As an undergraduate student(and a so-called nerd), I have had friends who requested academic help a day or two before exams. Now, I don't have much problem with helping them and I try my best to do that. However, you can't help everyone all the time.

I learnt that the hard way in my mid-term exams because I didn't work enough on my weaknesses because most of my time was spent clearing any doubts(Solving the questions) my friends had. And those questions hardly ever overlapped with my weaknesses. Hence, my weaknesses remained exactly that.

How do I refuse to provide help?

Now, in my culture, it is sort of expected that if someone is good at, say, academics, they should help out the ones who are not so good at it. So, a direct no tends to harm relations with friends and also leads to you being seen as an arrogant jerk. I can tell them to come at a later time but they usually return at another time when I am even more busy and further excuses only serve to adversely affect relations. (Note that: There is no severe deterioration. It is just that, it doesn't help with how people see you, and trust me, in my culture, how people see you, is very important)

I have tried going to the library more often to counter this problem but the atmosphere in a library doesn't suit me and hence, even that is not an option.

How can I tactfully refuse help to people while not deteriorating my relationship with them?

  • How close, and how many of these friends would you previously have been helping at once? And are they asking to meet up and study or are you already seated with them when they ask?
    – Jesse
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 17:00
  • Well, friends I have met at uni. I pretty much helped most of them. I prefer reading alone and they usually come to my room if they want some help.
    – Sid
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 17:02
  • When you are in university, you can help others only to some degree, but not too much. You can get some students who party more than study. The worst and most feckless can hold you back in studies. The best you can do for them is encourage them to cut down partying and study more. Commented May 5, 2018 at 9:23
  • Possible duplicate of interpersonal.stackexchange.com/questions/12043/… Commented May 15, 2018 at 9:50
  • Check this link too, Someone on youtube has discussed this too . youtube.com/watch?v=_rcf5Dh7XD4 Commented May 15, 2018 at 9:54

5 Answers 5


Your question will sound very familiar to anyone who works in legal, medicine, or IT. "Hey, I need you to help me" and it winds up sucking up all of your time to no benefit to you.

One thing I've heard people do is have a schedule. "Sure, I can help you. I'm available next week Tuesday." Then it's not a question of your willingness to help, it's a question of your availability. The question starts off on the right foot, saying to come back later, but it doesn't really define "later". By maintaining a schedule, you define when later is and ensure that "later" doesn't impact you even worse.

If someone wants your help at the last minute (say right before an examination), then it gets harder. As the message gets out that people need to plan, however, the last-minute calls should decrease. Granted there will always be some who refuse to plan and will try to take advantage of you, but others should be able to think ahead a little more.

Scheduling is the first step. Now, the second step is limiting how much help you can do. If someone wants help, then offer them a discrete block of time so you aren't stuck trying to remedy poor study habits, lack of discipline, unwillingness to do the work, lack of talent in the field, or other base issue. If they legitimately have some questions, a discrete block of time will help. If they need more advanced help, then that discrete block of time will help establish that they need more than you can provide.

"I'd love to help. I've got an hour free on Wednesday at 6:30. Let's get together at your place". Now you've established that you can help, you will help, how much help you can provide, and you've set yourself up to be able to leave. It's a lot easier for you to be able to say, "Well, time's up and I have to leave" than to say "Time's up and you have to leave."

I'd add that an important help to render is self-help. Allot time to work on your weaknesses. No one needs to know that you're the person you're helping. Just set that time as unavailable. "I'm helping someone else at 8 and then going to bed. Sorry, I'm just not available."


Telling them that you are not going to help without them figuring out that you are not helping... That's a bit difficult to achieve. Try something easier.

Your problem is that helping them affects your own studies. My suggestion would be that quite some time ahead of the exams, you announce that you are willing to help people. Up to one week before the exam. Tell them very strongly that the last week is exclusively for your own studies, and you are not going to help anyone. If they come two weeks before the exams, or three weeks, then you are going to help. But not in the last week.

And when the time comes, you give help. The last two days before the last week, you tell everyone that these are the last two days of help. And in the last week, if anyone comes and asks for help (which will happen), you say no. An absolute, no discussion whatsoever, no. You tell them straight that the weeks before you were available, and you told everyone that the last week is for yourself, and that it is disrespectful to ask you for help at this late stage.

