4 Big College Setbacks and How to Not Let Them Take You Down

It’s All About Momentum

For many students, gaining and maintaining momentum is a major part of academic success. 

Positive momentum = interesting classes, a sense of belonging, high test scores, strong grades, feeling confident in your academic trajectory. When things are going well, it is easier to keep the ball rolling. 

But, what happens when a “speed bump” causes a slowdown in momentum?

Below are some of the more common setbacks that we encounter with students and can create a hurdle.


When students get sick (especially if they end up missing multiple classes, a test, or a significant amount of work time on an important project) they can easily be thrown off course. Not feeling well can impact a student’s mood and having to do make-up work requires an adjustment to daily routines that can be challenging for students to manage. 


Sprain and ankle playing ultimate frisbee? Managing a concussion after a soccer game? Tending to another medical issue that requires time away from campus? Injury can really destroy positive momentum that a student has and make the semester much more difficult. Students might miss class for a while or it might become too difficult to attend.

A Very Difficult Course

Maybe a student is doing well but one challenging class is consuming the majority of their time. They may be taking 5 courses, but there is one class that takes 50-70% of their time, energy, and effort. And not only that, but it happens to also be the class that often results in the lowest grade of the semester. A student might work incessantly, and still end up with a B-. Courses like these can make semesters difficult to navigate.

A Breakup or Trouble Navigating a Tricky Social Situation 

This is a serious setback. When students are dealing with a break up it can cause emotional distress and impact their daily and weekly functioning. This can certainly have a negative effect on their academics. Students may start to withdraw from school, attend fewer classes, miss assignments, and decrease their effort.

Getting Back On Track

So what can students do to work through some of these challenges? When things get difficult, emotionally draining, or attendance is restricted, students need to jump into action.

  1. Create a plan: Analyze the situation and determine how to achieve success. Students need to create clear steps and a timeline for how they will manage their way through the situation they’re dealing with.This may be just a few days, but it could be a few weeks too. The more detailed, the better.
  2. Clear Communication w/Teachers: Students need to immediately contact all teachers, plus maybe an advisor and the office of disability (if applicable), so that they can clearly communicate with teachers what is going on and next steps. I find it most helpful to offer all the possible solutions to teachers in this communication. That way, it doesn’t require the teacher to make custom plans and answer questions. They can just agree to the work plan the student sends. This may include moved deadlines, asking for notes, virtual options for attendance, etc.
  3. Find a support system: Depending on what is going on, students will need at least 1 person that they can rely on to help them work through the distress of their new academic climate. Emotions can become overwhelming and can impact a student’s sleep, diet, and concentration. It helps if student’s can share with another person, most often a friend, but also a parent or therapist.
  4. Self-Care: Similar to the previous item, students need to make sure they are taking care of themselves. This looks different for everyone, but it may include exercise, diet, sleep, and socializing. It also might include decreasing certain behaviors such as partying or certain social obligations.

These events can make a student’s semester much tougher, but they don’t have to lead to failure. By creating structure and putting more focus on well-being, students can work through these challenges.

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