Friday, December 13, 2013

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.


  1. This article states the exact concerns I have that are prompting me to consider making a schooling choice for my two children. They have been coasting and bored in school from the beginning and are now in 3rd and 4th grade. We recently had them tested to see if they qualify for a gifted school in another school district. They both qualified and were accepted into the program. Now we have to decide if moving them is the right decision. We love our local school district, but it is just not geared to meet the needs of my children. I worry that if they continue in our district they will coast now through high school and not be able to handle the rigor of college. If I move them now, my hope would be that they learn at their pace and also how to deal with pressure and failure and success at an early age and it would not be such a big adjustment when it came to college. One child is excited to go, my younger one is worried about losing his friends. We are not moving out of our small town and they will continue to participate in other activities with their friends. Where does a parent draw the line at risking their social nurturing for their education and help them long term?

    1. Sending your child to a new school is always a hard decision. Most families discover that even though it can be difficult at first, children thrive in a more stimulating environment, AND find it supportive to be with a group a like-minded peers. Good luck with your decision.


  2. Your question is a very familiar one to me. I agonized over what was best for my child too. After raising three children in different states, I now see that I should have moved them when I realized they would require more than an a basic education. Especially when I fully realized that their needs would not be met. I kept assuming that with each grade things would improve and new opportunities would be offered, a more challenging education was on the way. I mistakenly was lead to believe high school would be the answer. I can't tell you how often I was told that in high school their needs would be met. Even though I thought it a waste of time to hope for the future instead of improving the present, this is what I accepted for my child. I was wrong. I really did not realize until middle school that my child would never get the education they deserved and so badly needed. No matter how many opportunities we attended after school or during the summer, they still needed more during their school day. Regardless of what the legislature has printed on paper about educating our students to their potential or abilities, this is not true and probably never will be in the state of Texas. Upon a visit to my son's 8th grade counselor's office I was informed, after pleading for a more challenging education or school opportunity, that what I saw is all that they offer. I was dumbfounded, but realized it was the truth. This is what it had always been and would always be. No more no less. My child would never be given an education that challenged him in the north Texas public system we attended. If my child needed more that, it would be up to us as parents and any opportunities we could find "outside" of school. I learned at this meeting that our educational system has a basic job, to provide a "basic" education to its students. A statndard is set and that is all that is attained or taught by the system. Our public school system was never entended to teach children to their potential or ability. They do not have the money, time or resources to do so. That is not their mission. Why this came as such a shock I do not know. It was simple to see and understand now, Finally everything made since. I only wished someone had actually explained this to me at the first sign that my child would need, or require a more challenging education than the "basic" child. I don't know why I did not realize this. I assumed the system would offer my child what they needed and required. I assumed wrong. So I would say to any parent asking the question that the above post contained , to make a change if not now ,but by the end of elementary school if you see that your child will require "more'". Especially if your child is a gifted learner. A child's overall happiness is involved in a very large part on what type of education they receive. To continue to sit, wait, run errands, help others, read more, takes a toll year after year, after year. Learning, not enduring years of boredom allow a child to grow and prosper. Make the move to better educate your child. Seek out a more challenging environment with like minded peers. Seek out the environment that will encourage your child to prosper and grow to their ability or potential. An environment that will enciourage your child to grow rather than stiffel their desire to learn. This potential will not occur in a Texas, "basic" public school system.

    1. Anonymous,

      Thank you for your very open and meaningful comment about your difficult experience with the public school system. Hindsight is always enlightening, but it sounds like you made the best possible decisions with what you knew at the time when your children were young. And some public schools rise to meet the needs of gifted children to some degree. It's just hard to know if and when a particular school will meet your particular child's needs. I hope your adult children have found a meaningful path for themselves.


  3. Your article states the challenges of a gifted college student well, but how does a parent help? "Support," "they will grow," and "offer counseling" are a bit nebulous for a parent dealing with an exhausted kid overwhelmed by work for the first time in his life. Do you know of any literature that offers specific advice for supporting college-age gifted students as they meet real challenges for the first time? This feels like a much more vulnerable time for my son than K-12, but everything I'm finding online is for parents of younger students.

    1. Sorry your child is having difficulty with the transition. There are a lot of self-help books out there, and I am not an expert on which ones might be helpful for you. I imagine that you could try: or or If your child is really struggling, though, consider a referral to the counseling center at college. Good luck.

  4. Many colleges and universities have Honors Programs that may be a good fit for gifted students. The Honors Programs generally have a higher level of learning with selected professors who delight in the challenging student. I also encourage students to connect with as many professors and mentors as they can. Having a mentor is extremely helpful and can help a student find appropriate classes, interesting opportunities and even meaningful jobs.