big step for growing up for most students. And it is not just:

  • Being away from home for the first time in their life and having to take care of themselves.
  • Not having anyone monitoring them and requiring them to have their own self-control. 
  • Having to (in many cases) deal with schooling and a job at the same time.

There is a mental process that students must go through that involves:

  • Finding out what they care about in life and how they want to live.
  • Identifying what they want to do for an occupation.
  • Learning how to deal with others as an adult.
  • Figuring out how to make their own decisions. 

I have seen many students go through a personal crisis while they are doing well with their academics and have multiple offers for internships and jobs, but they are not happy. They start to question if they are really enjoying what they are doing, if they actually want to get a job in the field they are getting their degree in, or if they like the way they are living. 

5 Things You Can Do to Prepare Students

If you want to prepare your children or students so they do not have these issues, I would do these five things:

  1. Make sleep a priority. It takes a long time to get a stable sleeping routine. Work with your student to help them to develop this at a young age. Remember, this cannot be forced and must be their choice. Start early. They will make many poor choices where they will stay up late because they are young and inexperienced. But if they learn this early enough at home, it will pay off when they go to college or live on their own. 
  2. Give your child freedom. The less you do as a parent or teacher, the more your child or student will have to learn how to do things on their own. The more they do, the easier for them to be able to live on their own and learn how to deal with others. 
  3. Provide opportunities for your student to figure out what they want to do. Expose them to things you think they might like, and talk with them about their thoughts. The more a child can figure this out in high school the easier their college experience will be. 
  4. Help them to develop the skill of asking for help. This might be the single most important skill for a child to know how to do when they move out on their own, especially when going to college. I have never seen a student fail that is able to ask for help from others. 
  5. Ensure your student knows how to cope with stress and being overloaded with work. For a student to have an avenue where they can destress and relax, is vital as they go into college. It could be calling home, meditation, singing, or anything that helps them calm down when things get hectic. 

College is a very big tool in helping students develop themselves. Look at your students and children and see what their strengths and weaknesses are and start early with helping and preparing them for their future. 

About the Author

Read more about Dr. Jacob’s latest book.
Dr. Jacob Kashiwagi is business management consultant and acting Chairman of the Board for Leadership Society of Arizona. Dr. Jacob has worked on 1,100+ industry projects valued at $3.6 billion with a 95% success rate. He has taught over 1,300 college students and 2,500 high school students.

Read more articles by Dr. Jacob.