5 Ways College Students Can Build Self-Confidence (and Why They Should)

Asher Wu
May 4, 2021

Being a college student is tough. So challenging, in fact, that more than one-third of college students haven’t graduated after six years and 1 in 5 quit altogether. No one knows exactly why many of these kids drop out.   University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor Eboni Zamani-Gallaher puts it this way: “It’s not just about getting them in the door. It’s about making sure they come back from one year to the next. That’s the conundrum we still haven’t gotten figured out yet.”   One factor that could help students successfully negotiate the challenges of post-secondary education is their own level of self-confidence.   Psychologist Kenneth Shore says a student’s self-esteem has a “significant impact” on nearly everything they do. It affects their social life and personal relationships, and how they deal with change and challenges. “Self-esteem also can have a marked effect on academic performance,” Shore writes. Students with low self-esteem have less desire to learn and a lower ability to focus.   Self-esteem is directly correlated with overall health and happiness, so it's important to lock this in now to start to expand on feeling happy and healthy.   Let's take a look at the steps you can take to improve your self-confidence, which can in turn help you succeed at school.   college student smiling on her smartphone Photo by @criene via Twenty20

Pay attention to what you’re thinking, and change it

If your inner dialogue is consistently negative (I can’t; I’m no good; I always fail, etc.), you will believe those thoughts about yourself.   If you think you can’t do something, you won’t want to try it. And it doesn’t have to be just inner thoughts. You may catch yourself saying these things out loud, masked as self-deprecating humor.   If you realize that you think and say stuff that you wouldn’t say to your friend, stop. Be kind to yourself and have self-compassion.  And don’t judge the thought; just acknowledge it, then change it. So the negative “I can never do that” becomes a positive statement: “I can do that.”   Be mindful of how you're spending your time and how you can avoid triggers. If social media pours gasoline on the fire of negative self-talk, try doing a social media detox and see how you feel.

Do something scary on purpose

Most people don’t like change; it makes them uncomfortable. If trying new things intimidates you, take on something new.   It should be small and inconsequential, so if you don’t totally succeed, it doesn’t matter. The goal here is to build your self-confidence.   For example, try a pottery workshop with friends or attend a business networking event hosted by your college. Even if you make the worst clay pot ever or don’t make any business connections, the fact that you attended and had fun or learned something is in itself a success and confidence boost.  

Redefine failure

Researchers using big data have found failure to be an “essential prerequisite” for success. Of course, you can’t just keep repeating the steps that led you to failure: You’ve got to learn from your mistakes.    A simple example is when you fail a test because you didn’t study enough for it. Learn from that experience and put in the time for your next test.   Trying to avoid mistakes can actually be counterproductive, according to Janet Metcalfe, professor of psychology at Columbia University. In fact, failure followed by “corrective feedback is beneficial to learning,” Metcalfe says. So, embrace errors and mistakes as a natural part of learning, without judgment.

friends laughing together Photo by @hellomikee via Twenty20

Choose positive and self-confident friends

Even if you are making every effort to choose more positive, self-affirming thoughts, your self-confidence won’t grow if you’re surrounded by negativity. Be aware of how your friends talk. If they put you (or themselves) down regularly, even after you’ve asked them not to, you may need to find new friends.   You can’t help but be influenced by those people you spend a lot of time with. Social neuroscience research shows when a person is asked to think about a friend, their brain activity patterns can be remarkably similar to those observed in that friend when they think about themselves. We mirror each other to a certain extent. What you don’t want, then, is a friend to reinforce your feelings of low self-esteem.   It's important to find friends that have their own goals and support your goals as well. Remember, it's not a competition.  

Help someone else

Do something good for somebody; it’ll boost your self-esteem.    When you help another student who is struggling with a subject you’re good at, you demonstrate undeniable proof of your skill. The gratitude of the person you tutored is further proof, and it’s objective, so hard to dismiss as you might otherwise do.   You don’t even have to “do” anything. Just showing compassion can have positive effects on your self-esteem. When you focus on someone or something other than yourself, you can find meaning and purpose. This in turn enriches your life and improves your mental health including your self-esteem.   More >> Therapy can help you build self-confidence. Check out the benefits of getting help.