Excelled in High School but Struggling in College: CU Boulder

“They had such good grades in high school and didn’t even need to study, but they’re really struggling now at CU.”

We frequently hear this story from parents, especially parents of high-achieving students.

In high school, many intelligent students are successful without having to develop good study habits or learn how to manage their time. Based on our experience as CU Boulder alumni and academic coaches, let’s get into why this happens and provide some practical tips to support your student’s success at CU.

Why High School Success Doesn’t Always Translate to College

Before diving into the solutions around helping your student improve academically, we want to expand on some of the root causes that can result in a student who excelled in high school finding themselves struggling in college.

1. Not Understanding How to Study: Many smart students cruise through high school without developing study habits. It’s not that they were trying to outsmart the system, their intelligence simply carried them through classes and there was no need to learn how to study.

2. Time Management Challenges: In high school, parents and teachers provide structure and reminders. College life demands a new level of independence and self-management, which can lead to difficulty initiating tasks, procrastination, and missed deadlines.

3. Overwhelmed by Independence: The freedom of college life can be challenging – and distracting. Hours can slip away on social media or hanging out with friends, leading to last-minute cramming and increased stress.

4. Organizational Overload: Intelligent students often rely on keeping information in their heads. As coursework intensifies and the to-do list gets longer, this becomes unsustainable, resulting in forgotten assignments and increased anxiety.

5. Accountability Shift: Some students struggle with suddenly taking all responsibility for their own academic progress, which can lead to procrastination and a lack of engagement with coursework.

It’s worth noting that this transition can be particularly challenging for certain majors. As one Untapped Learning staff member and CU graduate notes, “It’s not uncommon for certain majors at CU, like aerospace engineering, to present a steep learning curve even for high-achieving students with good study habits.”

Practical Tips for Parents: How to Help Your CU Boulder Student From Afar

As your student navigates the challenges of college life at CU Boulder, you can offer support and guidance in several ways, even from a distance.

1. Getting Started with an Academic Routine

One CU graduate on our staff emphasizes, “Set an academic routine so you can plan your ‘social life’ around that. If you don’t have an academic routine, getting behind and trying to catch up takes time away from being social anyway.”

Many students struggle with the concept of “getting organized.” Help your student create a structured routine by building some type of organizational system. This system should include:

  • Class times
  • Dedicated study hours for each course
  • Buffer time for assignments that may take longer than expected
  • Regular review sessions to prevent last-minute cramming
  • Time for breaks, meals, and self-care activities

Show your student how to break down larger projects into smaller, manageable tasks with individual deadlines. This strategy makes large assignments feel less overwhelming and decreases the urge to procrastinate.

Remember, this organizational system is a starting point, not the final version. The key is moving tasks and deadlines out of your students’ heads and into a system. As your student makes progress, they can refine and adjust this system so it provides the structures and supports they need most. 

2. Learning Time Management and How to Study

Many students arrive at CU Boulder without learning to study effectively or manage their time. Here’s how you can guide your student to develop these skills:

Encourage Active Studying Techniques: 

  • Summarizing information in their own words 
  • Teaching concepts to others to reinforce understanding 
  • Using the notecard/1-page method for condensing and reviewing key information
  • Incorporating movement before study sessions (like a quick workout at the rec center) to boost focus and energy.

Introduce Time Blocking:

Teach your student about time blocking by incorporating the following: 

  • Scheduling dedicated study blocks for each course 
  • Focusing on one subject per time block to improve productivity (task switching takes a toll, especially for students with executive function challenges)
  • Finding distraction-free study spots on and around campus 
  • Grouping similar tasks (like readings or problem sets) together

For more details, check out this helpful video on time blocking

We have seen these strategies work well for students at CU Boulder. Our experience shows that students who actively develop their time management and use research-based study methods are better equipped to handle the challenges of CU.

3. Leverage CU Boulder Resources 

CU Boulder offers numerous resources to support student success. Encourage your student to take full advantage of these services:

Writing Center:

  • Schedule regular appointments for feedback on papers and essays
  • Get some assistance with actually starting to write a paper when you’re feeling overwhelmed—getting started is often the hardest part!
  • Visit after you’ve been assigned big papers and projects: the tutors can help break the work up into manageable pieces

Academic Advising:

  • Each department at CU will have its own advisors
  • Discuss academic short-term goal support or a long-term plan 
  • Seek advice on balancing course loads and managing academic challenges
  • Check-ins ensure students are on track to graduate

Major-Specific Resources:

  • Attend departmental study groups and review sessions
  • Utilize tutoring services offered by specific departments
  • Participate in academic clubs related to their field of study for peer support

Office Hours: 

Another CU graduate at Untapped advises, “If you’re confused, go to office hours. Material can move fast, and your understanding of it is very important. Your professors and TAs care about you learning the material, and it’s their job to help! Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Building a relationship with your professors will elevate your experience at CU and can help boost you after college.”

