Students today face a variety of pressures that impact their mental health, academics, and overall wellbeing. With increased competition to get into top colleges, a continuous push for high test scores, and a packed schedule of extracurriculars, many students feel overwhelmed with the expectations placed on them. Additionally, financial pressures, social pressures, family pressures, and the ongoing presence of technology add further stress.
Academic pressure comes in many forms. Students feel pressure to take the most rigorous course loads packed with multiple AP and honors classes. They push themselves to get straight A’s and have a strong GPA in hopes of being accepted to selective universities. Test scores are another major source of anxiety, as students repeatedly take practice SATs and ACTs trying to improve their scores. The competition for academic superiority starts early, with students gunning for spots in gifted programs in elementary school. The demand for academic excellence continues through high school and plays a key role in college admissions.
Students internalize the message that their self-worth and future prospects depend on getting top grades, acing standardized tests, and building an impressive transcript. This leads many high-achieving students to overload themselves in an effort to impress colleges. They sacrifice sleep, socializing, and downtime in order to cram in more academics, convinced this is the only path to success. However, putting academics above all else can take a serious toll on mental health.
Today’s college admissions also require students to demonstrate passion through extracurricular activities. Colleges look for leadership, community service, sports, and evidence that a student has explored their interests and talents outside of academics. Yet with school and studying taking up much of their time, students find it difficult to dedicate themselves fully to extracurriculars while also maintaining high grades. The pressure to appear “well-rounded” leads students to overschedule themselves with clubs, sports teams, volunteer work, and more. This gives them little time for genuine exploration of their interests. Instead, students take on activities because they seem impressive to colleges, not because they are personally fulfilling.
College tuition continues to rise every year, and many students worry about how their families will pay. The average cost of attending a public four-year university is around $25,000 a year while private colleges average $50,000. Aspiring to attend a selective private college can put huge financial stress on students from middle and low-income families. Even for wealthier students, there is pressure to get into a “good” school to justify the exorbitant cost. With rising student debt, some students take matters into their own hands by overloading themselves with AP classes to earn college credits and working long hours at part-time jobs to save money. However, this contributes to students’ overwhelming schedules.
Fitting in with peers and maintaining an active social life provides a much-needed break from academics. But social status also comes with pressures. Students feel compelled to follow the latest trends, wear popular brands, and avoid looking uncool. Social media amplifies these pressures with students carefully curating their online image. Cyberbullying and comparisons to other people’s “picture perfect” lives online take a toll on students’ confidence and self-esteem. Finding a friend group is critical to students feeling accepted. Yet cliques and gossip make many students anxious about where they fit in socially. Dating, parties, and status all contribute to intense social environments. Students struggle balancing their social life with other responsibilities.
While families aim to support students, their high expectations and limited understanding of student stress often inadvertently increase pressure. Parents want their children to have every advantage and opportunity. However, students internalize families’ high expectations as criticism that makes them feel like a disappointment if they do not meet defined standards. Families sacrifice financially to send kids to good schools and colleges. Many students feel guilty letting their families down if they do not excel. These dynamics strain relationships between students and parents. Also, families experience their own stressors related to finances, siblings, parents’ jobs, etc. Students pick up on families’ anxiety, adding further pressure.
Cellphones and social media provide constant distractions and comparisons for students. Students feel pressure to instantly respond to texts from friends, comments online, emails for school, and notifications to keep up their interaction. The internet exposes students to global issues like politics, climate change, war, and inequality that previous generations did not face so young. With unlimited information at their fingertips, students feel immense pressure to stay informed on current events. However, this constant influx of information and stimulation online fuels anxiety and detracts from sleep and focus. The combination of academic, social, family and technology pressures creates a high-stress environment for students. Educators, parents, and policymakers must find ways to address these multifaceted pressures to improve student wellbeing.