Academic Competition Leads To Stress

The best for college or the best for ourselves

UCLA. Stanford. UC Berkeley. Northwestern. Harvard. Yale.

Attending distinguished colleges such as these is most students’ main goal that may motivate them to be academically competitive. From stacking on as many AP classes as possible to taking accelerated math and science courses, students strive to rise above their classmates.

Competition for top colleges is common across the nation and is especially prevalent at UPA. Counselor Dot Westerhoff explained how the requirements for the University of California (UC) colleges have changed overtime, making it more difficult and stressful for students to be accepted.

“It used to be that I would know very easily how to get a student into a UC,” Westerhoff said. “You just did certain things and the doors opened. There is so much competition now for the schools that it’s a whole different level.”

Westerhoff noticed that raised expectations cause students to push themselves harder in hopes of standing out in the eyes of top universities.

“When [students] look at who [these universities are] really accepting, that can’t help but increase that stress on students,” Westerhoff said. “In other words, there’s something out there, It’s not just that ‘well I have to have more than my neighbor but I have to have this, or [colleges are]  not even going to look at me,’ and there’s that fear in students.”

Students such as junior Kevin Tong take accelerated math courses to please their parents. Although he does not consider himself to be competitive, Kevin is currently in a multivariable calculus at a community college. He acknowledges that being in above-grade-level math courses to be competitive can be a destructive way of learning.

“If you’re skipping just to be more competitive, then that could be hurtful because you’re not necessarily learning the best that you can,” Tong said. “And so you can be skipping something important that you don’t realize pulls you down when you’re higher up.”

Senior Thomas Kamm is currently taking five APs for varying reasons.  

“Part of it was that I wanted to challenge myself,” Kamm said. “Part of it was that some of the classes were interesting. Also, there is the motivation of taking more APs for college applications. That was a major motivator to take courses.”

He notices the competition at UPA and tendencies for students to compare themselves.

“People like comparing grades,” Kamm said. “People know that I do well and ask how I do. I don’t like comparing grades because it might come off as bragging because I do tend to do well in all my classes. It does come up a lot.”

In a survey sent out, of 126 responses, 84% of students said they see other students compare test and major assignment grades, along with 34% that said they see their peers compare scores for every assignment.

49.2% of surveyors believe that UPA has a toxic atmosphere as students put others down because of a low grade or may not enjoy school for the learning part, but just using it to be accepted into a prestigious university.

However, 50.8% of surveyors think the environment is not toxic because it can encourage students to do better on assignments.

“I think the competitiveness comes from the incorrect belief that personal success can only come from the failure of others,” Amy Kumar, a senior enrolled in multiple APs said. “With a mindset like this, students are more likely to do better not for themselves, but just to be better than others.”

To reduce the stress and the competition students face in high school, Westerhoff thinks if students had fun in high school, it would relieve the stress and help high school students enjoy their life more.

“I think that part of what we have to learn to be able to have a good life, is how to have fun,” Westerhoff said. “I think that everybody is so competitive, how do you ever take a rest to be able to have that? And that’s the part that makes me so sad. I want you all to be able to not be so weighed down or think ‘I’ve got to do this because I’ve got to get into this school.’ [If you want to get] to a certain destination, there are many paths to that destination.”