Stress and college applications—do they have to go together?



Each fall, the next cohort of students prepare to embark on their senior year of high school. For some this means little more than having only two semesters to go–the good, the bad, and the mediocre will all be drawing to a close in a matter of months, and their futures beyond that ever-lingering date in June remain stubbornly undecided.  But for others, this may feel more akin to clambering into a body of icy water with the full knowledge that they will have to swim through it for the next several months, clinging to their faith that what awaits them on the other side is far more than worth it.  In other words, knowingly subjecting oneself to a great deal of suffering on the basis that the ends will justify the means.  This, of course, begs the question.  Is it really worth it?  Will the constant, unwavering stress and anxiety that invariably plagues those students who decide on the competitive college-bound path be compensated for by the outcome?

Most unfortunately, no one answer can satisfactorily resolve these questions –individual circumstances and values are too large of a factor.  The A/B personality type theory, pioneered by cardiologists Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman in the 1950s, is widely used to categorize behavioral patterns as they relate to stress management, and can therein be applied to the predicament facing high school students.  People who tend to be less competitive and achievement-driven or lean toward a Type B personality may be less inclined to pursue the “icy water” path, as it is undeniably taxing and can feel thankless for long periods of time.  Correspondingly, the highly ambitious, driven, Type A’s of the world are more likely to embrace (or at least contend with) the difficulties that path presents to them for the sake of achievement. Thus, when evaluating the pros and cons of this grueling approach, such predispositions must be factored into any personalized conclusions about its worth.

For some students of the latter camp, the pressure is on as soon as they enter high school.  After all, the majority of colleges do consider freshman grades in admissions decisions–a fact that parents are often quick to remind their students of.  However distant the post-high school future may seem at the time, every test and homework assignment already counts toward that end goal.  This mentality, persisting throughout high school, is certainly conducive to a higher GPA, but it is not without its faults.  Having such high expectations for performance–whether they come from oneself, one’s parents, or an outside source–can potentially contribute to the development of a whole host of problems, including declines in mental and physical health.  Pediatricians generally agree that teenagers should sleep eight to nine hours each night, but what with homework, extracurricular activities, and other obligations, this is simply not feasible for many.  Patterns of sleep deprivation have more severe medical implications than people often realize, and are closely linked with depression.

This is not to mention the inconvenient reality that when fatigued, it is infinitely more difficult to perform well on exams and keep up with school work, which can lead students into a dangerous whirlpool of exhaustion, poor performance, greater stress, more exhaustion.  Once senior year rolls around and college applications are added to the already skyscraper-esque pile of to do’s, this effect is magnified tenfold.  It has become alarmingly normal for students to suffer mental breakdowns, severe headaches, and heart palpitations from the overwhelming pressure and anxiety that they feel, as staying on top of everything becomes an impossibility.

With all of this taken into consideration, one’s health and sanity may seem like a high price to pay for a college acceptance letter.  But somehow, there appears to be a general consensus from students who end up at one of their top-choice schools that the delayed gratification was, in fact, worth it–though of course, that may be because they were predisposed to think so anyways.

That being said, the eventual rewards cannot outweigh the mental and emotional costs of actually getting there for everyone.  Gaining acceptance to a top university is an extremely demanding process, and the pressures are undeniably weighty.  In an ideal world this would not be the case–being a successful student and viable college candidate while still leading a balanced, healthy lifestyle should be possible.  But given the current system, the best thing for a high school student to do is to know themselves and know their limits.  Everyone has a slightly different set of values and goals for the future, so allowing these, rather than any other set of perceived expectations, to inform one’s decisions as a student is essential in determining the right path to take.