Ah, yes. The carefree and fun-filled life of a high school student in the 21st century. We relax, hang out with our friends until 1 a.m. and do whatever teenagers do, right? Wrong. It’s 2018, I’m a junior, and I’ve never been so stressed in my life.
To basically every adult ever: Yes, I pay attention in class; no, I don’t “only hang out with friends;” yes, I care about my grades; yes, I’m trying my hardest; and no, you telling me that I’m never going to college based on my grades is in no way going to encourage me. In fact, you’re more than likely going to make me feel worse.
I’m pretty sure most readers can relate. I mean, getting into college has never been so competitive. In fact, according to Business Insider, last year was the hardest year on record to get into an elite college. In 1997, the acceptance rate for Stanford was 15.5 percent and 12.3 percent for Harvard. The admissions for the class of 2022? Stanford stood at 4.7 percent and Harvard at 5.2 percent.
If you come from a background of parents with high expectations, then you know how much more intimidating the process can be. My parents have been drilling the concept of going to a “top-20 school” in my head since I was a small child. I remember my mom turning to me and saying, “When you go to Harvard, I’m going to put a ‘Harvard Mom’ sticker on my car!” whenever we saw a car that had an “[insert college name] Mom” sticker. When I was 7 years old, I told my dad I wanted to be an actress, and he said to me, “No, what do you really want to do. Acting is a hobby. You’re going to a top-20 school; you can’t be an actress!” It goes without saying that my parents never had bad intentions, and I still don’t think they do, but, now that the time to apply is approaching, I feel like I’m not good enough.
The standards that colleges are looking for are extremely and utterly overwhelming to say the least. I know someone who speaks three languages fluently, volunteered more than twice per week, had a perfect GPA and SAT score, and had prominent leadership positions — and this individual got rejected from every single Ivy League. Every. Single. One. I feel like the only way to be certain of your acceptance into an elite school at this point is by having won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Let’s start with the obvious: What do colleges want? Well, they want someone different. And what makes someone different? The list my parents have shoved down my throat goes as follows: perfect SAT/ACT scores, 4.0 GPA, clubs that interest you, leadership roles in said clubs, awards, sports, ranking in sports, volunteering often and being involved in the community all while keeping a healthy sleep cycle and perfect social life. I feel as though this list is practically impossible to complete. In fact, I know people who had all of these qualities, and they were still rejected from top schools.
An article by the Atlantic states that if you applied to three or four colleges about 20 years ago, aka the ’90s, (yes, the ’90s were that long ago), you were considered an outstanding student. Now, applying to six or seven schools is considered to be on the lower end of the spectrum, and, if you’re an outstanding student today, that number doubles. The reason? Schools have become more competitive. Every year gets harder and harder, and this all has to do with the availability of applications. Applying to schools now is easier than ever, and universities need a way to narrow their pool of applicants. This, obviously, leads to the ridiculous high standards that we all aim to achieve. Let’s be real, we all know that one 50-year-old who went to Georgia Tech for engineering and shows off about it, but we all know that person wouldn’t have gotten in if he, she or they applied now.
In my household, it has always been expected of me to go to a top school, but I’m starting to have my doubts. I spend so much time doing things I don’t like for the sake of trying to impress colleges and still running a big risk of getting rejected. I take SAT classes and study super hard for school, and I try to be involved in my school community as much as possible. This is extremely draining emotionally and mentally because, to me, one of the most painful feelings in the world is knowing that your best isn’t good enough. I know that is exactly how many teens feel at this point. This starts to drastically mess with our mental health.
Mental health is probably one of the most overlooked aspects of health. This is unbelievably problematic, because how you are mentally affects how you compose yourself on a daily basis. The reason mental health is so overlooked is because it isn’t something visible. If a bone is broken, you can see the effects, but if you are suffering from anxiety, depression or any other mental disorder, the problem itself can’t be seen on the surface. Because of this, mental illnesses often go undiagnosed, but, what most people don’t know is that mental illnesses, if untreated, can increase an individual’s risk to many serious health implications such as heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and even cancer.