Encourage your student to:

  • Attend office hours regularly, not just when they’re struggling
  • Prepare specific questions or topics to discuss during office hours
  • Ask each professor/TA about effective study strategies specific to their class 

4. Develop/Improve the Organizational System

Remember, the brain is for having ideas, not holding them. An efficient organizational system is needed for academic success and to keep anxiety manageable at CU. 

Here are key components to consider:


Choose a system that works best for your student: 

  • Digital Calendar (like Google Calendar, the Calendar app, etc.):
    • Accessible across multiple devices 
    • Easy to set up recurring appointments
    • Can sync with CU Boulder’s Canvas portal 
  • Physical Planner: 
    • Offers a tangible, distraction-free planning experience 
    • Some students find that physically writing tasks helps them remember things better

Whichever method is chosen, encourage setting up reminders for deadlines and important dates.

Physical and Digital Organization 

Help your student maintain order in both their physical and digital spaces: 

  • Physical Organization:
    • Create a system for paper documents and handouts (usually a binder with dividers)
    • Invest in a 3-hole punch so there’s no limitation as to where your student can store their handouts—not everything fits in folder pockets!
  • Digital Organization: 
    • Establish a consistent file naming convention 
    • Create an electronic folder system for digital documents  
    • Use bookmarks to organize frequently used websites. This will lead to fewer opportunities to get distracted.
    • Declutter your digital space (whether it’s Google Drive or your desktop) by archiving old files

Remember, there’s no “correct” organizational system – the best one is the one that your student will actually use consistently. By creating and maintaining an organizational system, your student can reduce mental clutter, minimize procrastination, and have more free time.

5. Learning to Understand Themselves: 

Learning how you learn is the ultimate skill. This is the foundation for success not just at CU, but throughout life. This self-knowledge is the greatest gift we can help students develop. However, learning styles are highly individual, and while we can guide students, they must ultimately discover their own best practices. 

As a parent, you can guide your student toward self-awareness through thoughtful conversations. Try weaving these casual questions in when you talk: 

  • “When are you most productive: morning, afternoon, or night?” 
  • “Do you study better in silence or with background noise?” 
  • “Which study method worked best for your last exam?” 
  • “How accurate are you at estimating task times?” 
  • “What’s your biggest distraction, and how do you manage it?”

Remember, the goal is to start a dialogue, not to interrogate. Over time, you will see patterns and discover how your child learns best.

Self-understanding (or metacognition) allows your child to maximize their potential and continually evolve as a learner. Remember, the goal isn’t just to succeed in college—it’s to be a lifelong learner who can thrive in any environment. 

6. Emphasize the Importance of the Basics

Remind your student that sleep, movement, and nutrition are the building blocks for academic success. The demands of college can be intense, but neglecting self-care will hinder their performance and lead to them getting worn down as the semester progresses. 

These are challenging topics, because all we can do is give our kids the information and trust that they will take care of things. However, many college students forget the basics, which is where we can be helpful.

Reminders for college students:

  • Maintain a consistent weekday sleep schedule, aiming for 7-9 hours per night
  • Include regular movement in their routine. Boulder has something for everyone
  • Take regular breaks during study sessions to maintain focus and prevent burnout
  • Mindfulness is very helpful for students who are open to it

By prioritizing self-care, students can improve their overall well-being, increase their resilience, and maintain the energy and focus needed to tackle to perform academically. 

7. Consider Additional Support 

If your student struggles despite implementing these strategies, seeking additional support is important. This might include: 

  • CU Continuing Education:
    • This department offers flexible learning opportunities and supplemental academic programs for struggling students
    • They can help students catch up, get ahead, or explore new areas of study 
    • They provide online and in-person options to fit different learning styles and schedules.
  • Mental Health Support: 
    • CU Boulder’s Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) offers initial consultations and short-term counseling
    • For ongoing support, consider connecting with a private therapist in Boulder who specializes in college student issues
  • Untapped Learning: 
    • Provides individualized executive function coaching with many CU graduates on staff
    • Coaches meet students on campus weekly, offering convenience and consistent support
    • Helps students balance academic demands with personal responsibilities 
    • Offers accountability and motivation to keep students on track, but from a non-teacher, non-parent perspective

Early intervention (when possible) leads to the best outcomes, so don’t hesitate to explore these resources if you notice your student struggling. 

Remember, the transition from high school to college is significant, and it’s not uncommon for students to face challenges, even if they excelled in high school. Many of us don’t change behaviors until we struggle. By implementing the strategies and disciplines above, students will have the freedom to enjoy life in Boulder. 

Support CU Success with Untapped Learning: 

Our team of CU Boulder alumni understands the unique challenges you face. We’re here to help develop: 

  • Study habits that work with their learning style
  • An organizational system optimized for each individual
  • A relationship where coaches can hold students accountable to academic routines, and cheer them on even when things don’t go perfectly

Schedule a free consultation for more information. 

Parenting a child who struggles with executive function can be overwhelming, but you don’t have to navigate this journey alone. Let Untapped help!

For More:

Study Habits, Skills, and Attitudes: The Third Pillar Supporting Collegiate Academic Performance

Unveiling the Impact of Metacognition on Academic Achievement

Self-care, Perceived Stress, and Academic Performance

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