It's easy to feel a lack of confidence at college. Lectures with hundreds of students can make one feel no bigger than a worm. And even smaller classes can make you feel low when it seems like the student in the front row has all the answers. Luckily, like every other skill, confidence can be learned and increased over time—especially if you follow our 15 practical tips:
1. Turn off the little voice. Everyone has a part of themselves that, from time to time, whispers defeating messages: "You're not good enough for college," "Everyone here is more qualified than you," "You'll never pass that midterm." But don't listen. Remind yourself that you've accomplished a lot before getting into this college and that, if you didn't have what it takes to succeed, they wouldn't have admitted you.
2. Realize you're not alone. Everyone thinks they're the only one, but a recent study shows that one-third of college students feel inadequate after the very first semester. We can tell you from our own experience that a majority of students have doubts at one time or other about their ability to do the work. If you're feeling unsure of yourself, keep in mind that you're in distinguished company: Most of your friends are going through (or have gone through) just what you're experiencing now.
3. Take something you're good at. Each semester, in spite of the distribution requirements and courses you need for your major, take at least one course you enjoy—and will likely do well in. Constantly struggling at courses that are very challenging saps your strength and can, over time, undermine your confidence.
4. Start small. Try taking a few small risks to help you overcome some of your fears. Maybe you could ask (or answer) a question in discussion section. Or approach a professor with a question before or after class. Once you've broken the ice, even a little, you'll begin to feel more secure.
Extra Pointer. Low risk activities, built right into the course, provide an excellent opportunity to build your confidence. Getting a check-plus on a little homework assignment, or a 10 on the weekly quiz, can do wonders for your self-esteem.
5. Reward achievements. Everyone feels better when they give themselves some recognition for a job well done, even a small accomplishment. Get yourself a slice of pizza or a latte for that 10 on the quiz. The positive reinforcement will make it easier for you to study for next week's quiz—and the $3 investment will show you that your achievements, too, are something worth celebrating.
6. Make all the classes. It's hard to feel confident about yourself when you're missing key pieces of the course, pieces that prevent you from doing well and, hence, feeling confident. Students who pop into class erratically have much greater trouble understanding and following the lectures that they do attend. And they have much more trouble answering questions on tests that depend on material in classes they missed.
7. Take a small class. Even though it might seem less scary to hide in the anonymity of a huge lecture hall, taking a small class can offer a more supportive and nurturing environment for learning.
8. Get feedback early. Your confidence can soar if you consult with your professor (or TA) early in the semester. Whether it's about a point in the lecture you didn't understand, your initial ideas for a paper, or worries about how to prepare for a test, you will feel immeasurably better after you instructor steers you in the right direction, or assures you that you're already going in the right direction. Many students lacking in confidence are too scared to talk to their professors. This only makes their problem worse.
9. Divide big tasks into small pieces. Many students doubt their ability to write a 15-page research paper or prepare for a comprehensive final. But if they conceived of the paper as three five-page pieces and the final as five three-week units, the task would suddenly seem seems a lot more do-able. And the feeling of accomplishment generated when one part of the project is completed would help propel them to finish the rest of the work.
10. Do a trial run. Many college projects allow you to do a no-risk practice round before the real thing. Taking a practice test at home before the midterm, trying out your oral presentation on the TA before the section meeting, discussing answers to the study guide with your study group before the final—all of these are things you can do to build your confidence before the actual event. And if your cohorts or instructor says a few kind words about your ideas—and if you believe they mean them—well, that can help, too.
11. Take comments constructively. Many students see every mark on their paper as a biting criticism and, hence, ignore them entirely. Train yourself to view the comments in a more positive light, as ways the professor is trying to help you do better on the next piece of work (rather than sink your ship). Learning how to use the comments to improve, even after a not so impressive start, can be the best confidence booster of all.
12. Apply for a prize. Many departments have various prize competitions for their majors or for all students at the college. And lots of times, the competition isn't as bad as you might think—so give it a whirl. Winning even a $10 gift card or a mention on the plaque in the department office can be a real confidence booster.
13. Look for real-world apps. A chance to work at an inner-city clinic (if you're in a health care field), or at an engineering consultant firm (if you're interested in waste-management systems), or even an insurance office (if you're studying marketing) can give you a real shot in the arm. Seeing how what you've learned in college can have real worth in the real world will build your confidence like nothing else. And then, when you return to college next fall, thus dull, dreary lectures won't seem quite so meaningless.
14. Recognize that learning is a process. If you expect to master a new field right off the bat, or be able to write a bang-up research paper when you've never written one before, you set yourself up for a let-down—and for a crisis of confidence. Be patient with yourself as you start on new tasks or skills. Think back on skills you mastered in the past (whether it's snowboarding, poker, or vegan cooking) and remember what it was like when you first started.
15. Avoid the bubble busters. You know who we mean: the people who, no matter, how good your achievement, can always find something wrong. For some students, it's their parents; for others, it's their perfectionistic professor or adviser; and, for still others, it's the person who shares their digs with them. Adopt a "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward such naysayers: They won't ask how you're doing, and you won't tell them about your successes.
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