The sense that perfection is attainable—and expected—creates stress for students
by KELLY CHIAN, ’16 AND ELLISE SHAFER, ‘17
For junior Lexi Murray, stress ensues as soon as she wakes up. Being a member of both Jazz Ensemble and Women’s Glee, Murray wakes up before 6 a.m. four school-day mornings out of five, either to participate in those activities or to finish homework from the previous night. When there is a football game, she wakes up even earlier to participate in marching band Friday morning traditions.
After her morning rehearsals, Murray is then thrown straight into the school day, juggling an intense schedule filled with AP and IB classes as well as electives. After the school day ends, Murray either works a four-hour shift waitressing at Bob Evans or participates in other activities, most recently playing trumpet for the musical. Once home, Murray begins her usual homework load—three-to-four hours a night — and pushes on until all is finished, even if that means repeating her schedule the next day on less than five hours of sleep.
Although Murray’s agenda seems extreme, this intense overload of work and activities is more typical at UAHS than one might think, as was seen in a voluntary survey conducted by Arlingtonian on the matter. As a result, the pressure to succeed in every aspect of high school has changed the ways that students learn, as well as the ways teachers teach.
However, students and faculty believe that expectations haven’t always been this high. Language Arts teacher Nancy Volksen recognizes this increase in pressure in regards to high school.
“There’s a much higher level of expectations now,” Volksen said. “Nearly everyone is taking at least one AP or IB class, and many feel the need to stuff as many as they can fit into their schedules. I think that it is connected to grades. There’s a pressure that if you’re not taking the hardest classes and getting good grades, then your life after high school is over.”
At UAHS, the stigma surrounding different letter grades has evolved as well. A voluntary Arlingtonian survey shows that 67 percent of students consider a C the same as a failing grade (see graphic).
In addition, the added quickness and ease of checking one’s grades on Powerschool has changed the way students respond to grades. Junior Jesse Zhu said that he checked Powerschool a total of 1,200 times during last school year, and Murray and junior Mary Bridget Ginn check at least five times a day.
Another issue with the increasing need for high grades is the possibility of grade inflation. According to Merriam-Webster, grade inflation can be defined as “the assigning of grades higher than previously assigned for given levels of achievement”. Junior Sam Cole believes to have observed this during his time at the high school.
“I think that there is probably a lot of grade inflation in UA, so a lot of people get A’s,” Cole said. “I think that when someone is underachieving and getting like C’s, D’s and E’s, it reflects poorly on them and I think there is a stigma associated with that.”
Additionally, Volksen says that several years ago teachers were encouraged to reduce homework to 30 minutes or fewer per night as a way to help students maintain balance. Volksen tries her best to incorporate this into her classroom.
“I challenge myself to figure out, ‘How much work do I need to give and what kind of work to ensure my kids still grow and they are still prepared?’ What I miss the most is the opportunity to have students read more outside of school, but I see that students seem to have less and less available time and I hate it when they cheat,” Volksen said.
The change in the policy on late assignments has also affected how Volksen grades, as teachers are now asked to not penalize students unduly for late work, which can actually be beneficial to overbooked students.
“One thing that has changed very much is the lateness policy. It used to be 20 percent off per day and then it was a zero,” Volksen said. “Now, timeliness only accounts for a small part of the total grade and there are fewer penalties.”
So, what is causing this increased pressure to do well in school? According to school counselor Mary Ann Nyeste, it can come from a multitude of sources.
“A lot of [pressure] is self-inflicted pressure,” Nyeste said. “Being in a college prep high school just automatically lends some pressure to a situation. I think sometimes our students put all the outside pressures together and then combine all that and put it on themselves.”
47.5 percent of students attribute the pressure to succeed to their parents, according to an Arlingtonian survey. Cole agrees that this is definitely one of the largest factors in his day-to-day stress.
“My parents definitely affect my stress level, because they are both very intelligent people and have been successful,” Cole said. “So, they hold me to a high standard.”
Zhu said that the culture in which one grows up affects the perception of each grade. To him, his Chinese cultural standards exceed the ones placed on the nation at large.
“Personally, I think that a B or above is fine, but obviously my parents think anything below a 90 sucks. Of course, that translates into me having to get above a 90 in every class,” Zhu said. “I think society thinks that a B is fine, a B- is fine, it’s just that different cultures have different views on what a good grade is, and it just so happens that my family comes from a culture where you need to be the best of the best.”
However, other students, such as Ginn, said that their parents help them to feel less stressed during the school week.
“My parents actually help my stress level. They’re extremely understanding and compassionate about the kind of stress that I’m going through and they have made an environment where they always want me to succeed,” Ginn said.
In addition to parental pressures, stress is also felt from the Upper Arlington community to be successful in school as well as in extracurriculars, according to Principal Andrew Theado.
“One of the great things about this community is that it’s a community of excellence, but with that comes pressures and I worry about our students,” Theado said. “I worry about students competing against each other or comparing themselves to each other, when students should pick what are the best choices for them and then go forward.”
However, oftentimes the pressure generated by a community can have a positive influence on how students perform, as it has had on Cole.
