My first day of college felt like a dream. I stepped wide-eyed through the black iron gates into a paradise of manicured lawns and towering stone buildings, exhilarated at the chance to attend an Ivy League school. Everything looked just as beautiful as it did in the brochure, and I felt sure that I would soon be as happy and fulfilled as the students I’d seen smiling on the cover.
But within a few weeks, I encountered the unpleasant reality beneath my school’s surface. The incessant competition. The endless work-filled days and tense, sleepless nights. The tremendous pressure to perform brilliantly in every capacity: academics, extracurricular activities, social life, physical fitness, and career. I felt like I was juggling bowling balls. But I couldn’t slow down, because no matter how well I did, it seemed the person next to me was doing better.
Then one night while my roommate and I sat in the common room bemoaning our crunched schedules and heavy workloads, she broke into tears. “I don’t know why they let me in,” she said. “I’m just not good enough.”
Her words caught me off guard. Until that day, I had thought that such feelings of inadequacy were mine alone. But I soon found they pervaded the whole campus. As I began my sophomore year, more and more of my fellow students admitted to feeling constantly overwhelmed. “I feel so worthless,” one confessed to me. “I would transfer, but my parents would never understand,” lamented another. And the one that hurt the most: “Sometimes I think I’m going to have a breakdown.”
Unfortunately, these complaints are all too common across college campuses today. According to the American College Health Association’s 2012 National College Health Assessment, within the last year 86 percent of college students felt overwhelmed by all they had to do, and 45 percent felt that things were hopeless. More than 50 percent reported feeling overwhelming anxiety, and about a third reported feeling so depressed it was difficult to function.
Not to be outdone, students at Ivy League schools seem to be having an even rougher time than other college students. Rates of attempted suicide at Harvard College are almost twice the national rate. And 35 percent of Princeton students said that they developed a mental health issue after coming to campus. What’s going on here?
The blight of the promised land
Every year, U.S. News and World Report publishes a list of the “best colleges in the nation.” Parents, students, teachers, and guidance counselors devour the rankings, yearning to garner acceptance to institutions as high up on the list as possible. Any school in the top 50 is painted as a golden realm of milk and honey, and high-achieving students are encouraged to set their sights on the promised land: the Ivy League.
But the practice of glorifying schools does more harm than good. It may boost the status of select universities, but it has disastrous side effects on students: those who aren’t accepted often see themselves as failures, and those who are often feel so much pressure to prove themselves that they do, in fact, break down. I had friends who fell weeks behind in their school work from relentless stress, stayed locked in their rooms for days at a time, and even overworked themselves to the point of hospitalization. Some ultimately dropped out or took leaves of absence once finals period hit, reckoning it’d be impossible to both pass and maintain their health. For every horror story I heard, I knew two more friends who were one late paper away from falling through the cracks.
As a symptom of our larger culture, this dysfunctional level of stress exemplifies our destructive tendency to value productivity over health. But it’s also exacerbated by the traditional narrative that equates graduation from a top-tier university with success, and, by proxy, well-being. Parents and guidance counselors unwittingly perpetuate this myth by emphasizing high standards while overlooking another essential component of a great education: choosing an environment that supports the student.
Toddling toward Harvard, no matter what
Whether it’s first grade or freshman year, finding a school that fits is more difficult than simply aiming for “the best.” In terms of college, there’s only so much research one can do, and as of yet U.S. News doesn’t issue personalized rankings. In the end, it’s often subjective ideas about education that determine whether we prioritize finding a school that offers not only strong academics but also the right culture and community.
I knew so many students at both my school and similar schools who struggled, like me, to find a sense of purpose and individuality within the context of a prominent (and rather traditional) institution. The problem wasn’t necessarily the institution, nor was it our lack of intelligence or ability. Instead, it was the mindset we’d been cultivating since kindergarten.
My peers and I had been raised by parents who taught us to try our hardest and do our best, so we knew very well how to push ourselves to earn the highest grades and exceed expectations. But we didn’t know how to take a step back and examine whether our educational environment was actually supporting our development as human beings. Once we had been welcomed into the ranks of “the best and the brightest,” we couldn’t dream of relinquishing the title we had struggled to earn.
The burden of expectation lay especially heavy on students from low-income backgrounds like me. Though I considered taking time off several times, I stuck around because I knew everyone back home was counting on me to stay. My teachers had put in long hours reviewing essays and writing recommendations. My parents had spent countless weekends helping me research programs and plan visits. And I myself had worked tirelessly throughout high school to build the perfect profile for college acceptance. After all of that, I thought leaving campus would mean giving up.
