Five hurdles gifted college students must overcome

Most gifted adolescents breathe a sigh of relief when they enter college. Finally, they will be with their intellectual peers. Finally, they won’t have to hide their abilities. Finally, they will be able to fully, unapologetically immerse themselves in their interests.
Yet, gifted college students often face unexpected hurdles that must be overcome.
The academic and social challenges they encounter can lead to self-doubt and uncertainty. Any nagging doubts and fears that developed in high school can intensify in college, as gifted students take a sobering inventory of their limitations and face a harsh dose of reality. This leads to questions about their abilities, their choices, and even their sense of self.

Gifted students (and their parents) should assume that some self-reflection and second-guessing will emerge during college. Their doubts and fears may surface as one or more of these questions:  
1. What if I make the wrong decision?

Gifted students, often blessed with multiple talents, are now faced with selecting a career and eliminating alternative options. While all college students must ultimately choose a career path, gifted individuals frequently scrutinize their decisions, sometimes obsessing over the complex array of variables in every outcome. They ponder over the existential implications of roads not taken, and are saddened about abandoning earlier dreams and ambitions.
Gifted students need to grieve the loss of career choices as they narrow their focus. Some may have honed a skill, practiced an instrument, or pursued a goal for years, and now must put this passion aside. They need to appreciate how they can incorporate these interests as hobbies throughout their lives. They may hopefully recognize that most choices are not irrevocable, and the decision-making process itself is a learning experience leading to greater wisdom and self-awareness.  
2. What if I’m not the best?

After riding a wave of success in high school, gifted teens may be surprised to find an abundance of equally smart and gifted peers at college, especially if they attend a highly selective school. Suddenly, they are no longer the smartest kids on the block, and don’t receive frequent recognition for their abilities. In fact, they may not be noticed much at all. This sends some students into a tailspin, as they search for a sense of identity and purpose.
Gifted students can navigate this crisis by focusing on what they enjoy and what is personally meaningful, and finding a niche where they can excel. They may need to relinquish the expectation that they must stand out, and realize that self-worth does not hinge on recognition from others. Eventually, they may feel pride in accomplishments achieved among an environment of true peers.
3. What if I fail?

Despite easy grades in high school, many gifted students face greater academic demands than anticipated once they attend college. While the stimulation of an engaging, thought-provoking class is a welcome relief for some, anxiety about exams, papers and presentations can be overwhelming for those who doubt their competence. Not only does this tap into concerns about grades, it also challenges their sense of self. If I’m so smart, how could I do poorly on this? What will others think if I fail? What about all of the people I’ll let down if I don’t do my best?
The fear of failing, or even performing below expectations, creates added stress and the potential for burn-out, particularly for gifted students with perfectionistic tendencies. Many need to confront unrealistic goals, and learn to accept their limitations. Parents can provide reassurance that perfection is not expected, that their child’s well-being is more important than transcripts, and that they will love and accept their child regardless of their grades. 
4. What study skills?

Many gifted teens coast through high school. Although they may take difficult classes, receive good grades, and participate in extra-curricular activities, many exert minimal effort and still achieve success. Their intense passion is reserved for what interests them most, and they invest little energy in the remainder of their classes. Once they get to college, though, some gifted teens realize that they have never developed study skills. They cannot just skim through a textbook before taking an exam and expect to have mastered the material. Finally confronted with some challenging classes, they now must actually work hard for the first time, learn how to study, and even ask for help (something they may never have had to do). Some perform poorly for the first time in their lives, an experience that can create surprise, confusion, anxiety and self-doubt.  
Gifted college students may feel lost at first, since they may have never had to struggle in school. They may resist asking for help, avoid difficult courses, and even feel some shame because of their lack of preparation. They need support and guidance toward developing study skills and the resilience to take on challenging work. Although they may initially resent having to work hard or seek guidance, they may grudgingly admit that challenging, difficult classes are far superior to an easy, watered-down curriculum.
5. Where do I belong?

Some gifted teens finally experience a sense of belonging when they go to college. However, others never feel that they fit in. Many gifted teens are introverted, highly sensitive and emotionally intense, and are used to feeling different, and at times, alienated from peers. After anticipating that college would provide a place where they would find like-minded peers, they may experience disappointment. Gifted children who graduate high school early and start college at a young age, and those who manifest asynchronous development (whose emotional maturity lags behind their intellectual abilities), may feel even less prepared for the social demands of college.
Gifted students who feel isolated need to accept that their differences make them unique, and that they may need to work a little harder to find friends. They need to recognize that introversion is common, and that many teens experience social anxiety and shyness. Involvement with clubs, organizations and other activities where they can find peers with similar interests can also be a helpful way to connect with others.

Rather than obstacles, these hurdles can lead to new paths for future development.
Parents should assume that their gifted college student may grapple with one or more of the above questions. They can try to prepare their child as much as possible for what to expect, and offer support as they navigate through uncharted territory. However, counseling is helpful when these hurdles create an impasse, and when the student shows signs of depression, panic and obsessive thinking, persistent self-doubt, complaints of low self-esteem, or social anxiety and isolation. However, most gifted college students are able to grow through confronting and overcoming these new challenges. Rather than obstacles, these hurdles can lead to new paths for future development.


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