How Much Sanity Is an Acceptance Letter Worth?

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Commentary, Anna Tingley

Five hours of sleep. Six hours of school. Two hours of community service because you can’t get into college unless you’ve raised money for a Third World country. Another five hours of homework because you thought you would be able to handle four AP classes. Add in an hour for guilty procrastination on Snapchat, and you have the schedule of a majority of high school students across the nation.

As college looms in the distance, high-achieving teenagers stretch themselves thin in order to stand out among the application pool – even if it means running on no sleep and a lot of coffee.

When students are asked, “Are you OK?”, they are biting their tongue to stop themselves from yelling “NO! I have a comp gov test tomorrow, and a 1,200 word essay to write tonight, and my AP chem grade is on the verge of a B, and I’m exhausted!”

So where do we draw the line? What is too many APs and extracurriculars, and when are colleges going to stop expecting their applicants to be superhuman?

We expect this motivation to stem from parents who want success for their kids. Parents have traditionally served as the strict voice telling their kids what to do, and teenagers as the lazy bums who just want to sleep in until 12, right? Think again. The fear of falling behind is inherent in almost all kids, and few need the push from their parents to put a lot on their plate.

“My parents were even relieved when they saw a couple of Bs on my report card last quarter,” said Albany High student Josh Heller. “Any pressure I have comes from myself. If anything, they want me to care less about school.”

In fact, pressure to do well seems to come from comparing ourselves to other students.

“My parents have never been too involved,” said Albany High senior Jack Sinclair. “But I realized during my junior year of high school that my grades were lagging in comparison to a lot of my friends. The prospect of my friends getting into incredible schools during their senior year, and I ending up somewhere not as impressive, really scared me. College has really become a status symbol.”

So this anxiety is good, right? Stress and motivation seem to form a self-propelling cycle. If you aspire to go to a good college, you use stress to drive you from one point of motivation to the next. Self-induced stress is what pushes students through piles of schoolwork to those moments of inspiration. People survive stressful circumstances in order to achieve those moments of satisfaction, that moment of Right! That’s why I put myself through hell: so I could get to this feeling of accomplishment and peace. 

But few highschoolers can achieve that feeling. There is always something more to be done, and it never quite feels like you’re working hard enough. Once you’ve finished all of your homework, there’s always an SAT prep book waiting to be cracked open. Or how about working on that college supplement essay where you can brag about how you’re the president of three clubs, get straight As, and know how to fly.

Anxiety has really become a buzzword among students. Everyone I know “has anxiety” – some medicated, some not, some involving panic attacks. But everyone claims it in a very real way. Either we’re all bigger wimps, or school has become a place where competition comes first, and learning second.

We live in a world where making the top 10 percent of your class is the most important thing in the entire world, and a B in on your transcript is the next Apocalypse. How much sanity is an acceptance letter worth?

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