When my mother was in high school, she took one AP course. My father’s school was astounded when he wanted to take calculus as a junior. They both hung out with their friends, slept a reasonable amount, and woke up around eight. And both were considered prime candidates for top universities, to the point where my mother didn’t bother applying to more than four schools (three of which were Ivy Leagues). High school wasn’t a breeze, but as my father said, “We weren’t stressed out of our minds or sad.” Fast forward to today, where my fellow students take six AP classes each year without batting an eye and consider sophomore-year calculus an unexceptional accomplishment. What’s changed?
Being in a gifted and talented (G&T) program has certainly provided an academic challenge that I relish. When asked about MSTC, my STEM-oriented magnet program, I often mention how much I love the mind-bending physics problems that can be distilled into such simple equations or the fascinating demonstrations my chemistry teacher conducts.
But in recent months, I’ve been forced to question whether being engaged in school is worth the social competition and mental distress that seem to be an inherent part of the G&T system.
Listening to other gifted students, it appears the answer is no. Although being in advanced classes does require advanced intellect, few accelerated students feel accomplished. Says Disha, a Singaporean IB student, “In Singapore, there’s this Chinese word, kiasu children, for kids who are overachieving. The environment in my school is very competitive and everyone cares a lot about their grades.” This dynamic plays out across local and national boundaries. According to Sam, an advanced student in Washington, “I’m currently in all honors classes, and that’s definitely changed my perspective on things because I’ll feel like crying over a ninety-three percent.” In a world where the average teenager is already underslept, the stress of advanced programs only exacerbates physical and mental strain. Half my friends never eat breakfast, because we have to arrive at school at 7:25 for zero hour. We take on harder classes and unenjoyable extracurriculars just to have something to put on the Common App.
Where does this unhealthy dynamic come from? Some of it is undoubtedly self-imposed. Emmy, an advanced student in Kentucky, says, “For me, it’s my own self-choice and that personal pressure.” However, she concedes, “I think the fact that a lot of my friends share that can be an issue.” Even best friends are a constant source of comparison. We don’t tell each other about applications for awards or extracurriculars until the day they’re due so that no one can diminish our chances of getting in.
A student at my school claims, “When it comes to stuff like me and my best friend competing for a selective program, it’s not really a choice. You want your friend to do well, but you have to do better.”
When students are surrounded by gifted peers, they compare themselves with their equally capable fellows rather than considering the entire population. Numerous studies have found that grouping G&T students in specialized programs has an adverse impact on self-concept, or the attitude one holds on one’s own abilities and skills.
The competitive climate extends beyond mere academic accomplishments. Sleep deprivation has become a status symbol. Adelle, a sophomore at my school, believes that “Everyone in MSTC jokes about wanting to kill themselves. People even compete over who got the least sleep.” When we share stories of late nights spent studying, it no longer feels like we are looking for sympathy or commiseration, but rather trying to prove a point. We have worked hard enough to be here. We are miserable enough to warrant our success. It’s unclear whether we share these stories to temper other’s jealousy or to prove our dedication.
This pervasive distress also reduces our capability to reach out for help when it is needed. Although we all take turns comforting each other through our various travails, constantly being reminded of others’ hardships unhealthily normalizes our own struggles. As a friend at my lunch table commented,
“Everyone in MSTC has had a mental breakdown at some point.”
We’ve learned to diminish not just our own accomplishments, but also the severity of our own problems in comparison to those of our peers. “I’m not even that stressed,” I recently told my therapist (while crying, no less). “At least I’m not sobbing myself to sleep every night.”
But if our social life and health are paying the price, then where is the supposed payoff? For most people, it’s college. The prevailing sentiment is that having a miserable high school experience is well worth it if you can relax at Stanford or Yale. Yet this hypercompetitive culture is not doing us well in our future. By overworking ourselves in high school, we never learn how to balance our desire for success with our need to relax. “[We won’t] be prepared to weigh priorities later on,” says Emmy. “Because if you don’t sleep for high school, and you don’t sleep for college, that’s going to have an effect on you.” Her beliefs are corroborated by statistics: over half of college undergraduates have felt overwhelming anxiety in the past year. Evidently the bad habits acquired in high school don’t simply disappear on move-in day.
So would I be happier outside of a magnet program? I honestly don’t know. Although Amal, a junior at my school, agrees that magnet programs foster stress, she also thinks that “it’s nice how close the MSTC kids are, just because you all spend so much time in the same classes.” It is true that real bonds have been forged out of shared misery, and I certainly wouldn’t want to trade a high-stress environment for one where I was bored out of my mind. But there is room for a middle ground. Maya, a sophomore in Chicago, believes her school is trying to find it. “My school has advanced programs, but they don’t want you to be really good at one subject. There’s not as much competition to get a 98 in math. [It’s] made me a chiller person.” Although she is unsure whether this has prepared her for the real world, she acknowledges that she wouldn’t want to replace her situation with the hypercompetitive school cultures her friends bemoan. Somewhere, there must be a happy medium between academic challenge and excessive stress. One thing is certain: for all magnet programs’ focus on knowledge, they still have a lot left to learn when it comes to their own students’ wellbeing.