College Admissions: The Stress That Just Keeps on Giving | Teen Ink

College Admissions: The Stress That Just Keeps on Giving MAG

May 30, 2021
By Anonymous

Stress. Anxiety. Peer pressure. These were the responses of some rising juniors in my high school when asked what terms came to mind upon hearing the phrase “college admissions.”

In our town, it’s not uncommon to see cars with bumper stickers from Yale, Stanford, or Dartmouth, among several other elite institutions. It’s barely shocking when a 7th grader goes to the guidance office,
inquiring about extracurriculars that would improve their chances for admission into an Ivy League school. Casually chatting about how many APs you can load up on is the norm.

For a number of students living in our town, getting into just any university isn’t enough. It has to be a name-brand one, like one of the Ivies or other institutions regarded as having similar prestige. With universities such as Harvard experiencing an even steeper decline in admissions rates than most other schools in the nation, going from admitting nearly 11% of applicants in 2000, to admitting a whopping 4.5% of applicants in 2019, this mindset is probably not a healthy one.

As a junior at my high school, I would be completely lying if I said that the pressure, from parents, my peers, and myself, is not getting to me. Every time I hear of a senior getting into a top school, I make sure to check their LinkedIn profile, carefully comparing my extracurriculars and GPA to theirs. Building off of that, I participate in extracurriculars that I dislike, but apparently look strong on an application.
I study for hours on end for tests, often spending whole weekends doing nothing but writing notes in my textbook. Going against my teachers’ advice, I almost always learn for the grade and not for the sake of learning.

The external pressure manifests internally as intense stress. I stay up late most nights, worrying about the future. I’ll blank out during tests that I spent a whole week studying for. I feel a sense of dread whenever I have to participate in an extracurricular I’d rather ditch.

While I know that the amount of pressure I face is not unique to just me, I sometimes feel like I am the only one who is really impacted by it. I don’t see anyone else with dark circles under their eyes, or who freaks out during tests. “Am I just mentally weaker? What’s wrong with me?,” are thoughts that frequently appear in my head. Am I alone in feeling this way?

After talking to some of my peers about my stress issues, though, it turns out that I’m not alone in these feelings.

* * *

John is very much your stereotypical “overachiever.” Between a week packed with extracurriculars, an impressive number of hackathons that he’s either won or finaled in, and highly advanced classes to boot, you would think that he is perfectly confident in his abilities.

During our Zoom interview, John contemplates before answering any of the questions. However, when asked how stressed about college he is, the words seem to burst from his mouth quickly: “I’m more stressed than I should be.”

He explains that with his brother at Dartmouth and his cousin at Yale, his and his parents’ expectations of him are high – almost too high. Add in the stress of living around “lots of teens doing lots of impressive college activities.” While John enjoys learning at school and going to his extracurriculars, it is getting to the point where even he has to admit that “many of the things we do to get into college just aren’t very fulfilling.”

John is definitely not the only one who thinks this. Juliana, an incoming student in our school’s alternative school program, commonly referred to as the “A-School,” feels the same way. In fact, the lack of fulfillment with traditional schooling is one of the main reasons she tried out for the program in the first place.

Our school’s alternative program caters to students who are more interested in creative expression and informal lessons. Teachers are addressed by their first names, and students learn impromptu subjects in colorful classrooms with comfortable sofas. Community-oriented activities are highly encouraged. There are no grades in this program, but at the end of high school, a portfolio of the students’ work is sent to colleges.

On a scale of 1-5, Juliana rates her anxiety about getting into a top college as a 4. Much of this stress, though, comes from external pressure, both from other students and her parents. In the A-school, Juliana hopes to learn how to love learning again and how to grow in a supportive, encouraging environment, outside of the pressure cooker that is the main campus.

* * *

Upon doing more research, I realized that while our town is demanding, college anxiety is a nationwide phenomenon. The U.S. Bureau of Labor reports that nowadays, if you ask three random high school seniors in the U.S. what their plans after graduating are, chances are, at least two of them will say that they’re going to attend college. This percentage, from 2020, is much higher than what it was even in
1990. This is one of the main reasons why the admission rates for nearly all colleges and universities across the U.S. have decreased.

According to Healthy Children, “Nearly 1 in 3 of all adolescents ages 13 to 18 will experience an anxiety disorder. These numbers have been rising steadily; between 2007 and 2012, anxiety disorders in children and teens went up 20 perent.” While this statistic could be impacted by the rise in school shootings, social media, and body-image issues, college stress is likely one of the main factors behind it.

As reported by the St. Louis Business Journal, in a Bay Area (California) high school, Dr. Stuart Slavin, a pediatrician, found that the average high school student was more stressed than a student attending the medical school he chaired. “It was appalling,” Dr. Slavin stated.

In The Atlantic, Marya Gwadz, a senior research scientist at the New York University College of Nursing, says that “These experiences can cause kids to burn out by the time they get to college, or to feel the psychological and physical effects of stress for much of their adult lives.” So this leftover stress from high school could fester for possibly the rest of our lives.

But if this is such a problem, then why isn’t anyone doing anything about it? There are a few possible theories.

One very convincing theory is that much of the stress to go to a top-tier university is coming from parents, rather than school officials. This turns high school into a rat race to college. Many of these parents don’t realize that a teen is more than their GPA, number of volunteer hours, and even the college that they are accepted to.

Another plausible theory is that many students (myself included) tend to get stressed about school independently, and then that type of mentality tends to spread, becoming a type of contagious behavior.

Psychological services at school might need to be re-evaluated. Oftentimes, a student dealing with intense stress issues may not want to see their guidance counselor or school psychologist for the fear of looking like a “crazy person.” While this is absolutely a societal problem, school psychologists and guidance counselors need to find ways to make appointments accessible and comfortable.

Guidance counselors and school psychologists should also take a second look at the type of advice they often give out; telling students to kick their (very real) college stress to the curb and saying that “high school is a once-in-a-lifetime experience” isn’t going to magically de-stress an anxious teenager. Giving students methods on how to deal with stress in healthy ways will help. Stress is always going to be there – it’s the way you use and combat it that matters.

Making programs like the alternative school more mainstream could also help with reducing college anxiety. Right now, a stigma may exist around applying to such programs, because learning in such a nontraditional way is seen as “lesser” by many parents and students. By making alternative programs have a large presence in high schools, or even just implementing certain core elements of alternative programs in regular classroom settings, students who may have been initially hesitant about applying will now be able to reap the benefits of studying and growing in an educationally stimulating, yet laid back environment. Such alternative programs can not only help in relieving stress, but can also help students prepare for a well adjusted adult life.

We may never find out the true reason behind why this epidemic of college-related stress is still in full swing, and it’ll likely take us a while to discover a surefire method of alleviating this stress. Until then, though, here’s a message for both the students in my town and across the nation: getting that Dartmouth or Yale bumper sticker is a remarkable feat, no doubt, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of your happiness and mental health.

The author's comments:

Living in an area where several kids have admitted to taking Adderall to do better on the SAT and having nervous breakdowns after AP Biology tests is the norm, writing this article was a massive release for me. I hope this article reaches out to other college-obsessed students to show them that they are absolutely, 100% not alone in their fears and anxiety. We can get through this process! 

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