Senior Haley Keizur, who attends Puyallup High School, argues for students, teachers, parents and college-admissions officers to find the balance between enough stress and too much.
(Editor’s note: This is the seventh essay we’ve published this year as part of Education Lab’s Student Voices program. Our Student Voices columnists are high-school and college students writing about education issues that matter to them. Know a student with a story to tell about school? Email Education Lab’s engagement editor, Dahlia Bazzaz: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
As the chill and wintry atmosphere rolls in, a gust of college application deadlines fills the air.
The first months of school have always been a stressful time, but this year they have hit harder than ever. Over the years, I have seen the signs of senior-year stress — random seniors breaking down in the hallway, attempting to mask their lack of sleep with coffee and frantically working to meet application and scholarship deadlines. This year I am one of those seniors.
I fill my school hours with four Advanced Placement classes and serving as secretary of the band and editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.
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After school, I run for the cross-country team, help lead a handful of clubs and complete hours and hours of community service, primarily tutoring and working with younger students. I also attend and lead Young Life, a Christian youth group. In my free time, I do my homework, study for tests and complete college applications.
Of all that, I feel the most stress about getting accepted into college.
The college-admissions process continues to get more difficult and, frankly, has gotten out of hand. As competition for colleges increases, my fellow students and I try to do it all, spreading ourselves very thin and feeling terrified of failure, rather than exploring our academic passions. Colleges should modify and clarify their expectations to decrease students’ stress.
I was raised to challenge myself in school, get good grades and study to perform well on tests. But despite my stellar GPA and SAT scores, I am still very concerned about getting accepted to — and earning scholarships at — many universities.
My main concern is the increase in competition at most colleges, where the average SAT scores and GPAs of accepted students continue to rise.
Since 2005, the average high-school GPA of entering students at the University of Washington has gone from 3.69 to 3.75, and the combined math and reading SAT score has increased by 14 points, from 1198 to 1212.
Apart from test scores and GPAs, colleges also consider class selection; they want to see if you have been taking rigorous classes to challenge yourself, especially in your senior year. They also look at a litany of other factors, such as extracurricular activities, leadership roles and community service, said University of Washington Director of Admissions Paul Seegert.
“When we are admitting students to an institution, we are going to want to consider students who are the most academically prepared,” Seegert said.
Students also apply to many more colleges than they used to. According to a study by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, 43 percent of college freshmen surveyed in 1963 said they applied only to the school they were attending. Only 2 percent applied to six or more.
In 2016, 26 percent applied to six or more places, and one-and-done applications dwindled to 11 percent.
With so much change, it is often difficult for adults to understand what today’s teenagers go through.
“High-school students today really do have to demonstrate a level of balance that folks my age didn’t really have to,” said Brian Lowney, chief academic officer for the Puyallup School District. “Life just seems to get more busy or hectic for every graduating class.”
Students are not capable of doing everything, so why should they be expected to? Colleges must understand that my fellow students and I are trying to meet all of their requirements — and more — to stand out. If all universities made their prerequisites more specific and clear, we could gear our schedules toward those guidelines, rather than play a guessing game.
Students in college agree that more balance would be a good idea.
University of Washington student Amy Krantz found that some aspects of high school, such as Advanced Placement courses, were helpful for college, while others, such as overly involving herself in a plethora of clubs, just caused stress. She says she wished she had spent less time focusing on what colleges wanted from her and more time finding her passion in high school.
“The pressure to get into a university is forced onto you from a very young age and gets even worse if you plan on applying to a competitive school,” she said. “Because of this, I spent more time doing activities that I did not really care about because I thought I needed to be well-rounded. Everything I did in high school was to get into college, and now that I am here I can actually pursue what I am passionate about.”
As I began my own college-admissions process, I found that some of what I had done in high school was completely unnecessary for going to college. I didn’t even get to mention all of my activities on most applications.
I had this notion that colleges look for well-rounded students. But according to The Washington Post, admissions officers are really looking for passion, even if you take part in only one or two activities.
More students should know this because otherwise the misconception leads many students to overwork themselves.
I struggle because I am passionate about too many activities and don’t want to drop out of any of them.
High-school students are weighted down not just with heavy backpacks full of books but also personal struggles and college expectations. They need to find the line between how much stress is good for them and how much is destructive. While I find some stress motivates me — like the competition in cross-country and the challenge of AP classes — I also subject myself to needless stress by taking on too much and being a perfectionist. Other students need to find their own lines.
It would be helpful if college-admissions officers and other adults did more to help us foster healthy stress and positivity.
Looking back on what I have experienced, here’s my advice to younger students: Find mentors who can help you craft a great high-school experience.
To parents, admissions officers and teachers: I urge you to be aware that life today is not the same as it used to be. You must adapt to help the students around you be successful.
To colleges: Use the Common Application so students don’t have to spend hours retyping their class schedules, activities and personal information. Puyallup High School senior Hannah LaVergne also suggests that students get feedback and constructive criticism from colleges after submitting their application, in order to make future applications stronger. Additionally, a generalized rubric could be created to make the expectations more clear and the process streamlined.
As I submit the applications that lead to the next four years of my life, I can only hope that the pressures I have had to push through and the challenges I have faced are worth it. Most important, I hope that students in the future don’t face the overwhelming struggles that the students of my generation have endured and that they will continue to advocate for changes in the college-admissions system.