I go to a relatively young public school in Colorado, and though it doesn’t offer International Baccalaureate classes, it offers a plethora of College Board Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Courses known to help students’ resumes stand out to colleges, courses that boost a student’s GPA, courses that good teachers want to teach because it means a reverent and focused class will take them. From AP physics to AP studio art, there is an unspoken pressure to take as many of these classes as one’s schedule permits. It’s a tradition deeply ingrained in the very essence of students marked as “Advanced”. Whether that mark comes from an official Advanced Learning Plan, accelerated courses, or the passing of some random test in the 7th grade, a majority of AP students at my school have grown up in classrooms consisting of the same students. However it’s these students that are starting to take notice of the impacts of their course loads, the pressures and culture that surround them, and the lack of legitimate solutions for the stresses and anxiety that they cause.
In an era of unspoken academic pressure and never ending expectations, high achieving high school students are forced to play into a toxic culture of stress and competition, a culture that perpetuates the very ideals that make their lives unfulfilling.
On Being “Advanced”
When interviewing a group of four juniors at my school, all of whom were taking 5 or more AP classes, their feelings regarding day-to-day school life were pretty unanimous.
They all considered their high school experience a means to the next big thing. They saw the actions they took today as preservation for the opportunities of tomorrow. Katherine Watterson explains, “We’re constantly told to be the best in every aspect of our lives, if you want to be successful, you have to go to an Ivy, if you want to go to an Ivy, you have to have a strong resume, if you want a strong resume, you need to have this GPA, be the leader of these clubs, have these APs. It’s a very clear and unavoidable belief that there’s only one way to do it, and deviating from that means you’re settling for mediocrity for the rest of your life.”
However when it comes to checking off those boxes on the path to success, high schoolers begin to feel the pressure.
“It’s not really the individual components that make it hard,” Natalie Jones tells us, “it’s the stacking of so many tiny pieces that makes it too much to bear.”
These high achieving students are left in a never ending state of concern for their future, leading to anxiety and stress that borders on unhealthy.
Teenagers in America report that they’re feeling more stressed than the American Psychological Association considers healthy (5.8 compared of 3.9 on a scale of 10). In their junior year, high schoolers are told to be ready for the most academically rigorous year of their life, and they constantly feel the pressure of the rest of their lives relying on their every action. However, in preparing for the future, these students are missing out on crucial moments of the present. They have given up some of their favorite activities, moments of their lives that not only brought them joy, but helped them destress. Andrea Drier says,
“I haven’t had time to bake at all this school year. It used to be something I did all the time, but now there’s just too much going on.”
That’s not surprising; Health and Human Resources reports that the average teen spends roughly an hour and a half on homework a night, but for AP students, this can range from anywhere from 3–5 hours a night. With that much time going into just their classes, let alone their extracurriculars, there’s quite literally no time for anything else.
The problem is, students are not told to prioritize their happiness, they’re not told to prioritize their mental health. They’re told that no matter what’s going on, you need to get an A, you need to finish the project, you need to score the highest. The implications of such priorities are leading more traditionally intelligent young adults to feel unfulfilled. This is not self-inflicted, it’s a culture of “stacking” all of the best accomplishments that is prominent throughout the entire country.
Stack it and Serve it - The Perceived Key to the Ivy
When looking into prestigious universities across the nation, students can easily become overwhelmed with the improbability of actually being accepted. When this was brought up in the conversation Watterson said, “ahh these thoughts hurt. I don’t even want to think about everything I still have to do.” It’s a constant struggle to, as Alaina Reeds puts it, “not try to be the best, not work the hardest, but be the best.” That very traditional and strict idea of success is what’s still reflected in college expectations. If one searches up “how to get into an Ivy League school” they’ll find variations of the following.
- Get those Grades and Test scores up
- Lead academically challenging school clubs
- Write a good essay
- (And my personal favorite) Get professional help
It’s rare that one will find a site advising their audience to lead a fulfilling life in which their studies and zest for learning give them meaning and drive. Instead one is told to just check off those boxes. If getting into these universities is the epitome of high school success, what does this indicate about the what high schoolers are supposed to prioritize?
How to Stop the Stack (or at least reduce the stress)
“These pressures don’t just exist here” Reeds reminds, “they exist everywhere”. So how are high schoolers to minimize their impacts?
TALK ABOUT IT: Even the participants within this small group agreed that having this discussion helped. The culture of high achieving young people not admitting when they’re stressed worsens the issue. Reach out, acknowledge when it’s too much, and speak to others. Drier says that “it’s such a relief to know that I’m not the only one feeling this way.” The American Psychological Association ranks talking about issues as one of the best ways to manage stress.
SEPARATE YOURSELF FROM YOUR RESUME: Quick update: humans cannot be accurately summarized on a single piece of 8” by 11” paper. When one tries to, it results in the reduction of character, misinterpretation of human meaning, and degradation of values. Drier tells us that “so much of my self worth is accredited to how well I do in school” and though it’s no simple task, students must aim to differentiate their grades from their value as a human. There’s no As or Fs in the “real world”, what matters is how much you learn, how you impact those around you, and how you find purpose. This is not to say students shouldn’t care about their accolades, especially when it’s pretty much all universities see, but it should not be the defining attribute of one’s personality. That will only end in an erosion of character and fulfillment.
DON’T LET SCHOOL STOP YOU: High school ends, one day college will end too. Letting the pressures of the future get in the way of a meaningful present will lead to discontent. Instead of focusing only on taking the hard classes for the resume, do something that’s meaningful to you, or just sounds fun. Take that experimental dance class, or take Introduction to Improve, or Futurology, don’t let the pressures of the tomorrow stop you.
High achieving high school students are never going to stop stressing. However, high school doesn’t have to be just something to lead to the next chapter of life. Taking so many AP classes or getting so many As is in no way a guarantee of success. So, as Reeds puts it, “Just go and find a passion and see where it takes you.”
Note: The names in this piece have been changed in order to protect the participant’s anonymity.