Bay Area students gasp for breath as they drown in a sea of unreasonable pressures and expectations
Roaming through the crowded rotunda of American High School on a Monday morning, you see students clustered in groups—some nervously chatting as they flip through pages of an AP Biology textbook trying to study for an upcoming test, some hovering over a laptop and laughing at a post their friend made on Facebook, and others discussing what they did over the weekend. From afar, they look like typical high school students, tired but nonetheless motivated and ready to begin another week of school. But beneath these cheerful, smiling faces, one thing makes them stand out from the ordinary teenager — the academic pressure they face due to the competitive nature of the Bay Area.
The Bay Area — an academic hub teeming with students who have 4.0 GPAs, achieve perfect SAT and ACT scores, and face unreasonable expectations for academic success on a day-to-day basis.
“The pressure from my parents, friends, and myself to be successful are all great motivators and probably do subconsciously encourage me to try my best,” remarked Ashna Sharma (11). “What’s sad, though, is the expectation that because [my friends] and I [are] from the Bay Area, we are all very academically-oriented and are extremely smart.”
This stereotype is nothing new to most Bay Area students; a high schooler with a perfect unweighted GPA, a perfect SAT or ACT score, and active involvement in sports or clubs who still has a decent social life is what most students strive to be. Their goal is to achieve this ideal balance. Seem simple? For most students, it definitely isn’t.
Freshman Ashika Maniam has already begun to feel the added weight on her shoulders during her first few months at AHS. “My grades are a constant worry that seem to control my life,” she explained. “I am trapped by the stress I feel, and even during break life seems to revolve around academics because of homework and SAT prep. Trying out for sports or joining clubs seems nearly impossible.”
The struggle to achieve “academic success” has not only created unrealistic goals for desperate students concerned about college admissions, but it has also formed a stressful and ineffective learning environment.
“The constant [academic pressure I face] creates an unnecessary impediment to my learning — one that combines with the already rigorous material to create a bad academic experience,” Sanjana Aithal (11) remarked. “[It] makes me feel like my grades determine my self-worth.”
Many students have come face-to-face with the sad but inevitable reality: people no longer value learning but are instead concerned with the grade itself. The time when students were interested in learning to obtain more knowledge and advance their intellects is long gone. Now, the goal is to learn as much as possible just for the sake of getting good grades.
Junior Danielle Caparas has experienced this shift in mindset firsthand. “I have become too hyper-focused on unnecessary details of my projects or my assignments,” she stated. “I feel that I have lost interest in what real education is.”
While already entangled in this mess of academic work, there is still a need for students to feel socially validated in what they are doing and to prove themselves. Whether it is by holding a high position in a club or by bragging about how well they did on a previous exam, it is almost necessary for students to boast of their efforts and accomplishments and compare them to those of their friends. After all, how else would they be able to make sure that they are on par with their peers?
“It becomes very stressful to constantly compare your achievements to others who oftentimes seem to be more successful,” Zachary Felten (12) said. “It also really hurts my self esteem when I [hear about my friends’ grades] and feel that I am falling behind.”
Away from the Bay, some students have found that their ability to be academically successful has largely improved. Without the various expectations from friends and family to achieve certain grades and meet unattainable standards, students are able to concentrate on learning and meeting their own personal goals rather than those of their peers.
“Moving out of the Bay Area and to Illinois for college was such a relief,” an anonymous AHS alumni stated. “In the Bay Area I had started to lose a sense of myself, and my entire life, both social and academic, were completely based around my grades and trying to be better than everyone else. Now that I’m in college far from the Bay, I can finally take a second to learn content without having to worry about where I stand in comparison to other students. The focus on being smart seems almost nonexistent compared to what I experienced in high school, but somehow my grades are much higher and I am more motivated to learn,” he said.
Yet, despite the extreme competition among peers in the Bay Area, some students manage to find solace in knowing that their friends are all on the same track and have the same goals in mind. They find a unique sense of comfort that stems from them knowing that they aren’t the only one trying to be successful.
Freshman Tharun Krishna, among other students, believes that being in such a competitive and rigorous academic environment has allowed him to prosper and reach his fullest potential. “I don’t like being pressured, but it does make me work harder [than I normally would] and stay focused on my academics,” he explained. “Because I have learned to perceive stress [positively], I am able to use it constructively.”
Being constantly surrounded by others who are trying to outdo each other and be “the best” can quickly become burdensome for students. But, this type of academic environment also acts as a major motivator for students and pushes them to try to excel.
“There are times when the pressure feels overwhelming because you realize that there are so many smart and qualified people around you and, in a sense, you feel inferior,” Xin Yi Yu (12) remarked. “But in the end, the stress really motivates me and gives me a reason to want to work hard and be successful.”
To an outsider, the Bay Area must seem like an academic center home to over-worked and mentally-exhausted teenagers whose lives revolve solely around academics—and to an extent, maybe it is. But for many of these teenagers, it is this rigor and drive to succeed that has shaped them into determined and hardworking adults who are ready to face the pressures of the “real world,” and today it is what makes them proud to be from the Bay.