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The Feeling of Falling Behind in College

An exploration of undergraduate stress with some help from an expert


By Anna McClean


Photo By Anna Cruz

“Whenever you have high-achieving people in one space, there’s always going to be some stress and anxiety around the idea of being behind,” says Katie Steele, director of undergraduate advising at Boston University. “But a lot of that is self-imposed.” 


Since coming to BU in the spring of 2023, I have experienced first-hand the phenomenon Steele discussed. Entering the last quarter of sophomore year with no internship in sight feels borderline life-threatening, especially when it feels like I am surrounded by people who are racking them up like collectibles. 


Regarding this idea of comparing resumes and what should be on ours, Steele shared that it is most important to seek out experiences that will help you learn and grow. She believes that the best way to stay “on track” is to check in with yourself and ask how your values and interests show up in your commitments. 


It is a seemingly obvious sentiment that the ultimate goal should be doing what interests you, but it is also an easily forgettable one, especially in a demanding academic climate like BU’s. Changing classes, majors, and even schools can be stressful, but it only brings you one step closer to knowing more about yourself and where you want to be. 


“Your major does not have to equal your career,” says Steele. “The reality of most jobs, especially those right out of college, is they’re going to teach you what you need to know to do that job. They care more about who you are.”


There are a lucky few who know exactly what they hope to do and the specific trajectory they plan to follow, and who never experience any doubt in those interests. But for the vast majority, this is not the reality, and that’s perfectly normal. It does not mean you’re “behind” because nobody’s in front of you; everyone is on their own individual path, as cliche as it sounds. 


“I don’t have a list of all the things that an undergraduate should do,” says Steele. “But try really hard to resist the culture around comparison, and instead look for opportunities of connection.”


In place of a concrete checklist, here are the secrets to success from Steele, a professional whose career is centered around helping us with ours:


  1. Make sure your interests are represented in your day-to-day schedule

  2. Avoid comparison, especially to those who have different aspirations than you

  3. Only measure your academic and career advancement by your proximity to doing what you’re passionate about

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