Stress Report

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There’s no question about it — stress is an issue at Collegiate School.

The American Psychological Association (APA) cites the average stress level of American citizens at 5.2 out of 10, almost precisely in the middle of the scale.

Distribution of self-recorded average stress levels of Collegiate Upper School Students.

Distribution of self-reported average stress levels of Collegiate Upper School students.

According to 228 Upper School students (42.3% of the Upper School student body) who responded to The Match’s recent stress poll, Collegiate’s average stress during the academic year falls at about 7.2 out of 10, a full two points higher than the national average reported by the APA.

Not only do Collegiate Upper School students suffer from significantly more stress than the general population, but they also top the average stress level of Americans suffering from depression by almost a full point.

While the Collegiate administration endeavors to alleviate stress by imposing course load recommendations, conducting mindfulness practices, and constantly re-evaluating the schedule, their well-intentioned efforts fall short in creating a low-stress learning environment.

Seeking to identify strategies that would address student anxiety, I reached out to fellow students both in survey and in person, asking what they perceived to be the origin of their stress.

Results from the Match poll conducted Nov. 4-6 in the Upper School.

The overwhelming majority of survey respondents cited academic factors as the primary contributors to stress levels. “Grades/Pressure to Succeed” accounted for 51.8% of responses, while “Homework Load” accounted for 32.5%. To the credit of the college counseling department, only 7.5% of students answered the “College Process” as the basis for their stress. However, considering the college process applies mostly to upperclassmen, its impact on student stress may be understated by the poll. The other 8.2% of respondents answered “Athletics,” “Extracurriculars,” “Social Life,” or “Other.”

While intrinsically related to school, the most common source of student anxiety according to the poll, “Grades/ Pressure to Succeed,” doesn’t stem from Collegiate policy, but rather from extreme standards imposed by the students themselves. With acceptance rates at highly ranked colleges plummeting, students are feeling pressure to take on more and more responsibilities in order to differentiate themselves from the rest of the applicant pool. Matty Pahren (’17) explains, “The one time a week when I have Creative Flex, I feel like I need to be doing something, when I really just need to be doing nothing.”

I concur — if students didn’t aspire to matriculate at highly selective schools, their schedules would be considerably less crammed with gratuitous extracurriculars, and they would have more necessary time to be “doing nothing.” Commenting on this lack of down time, Upper School counselor Alex Peavey asked, “Are we human doings or human beings?” He went on to argue that such down time would allow students to “refuel the mind and body for when you are doing.”

Regardless of the anxiety they can cause, students’ resumé-building efforts are often rewarded — 75% of the class of 2016 received at least one acceptance at a “Most” or “Highly Competitive school,” according to the college counseling department. Community involvement is cherished by admissions officers and Collegiate students alike, yet with the student body experiencing such extreme stress, it may be time for extracurriculars to take a backseat to sanity and rest.

Students are experiencing a similar phenomenon when it comes to course selection and rigor of curriculum. In reference to “Honors” and “AP” classes, Collegiate claims in its school profile that “[s]tudents are discouraged from taking more than 2-3 per year.” However, according to some students, “2-3” is more of a standard than a maximum for many. Excellence Perry (‘17) estimates that the average course load includes “two honors, one AP class.” Zach Moelchert (‘17) asserts that “the average is probably about four or five,” yet expresses that it may be lower, considering that freshmen are limited to three available honors classes. It’s likely that regardless of the true typical course load, Upper Schoolers’ academic schedules largely contribute to both the “Homework Load” and “Grades/ Pressure to Succeed” categories.

At the institutional level, this academic and extracurricular overextension is difficult to address without implementing one-size-fits-all restrictions that would limit students’ intellectual curiosity and competitiveness in college admissions. In fact, even if the school were to further regulate student activity, students would find ways to subvert the limits, allowing for more time to build resumés, as well as stress. However, while regulating students’ overpacked schedules is a challenge, the school could allocate more time for compulsory relaxation (assuming that’s not an oxymoron). Speaking from personal experience, school-organized stress relief, ranging from the biannual Doughnut Delight to the occasional mindfulness session with Peavey, is remarkably effective at distracting students from self-imposed pressure.

The path to decluttering high school students’ lives lies outside of the bounds of a single high school. Yet Collegiate ought to focus more on aiding students as they seek to manage their stress, while also working to find solutions to the widespread problem of student overextension.

Feature image courtesy of user anna gutermuth via Flickr.

About the author

Parker Conquest is a senior at Collegiate School.