Caught in the perfection trap
High standards are important. Aspirations can make the difference between a student floundering or reaching her full potential. The trouble with high-achieving students is that their broad range of abilities can crowd out the unique interests that drive individuals toward passionate, fulfilling lives. Students themselves can get caught in a praise-seeking trap, especially if they’re consistently rewarded for right answers rather than genuine interest or hard work. But just because a student has the perfect grades or a profile studded with stellar achievements doesn’t mean an elite university is the best place for them. If anything, it means the opposite: that they have the drive to succeed anywhere, and that if placed in an environment that suits them, they’ll be both happy and successful.
My conversations with roommates and friends over the course of my time in college reminded me how important it is to measure success with the right metrics. Even talking to my peers who were the most “successful” by all external standards — snagging scholarships, winning awards, landing coveted jobs — I heard undertones of emptiness and sadness that suggested they weren’t truly fulfilled.
A different measure of success
At the start of my freshman year, my guiding questions were centered on achievement: am I pushing myself hard enough? Am I doing as much as I can be doing? By junior year, I had a flourishing schedule that could’ve been featured in the university prospectus. But then, one by one, the bowling balls I was juggling came crashing down. Between researching materials for my thesis, directing a singing group, coordinating events for three different clubs, applying to summer internships, picking up extra work shifts at the library, and running to the gym between classes, I had no time to breathe, much less contain my acute levels of anxiety.
The night before midterms found me weeping deliriously on my dorm bed, calling my old roommate to come over now because I didn’t know where else to turn. With lots of support from my friends and parents, I quit everything except for my classes and my federal work-study job, got a few C’s (The horror!) on exams, and curtailed my internship search in favor of more sleep. After that experience, I gradually learned to measure my success in broader ways: am I taking care of my physical and mental health? Am I pursuing goals that seem right to me? By focusing on what mattered most, I made it through senior year the happiest I’d ever been.
Asking these more nuanced questions is something every child should learn to do as part of growing up. But parents are the ones who sow the seeds for these thoughts. More than just motivating their children to achieve, parents need to instill values of health, passion, and integrity. It’s not about lowering your expectations — it’s about tempering them with a knowledge of your child.
It’s not just tiger moms
For many parents, this may seem redundant. We think that as long as we don’t resort to “extreme parenting,” monitoring our child’s every move, they’ll do okay. But it’s important to remember how easily children internalize expectations. They observe what the adults in their life pay attention to most, and from there infer where their values lie. For their part, my parents never insisted that I make perfect grades or finish high school at the top of my class. But with every ‘A’ I brought home from school, I noticed the smiles on their faces and heard their words of praise.
I learned quickly that if good grades were the way to win their approval, all I had to do was work hard in school and everything would be all right. Turns out, that’s not the case; but from my parents’ behavior, I would never have known.
Parents of high achievers need to make especially sure to be vocal about how much their children’s overall health matters to them. Most parents understand this intuitively, but they may not speak up when they notice an imbalance in their kids’ behavior. For example, by sixth grade, I had developed a habit of finishing each homework assignment to a T, which my teachers loved. But it started off a pattern of constant lack of sleep that affects me to this day.
My parents noticed, but they assumed that my high-level functioning meant I was doing well. I wish they would have sat me down then and said, “We see that you’re working hard to finish all your homework. But it’s more important to us that you get enough rest than that you get perfect grades. Why don’t you go to bed early tonight?” If your child fights back, you might need to be more aggressive. To kids who have learned to play the system of evaluation to their advantage, this ultimatum is just as important as “No, you cannot have another soda.”
Focusing on an individual child’s definition of success
Every parent wants to see their child thrive. So understandably, many parents dream of taking that photo with their son or daughter, beaming in front of ivy-laced brick buildings, diploma in hand.
But I have that photo. And it isn’t worth nearly as much to me as my understanding of my own talents and skills, and the knowledge that my parents support them. It took me a long time to realize that my success is based on my drive and not the name of my alma mater. This is something all students should be raised to believe.
How much happier would our kids be if we gave them the space to succeed in ways that make sense to them? The more we can do so, the more we’ll empower our children to truly reach their full potential. If you teach your child to find inspiration everywhere, to work hard on the things they love, and to keep trying despite obstacles, they will not fail. Their success may look a bit different from what you pictured, but it will be your child’s own.