I’ve just started a university course and for the first time I feel like I’ve hit a wall. I’ve always done really well in school without ever having to try properly. In fact, I never had to revise for exams, or pay attention in school, and generally I found academic work rather easy. But now that I’ve started college, it all suddenly feels so difficult. I’m really struggling and I can’t seem to keep up with the course, or the other students. Can you help?

What you are describing sounds like a common problem that many naturally academically talented people face as they get older – coasting. This describes somebody who is intelligent enough to overcome academic challenge (without even trying) to the degree that they become complacent and overconfident. Coasting is something that only becomes apparent when the ‘coaster’ finally hits an academic challenge that they cannot simply confront without putting in any effort. There’s a saying about ‘being a big fish in small pond’, now I suspect you’re experiencing being a much smaller fish in a much bigger pond for the first time.

A lot of university courses, especially traditional ones such as medicine and law, offer this challenge, as the assignments and exams they include just simply can’t be passed without hours and hours of revision and practice. When a ‘coaster’ hits these challenges for the first time, they can find the failure they encounter to be overwhelming, never having experienced it before.

Most students revise diligently because they have had a prior taste of being challenged and of failing to rise to that challenge. We often think of failure as a negative thing, but in fact it’s one of the most effective learning tools. Not only does it motivate us to do better next time, it also affords us opportunities to explore where things went wrong and makes us more resilient. When you don’t fail, because things come very easy to you, it’s common to lack this resilience that is often built up in childhood and I think this is what you are experiencing now.

Revision is just like any academic tool; it, too, requires practice and honing by the student in order for it to be at
its most effective. The other students you mention are probably keeping up with this course because, unlike you, they’ve had to revise for their entire academic lives and in doing so are more prepared for challenges this step up to university has given you, despite your previous high academic achievements.

Don’t be disheartened though. You are obviously very bright and are at university for that reason. See this as an opportunity to develop on a personal level as well as an academic one. There is absolutely no shame in having to put extra work and effort to achieve success. The combination of being a resilient, hard-working and an academically gifted person is absolutely what will make you desirable to employers in the future. So step up and see what you can achieve when you actually put your mind to it.

The first thing to do is ascertain the areas of the course that you’re struggling with, and accept that you might have to ask for help from your tutors and other students. You may not be used to putting in the work, but now it’s time to build yourself a strong, effective learning and revision schedule. It will, of course, take time to find your particular groove when it comes to a revision strategy, but keep experimenting. You’re clearly somebody who relishes academic achievement – it’s time to get serious about maintaining it.