5 essential tips for maintaining self-esteem while being a student

It will come as no surprise that university study can be challenging. 

Whether you’re doing a single undergrad subject or a master's degree, students are susceptible to the stress that comes from multiple deadlines, high workloads and balancing study with work, social and family commitments.

But it seems that the problem is deeper than we may realise - and if you’ve ever felt hopeless or overwhelmed as a university student, you’re not alone.

In fact, a large study into the mental health of Australian university and TAFE students conducted by the National Union of Students (NUS) and national youth mental health foundation, headspace, in 2016 found that concerningly high numbers of students are struggling with stress and anxiety.

More than 80 per cent of the 3,303 students surveyed said they had felt stressed or lacked energy and motivation during the previous twelve months.

Another troubling finding was that almost 60 per cent of students said they’d experienced feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness over the year. This speaks to a profound lack of self-esteem experienced by a large proportion of Australian students. 

It begs the question: What can we do about it?

Low self-esteem shouldn’t be considered in isolation and can be caused by mental illness such as anxiety disorder or depression. Those situations should be addressed by a medical professional. 

However, it can also help to have activities and postgraduate study tips up your sleeve that may help alleviate feelings of low self-worth - even when things get tough. 

Here are a few examples.

Set time aside for fun

When it’s crunch time, the natural response is to think, “I can’t possibly fit anything else into my schedule.”

This may sound like counterintuitive advice, but you should fit fun into your schedule. The trick is, it should be something you really love.

As headspace puts it: “Devoting time to doing fun things can help you relax, recharge and connect with your friends or a community group. Connecting with people and spending time with friends, family and pets can improve your general wellbeing and help you feel supported.”

More specifically, there can be even greater benefits if you participate in activities that you not only enjoy but that you’re good at. As Belkis Megraoui, writing for Top Universities, suggests: “Reminding yourself of your talents, strengths and abilities as an individual is just as important in building your low self-esteem as it is in creating close bonds and relationships with like-minded people.”

True, you won’t gain any extra time, but you’ll very likely get the perspective you’ve been seeking. You may even realise you are doing better than you thought you were while in the eye of the work-storm.

Laughing mix raced friends spending great time together outside.

Prepare and plan

We know, we know - you’ve heard this one before. But it really works.

Planning may seem boring – it may even be contrary to your natural work style – but it can do so much to alleviate anxiety.

headspace explains it like this: “To help reduce stress and ensure that you're as organised as you can be during study, there are easy ways to plan ahead and look after yourself. Prepare a study plan and goals for each day [or] week. Make sure it's balanced with other important things in your life – that way it will be easier to stick to.”

headspace also recommends that those who are working while studying have an honest discussion with their employer about the need to limit shifts or hours during certain times during the year, such as exam period.

Healthy body, healthy mind

This one’s an old chestnut too. But the more researchers look into it, the more evidence there is that good physical health leads to good mental health.

Exercise is an excellent way of “combatting depression and helping you to feel good” according to the Better Health Channel. 

The Victorian Government’s health and medical information website says that you should exercise in a way that suits you: “Targets need to be step by step, such as starting with a walk around the block once a day, enrolling at a local gym class or going for a swim.”

underwater picture of young swimmer in goggles exercising in swimming pool

Get things done

This one might sound simplistic, but hear us out.

It comes from career advisor, Frances Bridges in Forbes and is built on this straightforward premise: “Confidence is built on accomplishment.” It’s an indisputable truth, and yet so easy to forget when you’re face-to-face with three deadlines, writer’s block on an essay, an overwhelming desire to ignore some dense but critical reading… all on a balmy Friday night with your friends down at the local pub.

And once you forget, it’s not difficult to be swept into a vicious cycle of missing deadlines, feeling down about it, getting no sense of achievement out of your late submission and then approaching your next task with the same sense of dread as before.

To avoid all this, Bridges says “It begins with your day-to-day goals.” Ask yourself “what do you need to accomplish today, and every day this week or three days this week to help meet your goal?”

From there, larger goals start to take care of themselves. “If you accomplish the goals you set for every day, chances are you will begin meeting weekly and monthly goals, which brings you in range of your bi-annual and annual goals.”

She says to be mindful that “progress is incremental, and big changes do not happen overnight.'' But, she adds, “[i]f you achieve small and big goals, you're going to feel much better about yourself.”

Woman studying in library with many book open on her table.

Seek advice and support

If you read through the suggestions above and think “I’ve tried all that”, “I know it won’t work” or “this isn’t for me”, you might feel more comfortable speaking to a professional counsellor or student advisor.

At RMIT, student support services cover everything from financial advice to mental health support. If you’re simply after someone who will listen or just a quiet space, the Chaplaincy caters to students of all faiths and none. 

If you want to seek help with a personal or mental health concern confidentially,, the counselling service is an excellent option. If you feel your self-esteem is being affected by your studies, you could book an appointment with a Student Support Advisor, or you can call your local crisis centre such as Lifeline.

You’re never alone, and there’s always help just a phone call away.

Learn more about our online postgraduate courses. Get in touch with our Enrolment team on 1300 707 171