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Dealing with Difficult Semesters in College

College has great times, messy times, and downright awful times. It’s almost impossible to get through without dealing with difficult semesters in college. I remember my sophomore year of college being particularly difficult. Aside from adjusting to the fact that I was no longer a freshman (and the added workload that came with rising through the ranks), I found myself moving from a quad with three fairly nice roommates to a double with one roommate I would eventually distance myself from when the year was done.

I also quickly discovered that sophomores at this particular institution get the leftovers when it came to class pickings — an unlucky thing for me because I had entered undeclared and had spent the last two semesters trying to figure out what I wanted to major in.

I had no clear path and a lot of requirements to fill, which left me with a very messy class schedule. To say that I was frustrated was an understatement.

Here’s what I wish I had known then about dealing with difficult semesters in college:

1. Try to Balance Out Your Courses

One of the biggest mistakes I made was loading my schedule with humanities-centered courses in order to avoid math/science courses for as long as possible. I knew I wasn’t good at math or science, and I knew I was good at humanities.

Unfortunately, in my freshman/sophomore naiveté, I had forgotten to account for the immense load of reading that accompanied humanities courses. Take one course’s worth of reading and triple it. Some people may be able to handle that workload (and kudos to you if you can), but I quickly discovered that I was not a member of that lucky group.

Declaring my major in the fall semester of my sophomore year made things slightly easier; after consulting with some people I trusted, I devised a plan: take two humanities courses per semester, and fill the other two slots with science-based courses to fill requirements. This was much more manageable. Combined with the structured schedule I worked out simultaneously, this class load gave me variety and much-needed breaks within my course schedule itself.

When my brain couldn’t absorb any more information about the complexities of cross-cultural communication, I switched to reading about astronomy (or another one of my science-based courses) and vice versa. This ensured that I would constantly come back to the material refreshed, and it allowed me to enjoy the variety of what I was learning.

Of course, this depends on your individual major, the number of credits you need, and many other factors, but I found that varying your class schedule helps because it stops you from becoming overwhelmed and inundated with a lot of information in similar fields. You may find that interesting, but everyone needs variety now and then. Sometimes it’s even good for your sanity.

2. Lean on Your Support System

On top of dealing with a very front-loaded course load, I would come home to a roommate who’s sarcastic sense of humor quickly turned cruel. I learned that she was the kind of person who needed to tear people down to feel good about herself. At the time, I didn’t know how to deal with it, especially because what she said hurt.

The friends of mine who knew about my roommate situation allowed me to spend time with them away from her, which gave me much-needed physical distance. Having the physical distance and the objective perspective of another person there helped me view my situation much more objectively.

My support group allowed me to express what I was feeling without fear that what I was saying would get back to my roommate. Moreover, they also validated my emotions by relating to my situation and gave me valuable advice that allowed me to move forward and take what this girl said far less seriously.

Having your support network around you is essential, no matter what kind of situation you’re facing. They can offer much-needed support and perspective, even if they can’t understand exactly what you’re going through.

3. Know Your Boundaries — and Respect Them

Moving a few states away strained my relationship with a loved one. Every phone conversation we had was less of a conversation than it was a shouting match. To top it off, it usually ended with me in tears. My once frequent calls home were gradually reduced to a call a month thanks to these fights.

I knew that if I called home more than once a month, I would expend more energy than I had. There were other more important things to focus on. I settled on texting and emailing this person instead of calling them when I needed to check in with them. When I absolutely could not avoid calling this person, I contacted them via text or email beforehand and gave them times I knew that I would be available, which gave me a sense of control.

Knowing your boundaries is key, especially when you’re balancing a lot of responsibilities. It’s also important for you to develop ways for you to maintain those boundaries.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about boundaries, it’s that setting them doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means that you’re taking care of yourself.

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4. Exercise Self-Care Daily

There were a couple semesters where I focused so much on my academic career that I didn’t stop to take a break. Yes, you read that right. No yoga, no TV breaks, no nothing but studying all day and every day.

While prioritizing my studies was important, by focusing on that and nothing else, I saw my grades drop. Not only that, but my physical health started to deteriorate. The sicker I became, the more class time I missed. The more class time I missed… well, I think you know where I’m going.


Giving myself permission to relax a bit between study sessions gave me something to look forward to in between my academic responsibilities. Centering myself and giving myself occasional breaks was crucial to surviving my academic career. If you’re an introvert, it’s especially important to exercise self-care regularly.

Surviving difficult semesters in school is certainly challenging. No one gets through school with simply smooth sailing, but it is possible. Even though you may pass through rough seas, you’ll come out stronger on the other side.

About the Author

Alisa Tanaka

Alisa Tanaka graduated with a Communications degree from Lewis & Clark College in 2012. She hopes to develop a career that allows her to make a measurable impact on the world while doing something that she loves. Her interests include psychology, linguistics, and mental health. She can also be found reading, watching documentaries, and writing her blog.