Being a high-achiever can be a double-edged sword. While your triumphs can garner praise, attention, and opportunities, expectations are high. Parents, teachers, bosses, and mentors hold you to a high standard, and you probably expect a lot of yourself, too. The danger comes when you make your achievements your identity, and it’s very common to do just that. (Cue the student burn out.) When many high-achievers go to college, they’re disappointed to learn that the playing field has changed. If your identity is “straight-A student,” what happens when you get your first B? The experience can be devastating, and the stress to “keep up” with your high school self can be unbearable.

What is Student Burn Out?

When the weight of expectation becomes too much, high-achievers and perfectionists are at risk of burnout. When you’re burned out, your body and mind will be in a constant state of exhaustion, and you may even experience physical manifestations, like headaches and stomach aches. Mentally, you may get lost in a negative thought loop, lose your ability to focus or think creatively and start to question why you’re trying at all.

Burnout can make you feel like there’s something wrong with you, but I’ve got news for you: the only thing “wrong” is your expectations of yourself.

If the transition from high school to college feels hard, that’s because it is hard! You’re extraordinary, but you’re not a superhero. It’s helpful to keep an eye out for what’s adding to your feelings of overwhelm. Time management coach and burnout expert Elizabeth Grace Saunders has identified six contributors to burnout. Here’s how these contributors can manifest for students.

6 Ways Students Experience Burn Out

1. You lack community

At home, you were likely closer in proximity to the people and places you relied on for a pick-me-up. Now, your support system is hundreds or even thousands of miles away. While virtual communication is incredible, we know from our COVID experience that it’s not the same. Now that you’re in a new place, you’ll need to create a new network.

If this sounds like you, consider ways you could find your community. This may look like attending a meeting for a student organization, participating in campus activities, or simply striking up a conversation with a friendly-looking person who sits next to you in your 10:00 AM class. The goal is to find people you can be your authentic self with; these should be folks who make you feel better, not worse. Don’t let student burn out define your community.

2. Your workload is too much

When you registered for your classes, you were ambitious in taking on credit hours. Now, you’re drowning in homework and struggling to maintain your desired GPA. Take a deep breath. It’s okay. Seriously. If you’re a straight-A student, your first B may seem like the end of the world. But once it happens (and it probably will), you’ll see that the world kept turning.

Can you identify which class is most important to you? Think about it both in terms of your interest level and future goals. Could you concentrate on that class and let perfectionism go?  Working hard toward something meaningful is rewarding, but working hard to keep a certain GPA is demoralizing. Focus on what truly matters: your education.

3. Your schedule is out of control

You have more say when it comes to your schedule (and life) than in high school, but it’s still possible to feel out of control, student burn out. If that’s true for you, you could very quickly reach your burnout point as you struggle to keep up with your commitments. If you feel things spinning out of control, ask yourself: are your choices authentic? Take a hard look at your life: your classes, extracurriculars, your social obligations, and even your major. Was everything actually your idea, or are you doing something because you think you should? Where you find incongruities, take back control.

4. You sense that circumstances around you are unfair.

If you’re a member of a marginalized community, college can present a wonderful opportunity to connect with others who share your experience. If you were “the only” in your high school, you may have been burdened with the job of finding your own identity while also representing an entire group to a privileged majority, who are prone to judge all on the basis of one. That’s a lot to carry! You hope that things will be different in college, but there is a chance they might not be. This can create circumstances for student burn out.

Coming up against racism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, ableism, or any other dehumanizing “ism” is a major blow, especially in college, where people are supposed to be intellectually above all that. If you’re encountering “isms,” first, I’m so sorry this is happening. Secondly, you have some decisions to make. Take stock of the incident; is this a one-time thing? Or is there a pattern of behavior?  How did the institution handle it? When ignorance or discrimination happens regularly, or when an institution dismisses your concerns, you may need to rethink how you want to engage with that institution. Proceed with caution, and with the knowledge that knocking your head against a brick wall will lead to burnout. You may be better off in a more open-minded, welcoming place. Your fully-authentic self deserves to be embraced, without having to navigate the prejudices of the ignorant.

5. You don’t feel rewarded for your hard work

If you were a “big fish” in the small pond of high school, you may be accustomed to receiving external rewards that are suddenly no longer available to you. It can be a jarring experience and present itself as student burn out. When this happens, a perspective shift can help. For instance: if you were the star soccer player in high school, but are sitting on the bench as a freshman, try expressing gratitude for the opportunity to participate in an activity that is meaningful for you. It may not feel sincere at first, but over time, it will.  If you enjoy the activity, keep doing it.

Sometimes students discover that the activities that brought external rewards no longer bring them joy. If that’s you, it’s all right to stop! Find new ways to reward yourself. For example, commit to studying for two hours, and after your study session take a walk outside with a friend. When you develop your own internal reward system, you’ll find a way to work toward your biggest, most meaningful goals – and you’ll have fun along the way.

6. Your values aren’t aligned with your circumstance.

We choose our college and major based on the best information we have at the moment. Maybe you began college wanting to major in education, but instead of enjoying your studies, you’re drawn to business classes. You feel increasingly frustrated in your education classes, yet you still envision yourself as a teacher. What do you do?

In situations like this, it’s essential to identify your values. Which values do you want to guide your life? Values are ideas, like “love,” “freedom,” “impact,” “joy,” “abundance,” “friendship,” “justice,” etc. Check out the list compiled by Mind Tools to see lots more. I recommend you spend time with this values list, then choose your top three. No value is “better” than another; avoid judging your choices and thinking that you “should” value any particular thing. Now do a check-in: are these values reflected in your chosen major? If not, it may be time for a switch.

Course-Correction for Student Burnout

If you’re feeling burned out, take stock of your situation. Are one of these areas out of order? If so, don’t panic. All of us have to course-correct every once in a while, and there is always help available. What’s most important is to commit to your own happiness more than your identity as  a “high achiever.” It’s all right to let go of an old identity in order to find a newer, truer, more authentic one.

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