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Sprinting upstream: The incredible pressure faced by college-bound high schoolers

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Sprinting upstream: The incredible pressure faced by college-bound high schoolers

Christina Zhang, 16, averages a couple hours of free time a day, but it’s hard to convince herself that she can actually use them to relax. You think about “Oh, what is it if others are working and getting ahead?” She says. After taking eight AP classes as a sophomore and completing a college-like application process, Zhang started her third year of high school at North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, a residential public school for “talented” juniors and seniors. She worries about her grandmother when she calls them. She doesn’t want to waste good brain time on this task so she finishes her laundry at night.

Zhang, whose mother asked that she use a pseudonym for safety and privacy purposes, is part of a new generation of high-achievers. Zhang and six others were profiled by filmmaker Debbie Lum in “Try Harder! ” a documentary about the extreme anxieties of high-achieving, college-bound teenagers premiering on PBS on May 2.

Shealand Fairchild stated to Lum’s camera crew without any doubt or irony, “The big players in the world are the kids going to higher-level college.” Without going to these big colleges I won’t be able do the things I desire. In another scene, a teacher asks what multiple rejection letters would mean to a group of seniors.

” Everyone hates you,” replies Alvan Cai.

” What about the potentials for your future? She asks.

” You have none,” he replies.

A teacher wants to know what multiple rejection letters mean for a group senior citizens.

” Everyone hates you,” replies Alvan Cai.

” What about the potentials for your future? She asks.

” You have none,” he replies.

The documentary was shot at Lowell High School, San Francisco in the pre-pandemic. However, high-pressure phenomena is ongoing nationwide. Adolescents today perceive parents to be more expectant about academic achievement than past generations. They’re shouldering a more rigorous course load, according to transcript studies from the National Center for Education Statistics. They are in serious trouble. The rate of death by suicide for ages 10 to 24 increased nearly 60% between 2007 and 2018, according to the CDC, and other manifestations of psychological distress abound. A 2018 report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation listed “excessive pressure to excel” alongside poverty, trauma, and discrimination as barriers to adolescent wellness. As we will see, children of color are often affected in a unique way.

But there are options.

The psychological costs of high-achieving schools

Economic inequality and insecurity are growing, and with them parental concerns about their children’s futures. Sometimes it’s not about getting ahead. Middle-class parents who see their kids swimming against a financial current think they must sprint like Usain Bolt just to stay in the middle class. Families also read about college acceptance rates trending lower. The average acceptance rate at the nation’s top 51 schools was 35.9% in 2006; by 2018, it was 22.6%. For top-10 schools, acceptance rates shriveled from 16% to 6.4%. Like Lowell’s Fairchild, whole communities come to believe that only a degree from Harvard or Stanford guarantees access to success — and you have to be the best of the best to get in.

Scores and grades can be viewed online at any time. Sometimes, a teenager’s parents or their friends know the results of their tests before them. Peers’ Instagram stories feature the scouts who have visited them, as well as the non-profits that they started and their thoughts on how they did on the SAT.

Children respond to perfectionistic expectations and competition in a variety of ways. Many people believe that “grind culture” is the young version of “hustleculture.” They feel guilty when every minute is not productive, just like Zhang. Beyond developing their own perfectionism (which isn’t a good thing for academic performance), these kids end up living for the future and compulsively comparing themselves to others. Then they suffer all the detritus of those psychological phenomena: anxiety, depression, inefficiency, lack of intrinsic motivation, contingent self-worth, burnout, academic entitlement, somatic symptoms like stomach aches, sleep loss, and more.

RELATED: College admissions are a joke: Why the process has nothing to do with education

Over two decades ago, Suniya Luthar, then a professor at Yale, first attributed the “disturbingly higher” rates of substance use, anxiety, and depression she found in certain communities to affluence; additional research later showed “that it is not so much about family wealth as it is living in a subculture of competitiveness,” she says. In academic research, these “hotbed schools” have been referred to as “high-achieving school” (or “HAS”). According to her, the kids look over each other’s shoulders and ask, “Who’s going overtake me?” This is an amazing way to approach adolescence. In a study of 1,608 students published in 2020, her team confirmed that negative social comparisons are tied to bad outcomes.

” “I feel that there isn’t enough space at the table to accommodate all of us,” Luthar states.