So you make sure that everyone knows that if they don't get help, it's not because of your unwillingness, but because they waited too long, even when they were told so.


Being a tutor or a problems solver is a key issue. If people come to have problems solved or for them to get better at building up their knowledge and methods to solve their problems themselves.

Helping people solve their problems takes time and patience, spotting their mistakes in their approaches, not just giving them the answer.

If you actually monitor how they are progressing, and simply close the door on those not prepared to put effort in to grow, it becomes simpler. It is a waste of ones time helping those who refuse to develop their methodology, and they themselves will stop coming for advice.

So making clear your approach to people who come, will help you and them. The benefit is those who put into action your tutoring, get better so come less and those who just want a simple answer, will stop coming.

By this you are not rejecting them, but laying out what your help means and is a good use of your time.


It won't hurt people knowing and respecting you for having you own life, things to do, friends to do, needs and problems too. I would keep in mind you are not their only way of doing things, and that your problems should come first.

Even more, if people are asking a favour for free, they ought to show respect about your own allotted time.

I would answer honestly as in:

  • Sorry, you are asking this in a complicated week near the exams. I am myself having a very busy week and do not have the time;
  • I might have the time in the next couple of days, having also to study/deliver a paper/...., however I would not mind give you some pointers over a coffee;
  • I do not have the time, however I have got some PDFs that I found about the theme;
  • I am sorry, this weekend I have to visit my folks. Can it wait for Tuesday, or a 10 minute talk is enough for giving you some clues how to pick it up yourself?

You also have to draw a line between genuinely helping other people or doing their tasks for them for free.

I would not mind losing a few "friends" that are there only friends because/while they do need me at a particular time.

I would however, be there for long time friends that proved to be true friends.

I also have to add, I would advise developing diplomatic skills and looking out for your own interests. Learning to say no is an acquired skill, and very valuable in life. Those requests wont stop after you leave the academic world.

PS. I personally helped a couple of friends, and mentored people over the years. I usually cut ties when I perceive I am being taken advantage of, or with very lazy people. I help my true friends, and have mentored people that seems genuine and interested in learning. Yes, over the years people have taken advantage of me. It is a learning process balancing being nice and avoiding being taken for granted.

PS2. As someone in whose culture it is acceptable to say a justified no, often even too much, I would comment I find the greater weaknesses as professionals of some cultures where saying no is tabu, is saying yes to impossible tasks or project schedules.


I was also studious in college. I was a nerd, but I didn't have the outward appearance of the typical 'nerd'. Nevertheless, I was at the top of my classes, and other students would seek me out for answers to homework. I mixed together several approaches to remedy the problems caused by other students taking up all my time.

I volunteered as a student tutor in math. Then, I could simply direct others in my math courses to the tutoring center where I could help them when I was on duty.

I wrote a custom terminal program so I could log in to the system we used to do application development. It was an IBM AS400, and we had to use dialup networking to access it. This allowed me to work from home a lot. So, I didn't have to look like a jerk turning people down for help.

I had a certain style of helping the people who came to me, where I genuinely took an interest in their lives. Some students already had children to support. Some received no assistance from their families (parents). Others were not as gifted as I am.

Still others had poor language skills or problems assimilating into the local culture. I did it kind of like the wizard in The Wizard of Oz. Everyone has within themselves what it takes to be successful at what they choose. They just don't know it.

So, after I determined each person's deficits, be it lack of time, lack of effort, lack of intellect, lack of confidence, a learning disability, lack of experience, low self-esteem, etc; I gave them something of myself to help them.

After each person knew that I truly was interested in who they are and what their life situation is, then I would ask about school work. What are you having a problem with?

Sometimes I would get the answer, "everything!" So, I just answered, "pick one specific thing." So, I narrowed it down to something manageable in the short time allotted.

Then I'd ask, "How do 'you' think it should be done? Write it out. I have faith in you!" After they tried to do the problem, then I'd lead them to find the right answer, always making them think they did it themselves.

In the end, I'd just say, "The answer was inside you all the time. You only needed me to help you find it. If you need help again, let me know. But I expect that you'll at least try to find the answer yourself first."

The confidence I imparted, and the expectation that each would at least try it themselves in the future, really reduced the number of students who came to me, because they had the confidence to at least try to do the work.

For the few that persisted, I would just make photocopies of my class notes and hand them to them.

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