“I think the pressure to succeed positively affects my grades, because if I didn’t care I’d probably have worse grades,” Cole said. “So I think this pressure is a good thing.”
Even more prominent than the stress caused by parents and the community is the stress caused by college admissions. College admissions is found to be a stressor for 70.5 percent of students surveyed by Arlingtonian.
Volksen has especially seen this factor in her own students as they go through the college admissions process.
“It’s no longer ‘are your parents going to be happy with your grades’ or ‘are you going to feel proud’.There’s a notion that if you don’t have really good grades, you won’t get into even what used to be considered a safety school,” Volksen said. “The number of applications that colleges are getting and the rejections the students are facing seem to be going up.”
Further, students like Zhu feel that they must be good at everything in order to get into selective schools, and even then it often is not enough.
“I feel like college is a huge hurdle to get into. There are so many things going on, and there’s just so many factors to consider when applying for colleges,” Zhu said. “You need to do everything and you need to be everything; you need to be a good athlete, you need to be a good academic.”
However, with colleges such as the Ohio State University becoming increasingly selective, this stress no longer applies only to students striving for elite schools.
“It honestly bums me out to think that I probably won’t get into Ohio State because I don’t have above a 3.5 cumulative GPA, although I have a lot of leadership roles on my resume,” Murray said.
As the UAHS college counselor, Dr. Kathy Moore sees firsthand the effect that the pressure of college admissions can have on students.
“Overall it’s stressful for students. I hate that that’s the case,” Moore said. “We are a very ‘name recognition’ society. We like the name-recognized schools. That makes me sad because there are thousands of incredible colleges. Unfortunately, we look at schools with low acceptance rates and that makes more and more stress.”
In addition, Moore has noticed higher levels of stress and mental health issues with the college admissions process. This leads to some being unable to cope with this pressure.
“Some students can handle [the stress]. College admissions doesn’t affect everyone negatively,” Moore said. “However, some pull away and don’t want to be here. There’s just too much going on and they feel overwhelmed in all aspects of their life. Sometimes they’re not feeling well and getting sick more often.”
One large aspect relating to college admissions that is hard on students is peer comparison. Moore sees stellar students look down on themselves because of what others are doing.
“It’s tough for our students [because] you can have a 3.9 GPA and not be the top of your class. You could be doing amazing things but if you look around you think ‘I’m not good as I thought.’ I think sometimes that’s difficult. However, colleges see that,” Moore said. “At the end of the day, while it feels like a negative, it’s a positive because colleges understand the rigor and we’re a non-ranking school anyway.”
Zhu has realized this, as he used to compete with others over grades but now chooses to fulfill his goals instead.
“Freshman year I was really competitive with my peers, but now I’ve gotten to realize that I need to focus on my own goals and achieve success my own way,” Zhu said. “I’ve put off comparing myself with other people and instead try to be the best I can be.”
According to the survey conducted by Arlingtonian, the largest effect of stress that 79 percent of students see is loss of sleep (see above graphic).
“[The pressure to succeed] has definitely affected my sleep schedule. I usually don’t go to bed until 12:30 or 1 a.m.,” Zhu said. “I wake up [around] 7:30 so that’s not a lot of sleep at all.”
Ginn finds herself losing sleep as well due to school work, which results in her falling behind on some assignments.
“Oftentimes instead of getting an assignment done, I’ll have so much anxiety about that assignment that I’ll be freaking out and losing sleep rather than just focusing and being calm and getting the assignment done,” Ginn said. “You end up trying to do it all and it can just become too much.”
Ginn has also seen the effects of the pressure to succeed on other aspects of her life, such as her social endeavors.
“When I’m stressed sometimes I’ll take it out on my friends just because I won’t be my positive self,” Ginn said. “Sometimes it’s really hard to differentiate my social life from my school life, because even on the weekends I’m constantly thinking about the school assignments I have to complete. It’s really hard to separate the two, and I often find that my academics are inhibiting my social life because it takes away time from being with my friends, especially because I have a job too and so trying to keep up with it all can be extremely stressful.”
Both students and administration believe there are solutions for dealing with school-related stress and methods available to change the system.
Nyeste suggests that teachers should exchange information about what assessments each has so that there are not five tests on the same day for a student, like the system used at the middle schools. However, she realizes that with a large staff and infinite combinations of classes, implementation of this would be difficult.
Senior NickTrifelos suggests for students to take study halls without feeling bad, because it can give students an added break.
“Juniors should be comfortable taking two study halls,” Trifelos said. “It’s looked down upon to have study halls, [but] I love having a study hall to have myself organized and set throughout the day.”
Moore believes that taking care of oneself mentally and physically is most important when combatting stress.
“I think that having a healthy support system through friends and family is important, as well as having healthy outlets like working out. You want to do well and succeed but not at all costs,” Moore said. “Nothing is more important than your mental health and well-being.”
On the other hand, Cole sees stress as a constant that won’t change anytime soon, and therefore it must be embraced.
“I don’t know if there is really a solution to stress in schools, because in our society we rely on people being successful and working hard. It is up to people to perform to the best of their ability and to stop complaining and to stop being stressed,” Cole said. “It is part of school, and it is part of life.”