By Jenna Lo
There’s homework to be completed, tests to be studied, class ranking to maintain, clubs to participate in, college to always have in the back of my mind, and an unbearable number of other things I must stay on top of constantly. My school praises my hard work with awards and an uncomfortable amount of recognition of my achievements. I’ve worked my way to second in class.
But I’m tired…of all of this.
Schools use grades and class rankings to compare and measure every student in the grade. Students receive awards based on how high their grades are, and the two students who are at the top of the class get the special title of valedictorian and salutatorian. The competition among students is supposed to encourage students to work hard and maintain their grades.
But at what cost?
According to a 2015 study conducted by the New York University College of Nursing, 80% of all high school students reported feeling stressed to some extent, 26% of which reported symptoms of clinical depression. This staggering number is due to the school system’s push for competition among peers. The Pew Research Center found 61% of teens feel pressured to get good grades, which is significantly higher than the pressure students feel to use drugs (4%) or consume alcohol (6%).
For Nathan Walker, a rising junior at Fitzgerald High School located in Fitzgerald, Georgia, the weight of all his honor and AP classes, extracurricular activities, and his job has taken a toll on his mental health.
“I’m extremely stressed to a point where it’s unbelievable,” said Walker. “I’m not comfortable with my situation at all, but if I want to get out of high school and go to college I have to put grades first.”
Additionally, Sarah Clifton, a rising senior at Saint Scholastica Academy in Covington, Louisiana, revealed she has felt stressed about her grades since fifth grade. Now, she suffers from anxiety due to the competition of valedictorian and salutatorian at her school.
“I feel like I have to be on the same level as the rest of the super smart kids in my grade,” said Clifton. “There are these other girls at my school who are freaked out and constantly stressing about being valedictorian. I can see where the class ranking is a realistic and logical way to see where you are in comparison to other people, but it’s really not good for my mental health sometimes.”
With grades the only way schools measure their student’s intelligence and ranking, grades become a student’s top priority. Students often drop extracurricular activities and sports they enjoy to maintain their grades. However, while grades are important and the primary way to represent a student’s academic intelligence, they fail most of the time to accurately represent a student’s true intelligence. Every student is complex and learns and performs differently, and it seems absurd to limit a student’s intellect to a finite number. The stress over this unfair representation of intelligence is a problem, and the school system is the reason for this.
“Grades are important, and for the longest time I felt like I had to get A’s on everything,” said Clifton. “But grades aren’t that representative of who you are as a person.”
All the stressing over grades and ranking is ultimately for students to be accepted into a good college, however, Michelle McFalls, Academic Advisor for Advertising Majors at the University of Georgia, has witnessed college students still affected by the toxic competition faced in high school. The same students who overextended themselves in high school do the same in college by double majoring, minoring, maintaining a job, participating in sororities and fraternities, and interning which all leads to stress and eventually burnout.
“I definitely have noticed in the last decade more students with mental or emotional issues coming in, and UGA has a reputation of its admissions getting harder and harder each year,” said McFalls. “It’s very easy for a college student to overcommit. The reality is, that’s not life. No one can keep up with a pace of overcommitting indefinitely. Sometimes they think more is best, but that’s almost never the case.”
Studies have shown the percentage of anxiety and depression in young adults has increased over the years. Schools have continued to foster unhealthy competition in students, and the comparison has worsened even more with social media nowadays.
“It’s so hard for my students to not compare themselves to other students they think have everything perfect in their lives. No one has it perfect, but no one is going to share the crappy stuff on their social media,” said McFalls. “They all want to be the best. I can’t imagine what kind of toll that takes on a young person’s psyche.”
Instead of schools responding to this new wave of social media by dialing back on promoting competition, they double down. A school’s Facebook and Instagram page post student accomplishments for everyone to see, and the standards and pressures for academic achievement have consequently risen. High schoolers are already feeling pressured by social media in their social lives, but now they also feel pressured in their academic lives with this constant comparison and competition with others.
“Students nowadays care a lot more of what people think about them, and they value themselves less unfortunately,” said McFalls.
Our society is constantly progressing. We have abandoned old technology and techniques and have replaced them with new and high functioning alternatives. We have updated almost every part of our lives, and yet, the school system has remained the same. The dangerously growing number of kids suffering from anxiety and stress from school is a clear sign these techniques our schools are using are not working and need to be fixed. We can not sweep this under the rug. Something needs to be done before this problem is irreversible.
“There is an all time race for the top GPA, and I’m tired of running it,” said Walker.