Why Is April So Tough for Students?

The surprising struggles associated with spring semester.

Posted Apr 10, 2019

Stocksnap
Graduation isn't always a happy and exciting time
Source: Stocksnap

It’s finally, finally getting warmer out and the big tests of mid-semester are over. So why are students so stressed out right now? Shouldn’t they be well rested from Spring Break and ready to tackle the remaining weeks? For years in my private practice I've observed college students struggling through each semester, and an interesting pattern emerged — there’s much more to this time of year than what may be obvious to parents and professionals. While the fall has the stressors of getting back into the flow of school, finding a fraternity/sorority join and finding that balance of partying and school work, spring presents a combination I've seen to be less clinically acute yet arguably more impactful on one's long-term mental health. 

Back to Reality

To begin with, this time of year features a number of converging factors. While Spring Break was super fun a few weeks ago, it’s now over and the reality of classes has hit full force again. Students had a reprieve from the daily grind of homework, projects and studying. But for many, their grades leading up to break were tanking, so Spring Break was a chance to ignore and avoid their GPA.

Coming back from responsibility-free time off to face the reality of outstanding assignments, incompletes or bad grades is like a punch in the gut that most would like to continue ignoring. That transition alone can create significant anxiety, which in turn leads to avoiding conversations with parents, going to class or getting work done. The onset of anxiety at this point can really derail an otherwise solid semester, let alone a student who was struggling already.

Semester’s End

Another spring stressor is the looming graduation or end of the semester. This should be an exciting time of year. It seems like it would be a positive transition and something to look forward to. Isn’t that what the last few years of tuition payments and hard work were all for?

Unfortunately, more and more students don’t feel prepared for whatever is supposed to come next. Next after graduation. Next after the safety of built-in friends and cozy campus life. It’s easy for a parent or university professional to say ‘You’ll figure it out’, but the reality is that many students don’t have the ability to imagine life beyond May, let alone the adaptability or self-reliance to develop a post-graduation plan.

There is no ‘just figuring it out.’ It’s as if they’re starting off the edge of a cliff, trembling at the thought of falling while the adults are all saying, "You’ve got plenty of time to build wings before hitting the ground." They’ve never built wings before. They’ve never truly been on their own. They’ve never had to do all those very adult-type things like call the cable company or buy car insurance. We’ve collectively raised young adults who have been insulated from struggle and problem-solving. Graduation represents the end of the known world for many.

What about students who are not graduating? There is no cliff but there may be something as scary—a semester without friends. More students than ever are on the "5-year plan," which means they may have friends graduating, leaving them at the frat house or apartment all alone next semester. Those same friends may already have jobs lined up or celebrations or travel related to graduation. Thinking about all the moving parts that need to be figured out for Fall can be a pretty stressful end to the semester. Additionally, or more specifically, students might start feeling more desperate to spend time with friends they fear not seeing again. That desperation might compete with time spent on studying or looking for internships. Basically, the need for just one additional semester can lead to significant struggle during the Spring.

Not Quite Finished

Spring semester also makes non-graduating students confront the reality of just how much more time they need to graduate in the coming years. Bachelor’s degrees typically require 120 credits, or 15 credits for each semester for four years. Simple math, but it can be surprising how many students don’t know how many credits they still need.

But what if a student dropped below that 15 credit hour amount for just one semester? What if, on top of being behind with credits, some of the required classes only meet in Fall or Spring semester, which means they have to wait to take it again when it’s offered next? It’s very easy to see how even with just minor obstacles, a student could need to do summer classes, stay an extra semester or a full academic year to catch up.

What Parents Can Do

First thing is to avoid jumping in to save them. It’s best to let them know that you’re there to talk through challenges. When they hear you’re supporting them but not saving them, it communicates that they don’t need to be saved even if they are struggling.

Next, just act curious and let them talk about what they fear. Often just having that validation is more important than being bombarded with solutions and "shoulds."

Another thing is to expect some transparency, access, and accountability. If a student is struggling, I recommend to parents that they check in periodically to talk about actual grades—not whether "everything is fine." "Fine" is a bad word in my world. Transparency, access, and accountability, while challenging, will avoid the big, ugly semester-end surprises like a failed class or abysmal GPA.  

Finally, let’s talk about hope. What students don’t know, what they can’t be convinced of and what we as adults do know is that there are opportunities they can’t yet see or imagine and that life is long. Long enough to withstand setbacks and hard losses and still have plenty of time to build something amazing for ourselves.