Instagram, television, and parents’ nostalgia promise us that the teenage years are something to savor: drives with friends, weekends full of activity, and the last few years of being young before transitioning into full adulthood. Instead, I’m at University Preparatory High School (Visalia) chasing down SAT prep, college classes, and a multitude of extracurriculars that will look good on my college application. Make no mistake: these fun times are not barred to me, but I feel pressured to make the choice to bar myself from them in order to make time for all the things I need for my application.
Before I even entered high school I was told by my parents to find opportunities that will look good on my college application. When I expressed interest in a new hobby there was a chorus of “Oh, that would look great on your college application!” In fourth grade I worked to join honors classes, because that was the only way to get into the middle school honors classes, which was the only way to get into high school honors classes, and colleges want to see four years of honors classes. By 8th grade I was a hospital volunteer, a Sunday school teacher, and a theater performer, all while feeling overwhelmed trying to maintain my GPA. When I began high school, the pressure became worse: my older peers exhorted me to join clubs and become the president of at least one, because it improves your college application. I was advised by peers and teachers alike to take community college classes, which would not only raise my GPA but also show the universities that I could handle collegiate-level classes. And of course I must maintain a GPA above 4.0, because that’s how you get into college. I am a junior in high school, and this is the pressure cooker I live in to give myself a chance at a decent life.
For my whole life, my peers and I have been told that we must go to college to find a job that will support a family. According to a Georgetown study done in 2020, a whopping 64% of present-day jobs require some form of college education (associates degree or higher). This means that progressively more people are applying to the fixed number of college seats, so the percentage of students actually getting accepted into college is decreasing rapidly. According to the UC system, their 2021 acceptance rates alone dropped 3-7% (depending on the campus). Therefore, in order to be one of the increasingly few selected to have the opportunity of affording life, students must push themselves to extremes from very young ages.
In March 2020 the pandemic shut down most activities, and the sudden lack of extracurriculars helped me understand just how much I was doing. The hospital I volunteered at closed to everyone except employees, the Sunday school I taught at shut down completely, my clubs ceased to meet, and I finally got some rest. I realized just how much pressure I had been operating under for all these years and how much I really had been doing. However, the pandemic is now endemic, and life is returning to a new normal. While some aspects of our society may change for the better, I fear that the immense academic pressure put on children at young formative ages will only get worse. With the suspension of SAT/ACT requirements, even more high school graduates will be competing for precious college seats and all these bright stars will be burning themselves out in order to get one.
I would like to see both more enrollment opportunities for the growing pool of applicants, and an ease to the competition that students face. Students require daily time to explore who they are and what they enjoy, and they are not getting it.
Going to college has become necessary, and getting into college has made it necessary for students to overload their days in hopes of appearing as a desirable applicant. Parents and schools should understand the pressure weighing down their children’s shoulders and aim to support their students at the individual level. They should talk to their kids, find out what is right for each one, and remember that while no student is the same, they are all facing the same crushing pressure to go to college.