Help! I struggle while classmates seem to breeze through coursework

Dear Alice,

All the people in my major seem to breeze through homework, tests, and absorb every lecture like they've heard it a million times. This leads me to believe that I might have chosen the wrong major, even though it is what I really want to do. I'm already a senior, so changing majors now is out of the question for me, since I've already made all the arrangements for graduation. I know I will graduate with a very low GPA... not even high enough to get into graduate school in my major. The coursework that I'm headed towards in my last two semesters seems like total rocket science to me and asking for help, even from close friends in my major, is very embarrassing. I normally wouldn't mind asking my friends for help, but they have very belittling things to say about other people who don't understand the concepts. Plus, everyone that tutors for my major is also in my classes, so asking for help there is also impossible. I feel that if I don't get help and start understanding things essential to my major, I will completely abandon the idea of going to graduate school, or even trying to get a job related to my major. I don't want four years of schooling to go to waste... what should I do?

Dear Reader, 

There's a lot to be said about committing yourself to what you really want to do. You have a clear interest and drive when it comes to your major, which is not only commendable but speaks volumes about the sort of person you are. Before comparing yourself to others, it could help to think about your reasons for choosing the major you did. What specifically about this major gets you excited? What has kept you committed up to this point? Maybe you can construct a list to reaffirm your decision so you can easily refer to it when doubts about your dedication to your chosen subject start creeping up. 

Furthermore, you mentioned that your peers seem to breeze through their work easily. It’s possible that your perception of their experiences with the class may differ from the reality of the situation. For example, perhaps the reason your peers say belittling things about others is because they’re insecure about the fact that they themselves are struggling to understand the coursework as well. People sometimes will say condescending comments about others as a defense mechanism and in order to make themselves feel better. Most likely, you’re not the only one feeling the way you do about those specific classes, your major, or college in general.  

To help alleviate some stress, one strategy you could use is organizing a study group for the classes you’re struggling with. This might allow you to tackle difficult topics more constructively, as well as reassure yourself that you’re not alone in feeling challenged. From what you’ve described, it seems as though your friends in the major may not be the support you need when seeking help. Are there other students in the major you could befriend who may provide that social support? Furthermore, instead of asking classmates for help, you could also ask your professors or other faculty for some assistance. Your professors, major advisor, or academic dean could shed light on ways to become better versed in the class material, as well as help you develop effective studying techniques or refer you to someone who can. Are there any graduate students or teaching assistants at your school who are familiar with your major? They may be able to help from the perspective of a student, while still providing some separation from your classmates. They can also discuss strategies for applying to graduate school (if that is what you want to do) such as taking summer courses to boost your GPA. 

Moreover, if this major is what you want to pursue for your graduate studies or future career path, you may be able to approach it in a new way. Are there different paths within the major? Perhaps rather than being involved in the side that’s more challenging for you, another perspective may make better use of your skills, while maintaining your interest or passion. You could consider how you want to apply the information you're learning in your classes. For example, if your passion was academic biology, there are a range of jobs that you could pursue, such as being a lab technician, working within a government agency, or even being a teacher. While the classes you're preparing for may feel like rocket science, they may be easier to manage if you have a concept of why and for what you’re taking them. 

Finally, given your feelings of being overwhelmed with coursework for your major, it may be worth it to utilize the counseling services on your campus and/or even the campus disability services. They may be able to provide some additional resources to help you better grasp the concepts, manage your studying, and cope with the feelings you have as you move through the rest of your degree. Additionally, it may also be useful to confide in a friend outside of your major about the challenges you face. Sometimes having that one person who you can vent with and lean on can make a world of difference in managing your stress and feeling more grounded. Use your motivation to seek out the people and resources that can give you the support you need. 

Hope this information helps you navigate your major and senior year. 

Last updated Sep 10, 2021
Originally published Aug 06, 2004