Updated: Sep 17
High school can be the best and worst years of your life. Meeting new people, hanging out with your friends, and not having to worry about your taxes can be amazing and freeing. Unfortunately, this is becoming less and less of a reality for students as the college process becomes more stressful and demanding.
Stress is currently one of the most prevalent feelings amongst teenagers in the United States, but not enough people understand it and know how to deal with it. It is important to stay safe and healthy during such times.
Almost everyone will feel stressed at some point in their lives. Stress is our mind's reaction when we feel threatened or under pressure. This could be from experiencing extreme discrimination to meeting the standards of the college admissions process, and even some teens have to battle both. If you are experiencing discrimination, or any other form of extreme stress, we advise you to speak with a professional.
Stress, however, is a normal emotion, and can sometimes be beneficial to the brain when at healthy levels. Surprisingly, stress can boost brain power by improving alertness and performance. It can help us get more energy and complete select tasks faster, such as completing homework. Everyone will experience stress differently and even react differently, but it is important to understand the difference between a healthy amount of stress and too much.
Too much stress can be dangerous if it is extremely prolonged or is damagingly intense. It can cause certain mental health problems, including, but not limited to: anxiety, depression, or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As a result, these disorders can lead to even more stress for the individual. Now around 20% of teens experience depression before they reach adulthood, yet only 30% are being treated for it, and this is a result of the added stress of not only their present involvement in school and social media but also the extreme pressures for their future and college.
The College Process
The focus on getting into a good college is increasingly becoming a heavy weight on the shoulders of high school students in the United States. The acceptance rates are becoming slimmer, and the standards are increasing. Although barely adults, high school students are expected to perform and even exceed their levels of intelligence and social involvement just to meet the bare minimum of college application requirements. Stress has now become the number one health concern of high school students.
The College Board, an American non-profit organization made to assess readiness for higher education, plays one of the most significant roles in the worries of U.S. highschool students. It is one of the most important and stressed factors in the United States education system, and it is emphasized to significantly define a student's future. Unfortunately, the standards from the college board and the college admissions process are only rising, and correspondingly, the stress of high school students is at an extreme high:
On a 10-point scale, U.S high school students reported their stress rate at an average score of 5.8, whereas adults average a 3.8
75% of high school students in the United States reported feelings of boredom, anger, sadness, fear, or stress while at school.
75% of U.S middle and highschool students expressed that they felt they were "often or always stressed" by schoolwork.
As a junior in highschool, I completely understand the pressure of pleasing these standards. Junior year is when the workload starts to rapidly increase and grades become more meaningful to ones future. Students are often expected to start studying for the SAT or ACT, tour colleges, succeed in classes, take AP or College level classes, complete community service, and even figure out what they want to do for the rest of their life. That is a lot of pressure for a 16-17 year old.
Beginning to worry about college is the beginning of worrying about one's future and this amount of pressure can heavily weigh on the minds of teens. The anxiety begins with the process of building a portfolio; this does not mean having just the best grade, but also means showing you are a well rounded person. Colleges are looking for the “X-Factor” of a student, so building your extracurriculars, on top of the heavy workload, is extremely important. Elite colleges are also looking for even more, like the creation of business, or a non-profit organization. With only four years, realistically 2, a student is expected to understand and complete such overwhelming and mature tasks in a short period of time.
Choosing the right college is the next important step. Making the right decision about what you want to do with your life can be challenging and there are 4,360 higher institutions to choose from; however, there are only a few top colleges with limited seats. Experts are recommending teens to apply to 4-12 schools. Financial aspects of college also start to become stressed and can make significant impacts on where one is applying to. College in the U.S. can be extremely expensive and students must start thinking about the financial implications it may take to pursue their career path.
Once decided on where to apply, then the application is the next step. This is where your resume, the common app essay and if your school requires another essay will be submitted. They have to be unique, and show a sense of character. Talking about yourself is not an easy task, nor do many schools train this skill. Learning and perfecting this in a short period of time is another added layer of stress for teens that can determine their admission and their future.
This is not just stress for the student, but it's also stress for the parents. Making sure your kid has a secure, successful, and happy future is the best thing a parent can do, but that means making sure they exceed through this process. Not many adults understand how demanding the standards have gotten or how to aid in this process. They can even make it more challenging for the teen to move through this time. If you're a parent reading this, please take some time to learn how you can be a helpful support system. The college process only encourages the need for better mental health understanding and support. Being emotionally there for someone is the best medicine.
How to Cope with the Stress
It is hard to find ways to cope with the amount of stress, as a highschool student going through this difficult process, but you shouldn’t let it reach too far. Without taking the proper steps to care for yourself, you can reach your breaking point. So take a moment to figure out what makes you happy and take a break from work. This could include:
Making sure you get a regular amount of sleep
Making sure you are eating healthy and getting regular exercise
Making time for yourself
Explore your passions
Do some art
Take a break and watch a movie or a tv show
Listen to your favorite music
Spend some time with your friends or family
Take deep breaths, stretch or meditate
There might not seem like much time you can set aside for yourself and for your care, and that is also ok. Amy, a senior from Upstate NY, who has always been at the top of her class, has just finished her applications and when reflecting on her process, she said the best thing is to “make a timeline for yourself and not wait until the last minute”. If you can pace yourself, and make small goals for yourself, then it will relieve so much stress and make the process feel much more fulfilling.
Do what's best for yourself. It's important to start thinking and taking steps for the future, but it is even more important that you do it in a healthy and safe way. If the stress is starting to feel like too much, it might be helpful to consider talking to a professional. Check out our other article, Understanding Suicide, if you want to find other ways to cope and who to speak to.
For any high schoolers reading this, we wish you the best of luck during this process. Know you are not alone and the outcomes do not define you as a person. There are always opportunities for happiness and success so don’t stop looking and make sure you are happy and healthy along the way. That is the most important thing in life.
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