Zhang may recognize this description. Zhang was not very driven in seventh grade. She looked around at her magnet middle school, which was “very competitive”, and noticed that others were involved in many extracurricular activities. She says that there was “a kind of shift in me” as she didn’t want to be behind her friends. Pre-calculus was something I did the summer before entering ninth grade. Zhang, a freshman at a magnet highschool, felt “pressure, a culture” to continue taking AP classes, even if these aren’t the courses you want. “

Not only are enjoyment and fulfillment no longer the main focus of her and her HAS peers’ time now, they also don’t have enough space to find what interests them. She says, “If it takes too long to get good at something we won’t be able to do it quickly,”. She doesn’t like hobbies with competitions, other than reading. It’s difficult for me, and many of my friends, to think of spending too much time doing something that has nothing to do with college. Their motivation does not revolve around self-determination which is associated with happiness or well-being.

That’s likely one reason the National Academy of Sciences labeled children in HAS’s an “at-risk population” in 2019, saying that studies not just in the U.S. but also in places like Norway have found rates of clinically significant problems much higher than national norms. Research on German students ties high-achieving schools to negative self-concept and emotions. While not all people struggle with mental health issues, a significant number of them pay an extremely high psychological cost.

” You are left with an attitude,” Zhang said. “You attach a lot to your accomplishments.” Children judge others and are judged. She says that growing up in such an environment was not healthy. “

Fear of failure can cause paralysis in some people. In “The Disintegrating Student,” Jeannine Jannot writes about high-performing kids who give up when they begin to struggle. They would rather be called lazy, defiant or dumb than smart.

Zhang has a different experience with fear of failure.

Zhang experiences fear of failure differently. “I really blame myself for my mistakes. I feel like I am worthless if I don’t win. She doesn’t feel a lot of joy when she wins. She’s mostly afraid of the consequences if she loses next time. That contingent, all-or-nothing sense of self-worth is fragile and has been proven to be a recipe for anxiety, a fixed mindset, and other ill effects.

Researchers discovered a “consistent pattern” in poorer child function when children believed their parents valued achievement more than kindness. This could be because these kids were also subject to greater parental criticism.

Zhang was older than her brother and he wasn’t as competitive. She says that his parents weren’t very pushy. Her mom was eager to assist her when she took precalc with her cohort that summer. Zhang was ranked first in her class. Zhang doesn’t see her parents as a pressure source, but she says that “my mother wanted me to continue taking AP classes…and maintain this rank.” “

In The Unlikely Art of Parental Pressure, Christopher Thurber and Hendrie Weisinger write, “Loving, well-intentioned parents from all over the world are applying unhealthy pressure.” This is linked to an additional reason Luthar, her colleagues and others give for mental illness in HAS settings. Strong relationships can lead to a loss of mental health.

In a 2018 study of sixth-graders at an affluent middle school, researchers asked students to rank a list of parental goals the same way their parents would. They then compared their perceptions to grades, behavior in class, self-esteem and symptoms such as anxiety or depression. The researchers found “a consistent pattern” of poorer child functioning when children thought their parents prioritized achievement over kindness, possibly because those kids also perceived higher levels of parental criticism.


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Zhang is a friend. Zhang says that she has friends. “

Competition can, Luthar states, reduce trust and lower friendship quality. Peer friendships that are strong allow teens to safe individuate from parents. However, in such settings peers may feel pitted against one another. Luthar states that this potential support factor can’t be neutralized. It becomes a source for distress all by itself.

How people of color are uniquely harmed

Black adolescents are subject to multiple stressors including discrimination, “stereotype danger” and the pressure of knowing that you can be judged by others. Though not all HAS settings are affluent, this additional stress helps explain why research has found that African American boys suffer from significantly higher rates of depression and substance use in wealthy communities.

Kortni foreman, a Junior at Townview Science and Engineering Magnet in Dallas is an elementary school. Her program has “regular, fast, then super-fast” mathematics tracks. She realized that she is not only the Black girl in the “super-fast” grade, but also the only one in the class. Her grades are usually A. “When I got an 81, I wouldn’t think, ‘Oh, this is a bad reflection on the Black community,’ but throughout the classes, it’s more a lingering thought of, ‘Well, you better try and do good. ‘”

Iris Rivas is one year ahead of Foreman in Townview. However, she is a student at the School of Business and identifies herself as Latinx/Hispanic, just like the majority of students. According to her, she began getting up an hour earlier to finish the work she had done that night. She said this because she knew school was going to be a way for her to show pride in her family. She is constantly being threatened by stereotypes.

There’s another threat for Asian American students. According to the “model minority myth”, students of Asian origin are intelligent, quiet and hardworking. In that generalization lies erasure. Luthar says: Instead, it’s like saying that I’m not noticed because of my race. I’m invisible. ‘”

Zhang said that academic success is a requirement. “You have to excel beyond the white peer group to get treated equally.” That’s especially true when students know colleges limit the number of spots they’re willing to give Asian American applicants.