One excuse I have continuously heard from adults is “Back in my day, no one had mental disorders! Your generation is so sensitive!” The concept that mental disorders aren’t real is extremely toxic, because the issues related to them are real. If the level of expectations are so high to the point that high school students have reported having the same amount of stress as the average patient in an insane asylum in the 1950s, then there is definitely a problem.
School is supposed to be a supportive and encouraging environment that teaches students to learn and thrive in what they’re good at. If students care more about their letter grade than the content they’re learning, they are going to resort to cheating and extremes to achieve the perfect grade, which defeats the purpose of school. It’s difficult for students to learn or thrive in school when the expectations and stress levels are at a record high. It’s discouraging, to say the least.
What compliments an article of statistics better than a list of possible solutions?
If you’re a stressed-out student, take into consideration the advice listed below. I’ve learned my lessons the hard way, and these are some things I wish people had told me sooner.
- Your grades are just numbers. They don’t define you in the slightest. Yes, going to a school like Harvard would be great, but, truthfully, think about your incentives for attending. Are your reasons for wanting to go there because you think they have a great program in your field of interest, or because you just want the brand name? There are a multitude of good schools that are amazing in what you want to pursue. Go to a school where you’ll be happy and learn about what you love. Your happiness is more important than anything.
- Your mental health is of utmost importance. When I say it’s important, I mean it can literally determine how you perform in school and how you feel on a day-to-day basis. If your guardians aren’t willing to or can’t afford to take you to a therapist, go to the school counselor. I know they have a reputation for not being the best, but talking to someone who has a degree is psychology is an amazing resource you should take advantage of, especially since talking to someone is better than talking to no one. Counselors may not be able to solve your problems, but they can give you tips and alternatives for dealing with your stress, anxiety, depression and anything in between.
- Relax. If school is reducing you to tears every night and you find yourself sleep deprived and stressed, try to take a step back. I know that’s easier said than done, but my grades and mental health improved after I stopped stressing out about them at every opportunity. Sometimes taking free time is necessary, and there is no shame in that. If you need a mental health day, take a mental health day and try not to feel guilty about it. Take a study hall if you need one (trust me, one study hall will not make or break your application). Relaxing tends to be an exercise of composure — it takes time to build. Start by prioritizing your sleep. If it’s past a certain time and you’ve been working on homework for a while, go to bed. You will have a miserable day if you function on little sleep. Not to mention that lack of sleep is associated with stress, poor academic performance, and a number of things many teens tend to worry about.
- Take electives you like. Don’t try to be an overachiever and take a million history electives if you don’t like history. What I found was that since I genuinely enjoy the subject I chose to take, the work feels like a break from my other school work.
- Delete social media. In addition to being more productive, you won’t be stuck observing the lives of others. I realized I spent so much time on Instagram and Twitter idolizing people living their lives, but I wasn’t living mine. I’ll admit: I was just as attached to my accounts as the next person, but deleting everything has opened the door to many things I love. I love to write, read, draw and watch movies and go out, and if I still avidly used social media, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do any of those things to the proficiency I can now.
- You’ll find a college that works for you. I’m a strong believer that everything happens for a reason, because I don’t think that everything that has happened to me has been for no reason. If you don’t get into your top schools, it wasn’t meant to be. First and foremost, major loss to the school for rejecting you. Second, major gain for you and your college because the one you end up going to gained an amazing person, and you gained a school that accepts you for you.
I hope this has introduced you to a new way of thinking. I would like to conclude by saying that you are worthy and capable of every single opportunity the world has to offer you. Never doubt your abilities, because where you go to school doesn’t define you. Only you define you, so go out into the world and be the amazing person I know you are.
Isabella, 17, attends Marist High School, and she enjoys all things artistic and listening to 80’s synth pop.