The Case for Struggling

I was on the phone today with a client whose smart and capable 11th-grade daughter struggled a little last year in one of her classes. Her mother was happy she struggled, the student? Not so much. I spoke with another student client who said to me, “I don’t want to take math my senior year because I struggle in it.” This young woman has a unweighted GPA of 3.94. I remember sitting in my 10th grade British History class* with a teacher who was beloved by all but me. In his class, I struggled daily. I hear about students struggling in subjects, whose parents are concerned about the effect of the struggle on their psyche, their self-confidence, their GPA.

My opinion? Struggle is good.

College is not High School.

At no point in college is any professor going to make it easy for you. They challenge students- challenge their fortitude, their beliefs, their abilities, their patience, their planning skills, their lifestyle. They expect much, and grade accordingly. They expect that you will struggle. They plan for it. I believe that some even delight in it.

Admissions offices see many transcripts each year. They know if you are keeping your GPA high by not taking the toughest courses you can. If you can get a B- in AP Calculus, you should be taking it. If you can get a C- in AP Biology, you should be attempting it. Don’t stop taking Spanish because you are concerned that Spanish IV will be harder than Spanish III. No doubt it will be. Take it anyway. Your work in high school should get harder each year, just as it will in college. There is no chance of you graduating from college with all 100 level courses. You will be challenged to work hard. Prepare yourself to struggle throughout college by taking high school classes in which your success is tempered with struggle. Gird your loins.

Struggle in high school teaches students valuable skills and lessons. Time management, communication, planning, team work, responsibility, reward, independence, stress management and a whole host of others. AP and IB course work does just that also… they are designed to make a student struggle. Don’t worry about if you will struggle, plan ahead to learn from it. Here is what you can learn from struggling with tough courses:

Learn to use your planner: Time management and planning can make the difference between a sleepless night of study and a well put together study plan over a week.

Learn to effectively communicate with a teacher: Asking a teacher to explain something until you understand it may make you swallow your pride, but in the long run, you’ve mastered more than just the immediate task, you’ve mastered a communications skill.

Learn to use pockets of time throughout the day: 15 minutes here and there add up to hours. In college learning to study throughout the day is imperative. Don’t save it all for the kitchen table after dinner. Learn the skill of working between classes, for 10 minutes at lunch, before practice, get up 20 minutes earlier and go over your notes. This will set you up for success in college when you have 2-3 hours of time between classes, while you do your laundry, in the morning before class.

Learn to ask for help: Teachers and Professors are there to inspire and to instruct. They work for you. Learn to ask for help. There are systems in place to do just that. There are tutors and centers and study groups. You are not the first one to struggle.

Learn to fail: At some point, you will receive a bad grade. Solve the problem of why you failed, and it will not happen again.

Learn to work in groups: Many brains make light work. Study groups help inspire and help students retain. Learn to learn from peers.

Learn to work alone: Self-motivation is a key ingredient to success in college

Learn to work harder: Didn’t do as well as you like? Put more effort into it. Very rarely are we giving 100%. Learn what that looks and feels like. Work. Learn. Repeat.

Parents, at some point during your student’s freshman year at college, your student will call you in tears, struggling, overwhelmed and overtired. They will be working on a project, a paper, a midterm, and a presentation all due the same day. Your response should be, “get off the phone and get back to work. I love you and I am proud of you but you are not using your time wisely if you are on the phone with me.”

My student clients will do just fine. They may not do as well as they would had, had they taken the easier classes, but they are going to revel in the struggle of learning hard things. As for me, the struggle I had in 10th grade made me realize that the hard things are the things most worth learning.


Teachers should never let a student flounder… struggle is different. Good teachers support and encourage. Great teachers make you think you can do anything with work and diligence.

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