Adjustment Problems in College Students - Counselors Adjustment Problems in College Students - Counselors

Adjustment Problems in College Students

For many students, continuing college-level education is one of the major life-changing experiences. At the same time, it usually involves the first prolonged separation from parents, and an opportunity to taste personal responsibilities for meeting life’s problems without the benefit of parental authority or guidance. In colleges and universities, it is generally acknowledged that freshman students are expected to demonstrate academic competence during their first year to continue their studies until their graduation. Correspondingly, they are required to successfully adjust to the inevitable transitional academic, social, and personal-psychological difficulties almost all of them could experience. Most of them may feel incompetent and could face difficulty in coping with the lifestyle in universities, which may, in turn, cause psychological distress including high test fear, lower academic self-efficacy, and poor time management and use of study resources.

If students are not able to normalize their state of mind to the potential challenges they could face in universities, there is a greater chance of refraining from their studies and the consequences would be distressing. This implies that due attention to the many factors that affect students’ educational and personal life areas during their study years needs a serious concern.


There’s a psychological process that students move through during their first year which requires them to be willing to change — and which takes time. We identified six key areas of adjustment for college students. 

Academic Adjustment

The learning environments in high school and college are different. At the college level, students are expected to take a more active role in their learning than they had to in high school; therefore, they need to think about how they will adjust to meet the heightened expectations of higher education. Successfully making this adjustment means having the ability and know-how to meet the increasing demands of college, and being open to change.

Some academic challenges:

  • Developing self-regulatory behaviors (time management, avoiding procrastination)
  • Establishing relationships with professors
  • Managing assigned reading and workload

Cultural Adjustment

College students interact with others of various cultures, religious beliefs, sexual orientations, ages, and physical abilities, in several different settings. Some of these situations will be social, others are academic or work-related. What these experiences have in common is that they provide opportunities to learn from others with a different perspective. How much a student will benefit from these diverse interactions depends on their ability to adjust culturally. Being accepting and welcoming of differences is one way to embrace diversity in college.

Some cultural challenges:

  • Living and learning with a diverse student body
  • Adjusting to language differences among classmates, roommates, and faculty
  • Understanding their bias-related belief systems

Emotional Adjustment

Students respond differently to new living and learning environments, meaning they’ll have different emotional responses to their college experiences. Some will be prepared to handle the stressors of college life more readily, while others may struggle with challenging situations. Successfully making this emotional adjustment means learning how to cope and manage their feelings.

Some emotional challenges:

  • Experiencing homesickness
  • Coping with stress
  • Developing strategies for handling mental health issues

Financial Adjustment

College students need to learn how to independently manage money. For many students, it may be the first time they don’t have ongoing guidance from family about money issues. It can be hard for students to learn how to budget and not be tempted to spend their money frivolously. Students need to adjust to this change sooner rather than later to avoid problems like bank fees or high-interest debt.

Some financial challenges:

  • Developing budgeting and financial literacy skills
  • Understanding tuition costs and navigating financial aid
  • Finding and managing a part-time job while a student

Intellectual Adjustment

In college, students have the opportunity to join an academic community. This community includes classmates, faculty, and college administrators. During class, students are expected to engage in intellectual discussions with their faculty, raise questions and, at times, even challenge them. In turn, students will be exposed to new ideas and subject areas, and career choices that they may have never considered before.

Some intellectual challenges:

  • Experiencing a shift in previously held values
  • Feeling uncertain about choosing a major
  • Taking calculated risks that move them outside their comfort zone

Social Adjustment

College students will be faced with shifts in their relationships, finding a new peer group, and handling the pressure of fitting in. Residential students will also have to adjust to a new living situation, which may include roommates.

Some social challenges:

  • Experiencing changes in relationships
  • Developing strategies for living with a roommate
  • Handling social situations involving peer pressure

Throughout college, students are encouraged to learn and claim their education in many ways, in the classroom and beyond. Learning involves making connections, taking calculated risks, and being open to change.

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