Academic Pressures at College (page 3)
The kids whom I see entering college today are not strangers to academic pressure. With record numbers of high school seniors applying for a finite number of spaces at public and private colleges and universities across the country, the institutes of higher learning have become far more selective than in the past. And many kids get the message early on that being good isn't good enough.
Consequently, during their high school years, these ambitious students have taken college-level courses and SAT and ACT preparation classes. To boost their transcripts, they have participated in internships and attended corporate and political conferences and workshops; they have led the student government, joined after-school clubs, competed in varsity athletics, and volunteered their time in community and humanitarian projects. They have taken the tough job of doing well in school and getting into college very seriously.
Finally, the college acceptance letter arrives in the mail, and the pressure is off. With the prize in hand come feelings of relief and exhilaration, but they are short-lived. After arriving at school, a new set of pressures and expectations appears. Now comes the push to earn top grades and distinguish one's self in order to get into graduate school or secure a good job in a very competitive market. Some students face this task with a clear agenda and plan; others arrive with a blank slate. Most begin with a combination of enthusiasm, uncertainty, and a paradoxical desire to be unique and to fit in. Without strong coping skills to face these internal and external pressures, today's college students are walking combustibles, and the competitive college environment is often the igniting match.
Gotta Get All A's
In high school, it wasn't too difficult for the best students to rise to the top and for even average students to get exceptional grades. But college often changes all that, striking a blow to kids whose total sense of self-worth is tied to academic achievement (and this seems to be the case more and more often).
I get a lot more calls lately from faculty saying, "I received an e-mail from a student saying that if she fails this course, she's going to kill herself." The reason for this desperate feeling is not so much the objective stress (such as fear of doing poorly in the class) but the subjective stress. Too many students who get a B on a test overgeneralize and assume that this one misstep will lead to a disastrous life. They feel deeply that they are failures who will never get into graduate school or be successful in their careers. There is a complete loss of perspective, especially for the brightest students. They were tops in their high schools, but now find themselves in the middle of the pack surrounded by other "perfect" students. Because this is a time of developing autonomy, they face a challenge to their preconceived view about life"I'm supposed to be smarter and stand out. This confusion affects their identity as they struggle with the question, If I'm not the best, who am I? Sadly, some decide, I'm a failure and a disgrace.
College kids who are very focused on grades in order to get into graduate school or grab top jobs tend not only to feel more stress than other students, but I believe that they also get less out of their education than those who allow themselves to be less focused and less perfect. Grade-obsessed students are less willing to explore courses that are not directly related to their major. Students have told me that they do not want to "waste" their time or risk getting a low grade in an area they are not entirely comfortable with. They don't give themselves the freedom to enjoy learning for learning's sake. (Ironically, even some students in liberal arts colleges resist a liberal education.)
This is not a problem at top-tier schools only. Students at schools of lesser renown may feel even greater pressure to prove themselves. They may feel they are already at a disadvantage to students at the Ivies and need to achieve even more and accomplish even greater feats in order to compete for a place in graduate school or in the job market.
This situation robs these students of a chance to enjoy learning, which in itself is a wonderful antidote for academic stress. They won't let themselves work off tension through the fine or performing arts or put things in perspective through philosophy, religion, or psychology courses. They also miss the opportunity to delve more deeply into themselves and figure out who they are and what they really want to do with their lives.
The students who suffer the most academic stress are often the very ones least willing to admit to anyone at college that they are suffering. They fear that conceding even the slightest struggle will kill their chances of getting a good recommendation for graduate school or jobs. With an eye still on the prize, they try to deny the problem but pay the cost in suffering.
The Hard Facts
The American College Health Association survey of 29,230 college students found these impediments to academic performance (the full survey results are available in Appendix A):*
- Stress - 29.3 percent
- Sleep difficulties - 21.3 percent
- Concern for a troubled friend or family member - 16.6 percent
- Depression, anxiety disorder, seasonal affect disorder - 11.6 percent
- Death of a friend or family member - 8.8 percent
*American College Health Association, National College Health Assessment: Reference Group Report (Baltimore, Md.: American College Health Association, 2002).
Gotta Work Harder
Other students are quite resilient when they get their first "unacceptable" grade and vow to work even harder. For many students, however, this response makes the situation even worse:
Ted was a business student who came from a small, rural high school. He entered a large university and immediately felt that he did not have the educational background that others students brought with them. But Ted did not despair over his first C on a term paper; he was determined to prove that he could succeed. He confronted the challenge by increasing his study time, gobbling up every free second. He gave up his morning jog, barely grabbed a snack during the day, stopped "unnecessary" socializing, and stayed up to the wee hours of the morning studying.
Ted thought he was doing a good thing. He did not realize that in addition to studying, daily exercise, nutritious food, adequate sleep, and good friends are also absolutely necessary to academic success. By studying too much and too long, Ted was soon studying less and less efficiently. This increased his need to study more, setting up a dangerous cycle: the more kids study and give up exercise, food, sleep, and social interactions, the more susceptible they become to depression.
Tips for Mental Health
Exercise and food feed the body and the brain so they can function at peak levels. Early stages of sleep allow us to feel rested and restored, and the later stages allow us to integrate cognitive functions so we can remember what we studied the day before. Friendships give us necessary comfort and support.
Walking a Thin Line
The colleges your children attend should demand academic excellence. You should hope that their course work is challenging. But we must all be aware of the very thin line your children walk between feeling challenged and feeling overwhelmed. If they get stuck on the wrong side of that line, they will need us to be nearby to pull them back over.
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