College students face a mental health crisis.
The stress and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic plus the pressures of college and growing student debt have left many college students depleted.
A majority of students report experiencing stress in school. A 2020 survey found that 72% of college students worry about the future of their education, while about 60% stress about falling behind or failing in a remote learning environment.
Unsurprisingly, burnout is a major problem in college. A 2021 Boston University study found that more than half of the 33,000 surveyed college students experienced anxiety or depression. And 83% of respondents said their mental health hurt their academic performance.
But what, exactly, is burnout? And how can students avoid burnout in college?
The following is intended as an information resource only; we are not a medical organization and we cannot give medical advice. If you are experiencing a life-threatening situation, seek medical help or dial 911.
What Is Burnout?
Burnout happens when people experience chronic stress that leaves them exhausted and drained. The World Health Organization classifies it as an "occupational phenomenon." However, it also strikes college students, who experience academic burnout.
Academic burnout makes students feel depleted and cynical about school. They might start avoiding assignments or skipping class. Creativity and academic performance can also take a hit.
Students react to burnout differently. Some struggle with imposter syndrome and consider dropping out of school. Others push themselves harder to succeed, at the cost of their mental health.
And burnout doesn't vanish after graduation. Nearly 60% of Gen Z and Millennial workers reported experiencing burnout in a March 2021 Indeed survey.
Warning Signs of College Burnout
It's important to understand the warning signs of burnout in college students. Students who recognize these signs can take proactive steps to improve their mental health. The American Institute of Stress identifies the following warning signs of burnout.
- Feeling exhausted: Mental and physical exhaustion are key signs of chronic stress.
- Less enthusiasm about school: Common signs include dreading class, worrying about upcoming tests, and a lack of interest in school.
- A decline in academic abilities: Stress leaves students feeling drained. They may experience a decline in academic performance, including lower grades.
- Increased irritability or anger: For many, irritability or annoyance is the earliest sign of stress and burnout. This can grow into frustration and anger.
- Increased anxiety: A growing sense of anxiety, worry, or agitation is common with burnout. Some may also experience restlessness.
- Physical sensations: The physical warning signs of stress include fatigue, headaches, and stomach discomfort
Students experiencing these warning signs should reassess their mental health and make changes in their routines to prioritize their well-being.
Tips to Avoid Burnout in College
Burnout can feel like an overwhelming problem without an easy solution, but making a few small changes can have a big impact. Here are the best tips to deal with college burnout.
College students — and early career professionals — often feel intense pressure to hustle and get ahead. But learning to say no can serve college students well for years.
Part of avoiding burnout comes down to managing your responsibilities. Taking on extra assignments or volunteering to organize events can leave students drained.
That doesn't mean skipping out on group projects or saying no to studying for finals, though. Instead, think strategically about where to cut back, prioritizing the things that matter to you the most.
For example, first-year students may develop burnout after saying yes to every event, club, or extracurricular activity. Instead of joining six different student clubs, pick one or two. Instead of three intramural sports, choose one per season.
Time management goes hand-in-hand with learning to say no. College students often take on ambitious side hustles or major projects without considering how much time they'll take.
There's even a name for this problem: the planning fallacy. Even if you've written a dozen papers in college, you'll likely underestimate how long you need to write the next paper.
Time management skills help students work efficiently and effectively. Allow more time than you need you need, and avoid procrastinating. Research shows that chronic procrastination leads to chronic stress, anxiety, illness, and poor health. It's also a recipe for burnout.
Medical students who don't get enough sleep or exercise experience burnout at a higher rate, according to a 2017 study. And it makes sense: Getting enough sleep and increasing physical activity both contribute to better mental health.
Incorporating exercise into your daily routine, and prioritizing sleep helps prevent and treat burnout. In fact, the National Sleep Foundation reports a direct connection between sleep deprivation and a "lack of cognitive function." But how can college students exercise more and improve their sleep?
On the exercise front, you don't have to become a power lifter. Instead, find an activity that's fun for you. Simply walking more or visiting the campus gym a couple times a week can make a big difference.
Getting 7-9 hours of sleep might be more challenging. Creating consistent sleep routines, putting down the screens, and prioritizing a dark and quiet environment when you are at rest can improve sleep quality.
Taking on too much causes stress. So does setting unreasonable goals. Signing up for an extra class at the beginning of the semester might be a good way to save money on tuition, but it can also lead to burnout.
Taking a realistic approach to goals helps relieve stress. Instead of packing your schedule or trying to cram for finals in a single night, set more reasonable expectations. For example, first-year students shouldn't take on an extra load and still expect to earn a 4.0 GPA. Adding an internship on top of a loaded schedule can also take a mental health toll.
Incoming students in particular should give themselves time to adapt to college, as should students taking remote classes for the first time.
Academics are a big part of college, but they aren't the only part. Packing every waking hour with schoolwork is a sure way to burn out before the end of the semester.
Setting aside work to make time for fun helps students avoid burnout. Prioritize connecting with friends and family, whether that means scheduling regular dinners with friends or a weekly phone call with family.
When you take breaks, leave school at school. Avoid carrying the stress of assignments or deadlines into other activities. Give yourself a mental break from academics so that you can return feeling fully refreshed.
Most college students experience burnout, so learning how to ask for help is key. That can mean leaning on friends going through similar struggles or turning to family.
Students can also lighten their workload by asking professors for extensions. For example, instead of studying for three exams scheduled for the same day, talk to your instructors about rescheduling.
Finally, look into your college's mental health resources, including counseling services. Talking to a counselor can help students strengthen stress-management skills and learn how to cope before burnout strikes.
When College Burnout Becomes Chronic
Creating healthy habits in college can help students avoid burnout and set them up for better mental health in the workforce.
However, sometimes getting more sleep and managing goals isn't enough. Personal changes can only help so much. Chronic burnout might require changing majors, moving to a part-time enrollment status, or taking a semester off from school.
If you're feeling chronically burnt out, reach out to the student counseling center for professional support. Banishing burnout can take time, but it's worth the investment.
Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University. After earning her doctorate in early modern European history, Carlton worked as an assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville, where she developed new courses on the history of science, Renaissance Italy, and the witch trials. Carlton has published five peer-reviewed articles in top presses and a monograph with the University of Chicago Press. She also earned tenure with a unanimous vote before relocating to Seattle. Learn more about Carlton's work at genevievecarlton.com.
Header Image Credit: Paul Bradbury | Getty Images
Learn more, do more.
Popular with our students.
Highly informative resources to keep your education journey on track.
Take the next step toward your future with online learning.
Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.