In “Try Harder!” Cai claims he attempted to present himself as less Asian on college applications “because Asians can be seen as machines”. But the story of his “Tiger mom” — who knew he had homework on Sunday and thus wouldn’t let him go to bed one Saturday until they finished working on an application at 3: 00 a.m. — confirms a reality Luthar points to. She says that “[*] Asian families have high expectations, regardless of whether they’re East Asians or South Asians like me.” And student performance can often be a source of pride for the family. “

Is the pressure all for naught?

Some people will see this and say It may not all be sunshine and rainbows but it’s worth the effort .. However, research shows otherwise.

In that 2018 study of sixth graders, not only did children’s academic performance not suffer when parents valued being a good person as much or more than achievement, but their grades and teacher ratings were better than the high-pressure group. Other studies confirm the fact that high stakes can actually hinder rather than improve performance.

Heightened competition also does not pay off. Another study of Luthar’s showed that the kids who valued others’ well-being and offered them assistance at ages 12 and 13, by late in high school have higher grades and SAT scores.

“Push and push and push your kids until they’re 18, and they will break,” Lewis says.

Economists approach the issue from a new angle. In a 2014 Econometrica paper titled “The Elite Illusion,” a team of researchers including MIT professor Parag Pathak wrote that many students at HAS’s excel, but that may not be because of the HAS. The researchers searched for students who were “cusp”, the few 8th-graders who met the criteria to be admitted to Stuyvesant, an independent school in New York City that’s widely regarded as the educational crown jewel. These kids were academically very similar when they began. AP scores, state standardized exams and AP scores later showed that those who did not go to HAS performed just as well. Pathak’s 2020 study used a similar method to look at Chicago’s elite exam schools and found that attendance reduced math scores and had no effect on English scores.

The data puts into doubt the need for this kind of pressure. Katherine Reynolds Lewis, author of “The Good News About Bad Behavior, says it’s a myth that students must be “the best of the best” to get into a good school. Parents whose children attend HAS have expressed concern that universities are more accepting of diversity, which could lead to fewer places for today’s top-tier students. Lewis claims that their children no longer have access to “the good life.”

One reason that college acceptance rates are falling is due to a swelling denominator. In 2002, each applicant applied to an average of four schools; in 2017, the average was more like seven schools, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center report. According to a 900 report by the Pew Research Center , “Failing admission rates don’t necessarily mean that colleges are being pickier about who they admit.” ”

There’s another reason parents should question their math around pressure: “Push and push and push your kids until they’re 18, and they will break,” Lewis says, citing CDC statistics showing a record number of teens visiting the ER for eating disorders. It might seem like all is well for a while, but they will eventually get there. Luthar states that HAS’s cannot use college acceptance to determine success. “They might be accepted at Harvard and Yale, but the mental health services on campus are full. “

These are the consequences of not making changes. Cai’s classmate Fairchild, Ian Wang, says that his mother is not a Tiger mom. He instead points to “happiness” as the promise of course correction. “

How to start fixing the problem

Zhang said of her elder brother: “He’s spoken to me about the fact that he believes that college is not as important as my parents believe. His friends are unhappy at their current places because of the prestige. “

Messages such as these are crucial for fighting grind culture. Luthar states that the first step in combatting it is to make sure people know they have them. They think it’s the L.A. parents, but in reality it’s Manhattan parents. Even Manhattan parents are saying that it must be Palo Alto or Silicon Valley parents. Luthar claims that it is everywhere in her research.

As a result, she and her colleagues have urged parents to “be vigilant in their own homes, starting from early childhood, against being overly invested in the child’s ‘resume-building.'” This task is accomplished through three communication feats.

First, parents must convey unconditional regard, which is a fancy way of saying you are loved regardless of accomplishments, you are loved just for being you. This is Foreman’s parents, who are “super-fast.” She is told she can attend any college, no matter how small. You can do whatever you like. “

Second, recall again the study of sixth graders. Luthar states that parents should make it clear to their children that success is more important than being good. Lewis says that parents who have achieved a high-profile career are especially important in proactively “putting the message out that they need to discover themselves, find out what drives and how they will contribute to this world.” She says that she didn’t have to tell her children anything to make them feel under pressure after going to Harvard. “

Third tells parents to “describe an environment where opportunities are abundant and a child is willing to explore them and where collaboration and personal and social benefit are common” instead of one in which “opportunities can be scarce, competition fierce, difficult tasks are numerous and urgent and perfectionism is necessary for success.” “

This last message is not easy to sell at HASs. However, it’s possible. Rivas from Townview says that everyone is trying to win the number one spot. However, it’s not impossible. ‘”

