10 Signs You’re in Trouble at College

It can be hard to know if you're struggling more than you should be. Here's how to tell.

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Many college students are in serious trouble and don't even recognize it. They think that nothing is really wrong, that everyone else is in the same boat, or that college is just supposed to be hard. Other students are just not sure: "Am I doing bad or doing really bad?" they wonder. "Should I take some decisive action or just wait it out, hoping it'll get better?"

In order to help you decide whether you're in serious difficulty or just caught up in the ordinary ebb and flow of higher education, here are 10 signs that you're in real trouble at college. If you, or someone you know or love, exhibits any of these signs, it's time to do some major reassessment and make some big changes:

1. Your average is below C or you're getting D's in some of your courses. Don't kid yourself: C is a bad grade, and D is even worse. Most students in college are getting A's and B's (at many schools the average grade-point average is between B and B+). So if your quizzes and tests are coming back with C's and D's, be aware that you are learning virtually nothing in the courses you're taking. As you move into upper-level courses, you're likely to find yourself unable to muster even C's and D's and will be ending up with F's.

2. You're constantly asking for (and even getting) extensions and incompletes. Extensions and incompletes are supposed to be the exception, for very special circumstances, not the rule. If you find yourself depending on them as a regular educational crutch—one day the reading took longer than you were expecting, another time you couldn't get enough pages written, a third time you were busy with your four other courses—you're demonstrating that you aren't able to keep up with the pace of college.

3. You can't follow what the professor says in lecture—ever. Most students have times when they can't understand a point the professor makes. Professors are used to this and are generally quite happy to answer questions, either during or after the lecture. But if the whole lecture is incomprehensible to you, then consider yourself to be in way over your head.

4. You're spending every waking moment of the day doing the reading or the homework. Professors are well aware of the time constraints placed on students taking five courses a semester, often working part time, and perhaps participating in extracurricular activities. So the assignments are geared to be done in a manageable period of time: You should be able to do the homework in one to three hours per class. If not, you probably are lacking basic skills expected for the course or using the wrong study strategies.

5. You're living off your credit cards. If you can't even afford your dinners or textbooks without relying on credit, then you are stretched too thin financially. Going to college is a big commitment of both time and money, and trying to get an education at the edge of bankruptcy is likely to put more pressure on you than the average person can manage.

6. You can't get through the basic requirements. Some students find themselves unable to pass even the lower-division requirements in math, English composition, and history. Some students can't conquer the developmental (aka remedial) courses in math and English required before these requirements. Being unable to pass these or needing multiple attempts to pass them is a sign that you aren't academically ready for college.

7. You're going home every weekend or on the cellphone with your parents five times a day. Hand-holding and support are one thing, total dependence (or codependence), another. If you're unable to make any break from your parents, you're not ready for the independent living and thinking that go with college away from home. Of course, you could go to school in the neighborhood (many towns are near some community college or other), but it'd be a good idea to make some steps into adulthood some time.

8. You can't get through the day without some medication. We're not talking about meds you might need for a medical problem or chronic condition but about prescription meds, drugs, or alcohol that you use for recreation or for altering (or balancing) your moods. Most students indulge in some partying at college, but once you get into heavy substance abuse, it's impossible to have the discipline and mental focus needed for success at college.

9. You spend every waking moment on some medium. It's perfectly fine to interact on Facebook for a bit each day. But when you're texting, Tweeting, and tagging without cessation—you can't live for 15 minutes without a device—you leave yourself no time to study. If you find yourself unable to get through a day without your computer or cell, consider yourself to have a media addiction that needs to be broken.

10. You feel overwhelmed, all of the time. It's normal to feel pretty stressed out when you start college and, of course, at midterm and finals times. But if you find yourself struggling every week of the semester—waking up each day hating where you are—something is wrong. Really wrong.

Colleges offer an array of services—most of them free—for all of the trouble signs described above. Use them.

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