January 10, 2018
It’s 9 p.m. on a Monday night. After seven hours of school, a club meeting, two hours of sports practice and three hours of work, you just got home, but the day is far from over, thanks to every high schooler’s nightmare: homework. Armed with coffee and a sugary midnight snack, you hunker down for the study grind ahead. Sound familiar? If so, you may be a victim of the early-onset Rat Race.
The Rat Race typically refers to an intense, exhausting routine or lifestyle in pursuit of an unachievable standard. Picture a hamster running on a wheel or a group of lab rats, endlessly running through a maze to compete for a bit of cheese. Replace hamsters with high schoolers and the cheese with grades, test scores, or any other perceived metric of success, and you have the American education system, albeit a tad oversimplified with a side of cynicism. But the concepts hit home for many. The culture of stress and competition that plagues secondary schooling in America is damaging to students’ health and wellbeing. A 2014 study by the American Psychological Association found that stress levels double during the school year, with 83% of teens reporting that school is a somewhat or significant source of stress.
There are a few factors that fuel The Rat Race.
As a college education becomes more and more of a necessity in the job market, the number of students apply to college increases every year. The National Association of College Admission Counseling reports that the percentage of students applying to seven or more schools jumped from 9% in 1990 to 28% in 2012. Naviance data indicates that one senior even applied to a whopping 86 colleges. Digital platforms advance this competition by making it easier than ever to apply to more schools. While the number of Common App users nearly doubled from 2008 to 2013, the number of slots at any one institution college remains relatively constant, leading to a decrease in admissions rates at many selective schools.
Parents can be an added source of stress as students can feel pressure to meet high expectations. Social media stokes the idea that everyone is doing more–and doing better–but a collection of carefully curated pictures can weave a misleading picture. It’s easy to compare your average self to an amalgamation of everyone else’s best self. All of these elements culminate in a system that encourages teenagers to juggle school, multiple activities, jobs, and more–practically forcing them to become mini-adults well before the age of 18. But to what end?
The educational industrial complex and the monetization of education through high stakes standardized testing also puts increasing pressure on students to achieve. While some motivation is beneficial, students are now confronted with an alphabet soup of testing: the SATs, ACTs, PARCCs, SAT IIs, HSAs. For a variety of pedagogical, political, and economic reasons, standardized testing has become a billion dollar industry, built on the backs of stressed-out students.
Fortunately, there are some mitigation strategies to employ if the pressure seems insurmountable. Learn how to work smarter, not harder. Sleep when you can; a 20-minute power nap can make all the difference between efficient productivity and slogging through those evening extracurriculars. On the topic of extracurriculars, do the ones that you like. There’s no way to meaningfully contribute to any one group if you’re constantly juggling a million different resume builders. Don’t join a club just because you think you “should.” (Colleges see right through that anyway.) There is no one “right way” to do high school. Authenticity is key.
Try to put things in perspective and know your limits. Don’t sacrifice your mental health for the grade. Find some activities to de-stress, whether it’s art, exercise, video games, or spending time with friends. It can be tempting to fall into the “no pain, no gain” mindset when grinding through that seventh hour of homework, but eventually the law of diminishing returns takes over. According to an NYU study, if left untreated, chronic stress can lead to depression and/or anxiety, so preventative strategies such as planning and time management should also be utilized.
But on a much bigger scale, we need a complete paradigm shift in the way we view education. We should go back to learning for the sake of learning. Ideally, high school should be a place where kids can broaden their horizons–where we can discover what we like, and what we don’t; where we can take unweighted classes without growing grey hairs over the havoc they’ll wreak on our GPAs; where we can be challenged, but also relish the limited time opportunity to soak up as much knowledge as possible.
In fourth grade, we played a game called The Stock Market Game. Our teacher gave us $100,000 and told us to spend it however we wanted; and of course, I spent all our money buying shares of Disney and the parent company of Silly Bandz. But after going bankrupt at the ripe old age of nine, I learned two important lessons: 1) Recessions are not a fun time for investors and 2) diversification is key. In order to be successful, you have to be well rounded. You’ve got to know when to save and when to spend. You have to make a judgement call about whether or not the return on investment is actually worth it. There are only 24 hours in a day. Seven of those hours are spent in school. The other 17 are up to you. If you burn the candle at both ends, there’s no room to live your life. While it is good to invest in your future, if you’re constantly saving up to reap the rewards later, there’s no time to enjoy today.