” It’s easy to state that parents are snowplow parents but helicopter parents. Schools have the wrong values. This is a social problem. “

Pine View School for the Gifted, a public school in Sarasota County, Florida for grades 2 through 12, is also a study in contradictions. Out of 212 seniors, between 20 and 30 are finalists for the National Merit Scholarship each year, according to principal Stephen Covert. The school has a 100% college acceptance rate. They don’t allow honor society sashes or rank students to discourage the grind culture. Counselors recommend Colleges That Change Lives to students. This non-profit is dedicated to finding the best higher education options for those who are fit and not just looking to make a name for themselves. Covert states, “They might not be the most well-known schools, but they’re amazing.” “

But still, there’s pressure. Covert tells them that success does not come from outdoing other people, but rather in being successful. He says, “We talk about the 212 philosophy, that at 211 degrees, water is just hot, but if you go that extra degree, that extra little bit of effort, you can boil water.” The school has “probably well over 100 clubs,” and National Merit recognition is put on the morning announcements.

“I Wish…”

In the Seattle region, Mercer Island high school has started to address these problems. On March 31, 2022, the PTA sent out an email including statements from students as part of the “I Wish …” project. These included “I wish that my parents would know how hard I work.” ”

Lewis said, “My children’s school has done an excellent job trying to push back.” Even though it is one of Washington D.C.’s most highly-achieving private schools, the teachers do not assign homework during breaks. Seniors must not wear sweatshirts from college. She and her husband go further, forbidding homework after 9: 30 p.m. and advocating for the school to discourage discussion of grades: “It can be an arms race where you are all pushing your kids or it can be teaming up to try to change the culture,” she says.

Luthar offers additional information for parents who wish to petition schools.

  1. Help kids cut back or not become overextended in the first place by talking about how many extracurriculars they can healthily handle and the importance of free time and sleep;
  2. Be careful about using growth mindset coaching in HAS settings, since it can fuel “students’ excessive belief in the power of their own efforts”;
  3. Make sure kids “understand that even the most stellar resume will not guarantee admission”;
  4. And provide “role models of alternative ways of being, having presentations at assemblies, for example, by young adults who did not go to elite colleges yet were productive and thriving as adults. “

Foreman is a testament to their power. She recalls that as a freshman she was obsessed with getting in at one school and making the best grades. If she got a 97, she’d cry because it wasn’t a 100. If she got 100, she’d be upset because “someone across from me got a 102. “

Three things happened. Foreman first realized that no matter how much I tried, I was not good enough. She decided to stop striving for perfection and accept the fact that things will go wrong. It’s a lesson in humility. Second, the “Varsity Blues” scandal made her reflect. It’s not just merit-based. While a lot of that is true, there are many other factors which are out of my control. She decided that her dream school would make her suffer. Her parents encouraged her sister to choose a different path.

Yet, Luthar states, “It is very easy to state things like: ‘Parents Are Helicopter Parents and Snowplow Parents, and Schools Have the Wrong Values’.” This is a social problem. She founded a nonprofit, AC Groups, focused on fostering positive relationships in schools and communities to give “beleaguered” parents and teachers the support they need.

But until colleges and universities change the way they assess and admit applicants, few of these caregivers and schools will make fundamental changes, and “it is unrealistic to think that teaching [students] coping skills will help them withstand the enormous pressure associated with high workloads,” Luthar and her colleagues have written.

Or, as Foreman puts it, Townview can communicate “you don’t have to be the top of your class to be worthy,” and teachers can say a 1300 on the SAT is “somebody else’s goal score,” but if “the school you want to go to has a 1400 minimum, that speaks louder. “

This admissions season, some colleges and universities, including five of the eight Ivies, are declining to highlight their selectivity, not announcing their acceptance rate publicly. Oregon’s Reed College stopped supplying data used to rank the school. One scholar has suggested colleges “unite in having admissions be decided by lotteries of similarly qualified applicants” in order to “foster children’s striving to be ‘good enough’ for a … school.” Thurber and Weisinger want to see decision-makers in higher education hold a summit to agree to shift admission criteria towards the human characteristics that lead to healthy families and communities. “

Awareness-raising can only go so far without structural changes. Zhang speaks to her roommate. She says, “No matter how hard we work and how long we put into it, it is likely that it won’t be worth it.” We don’t know where to stop. “

A version of this article first appeared on the Independent Lens website. You can watch the documentary, “Try Harder!” “ premieres on May 2, 2022 on PBS and the PBS Video app.

Read more from Gail Cornwall’s “Are We There Yet?” column:

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