On High Achievers and the High School Academic Pressure Cooker

Why Our Current Mindset Needs Changing — From a Recent South Bay HS Graduate

Carolyn Wang
ILLUMINATION

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Photo by Mika Luoma on Unsplash
Photo by Mika Luoma on Unsplash

Editor’s Note: I actually wrote this article the summer before college (around July/August), and found it sitting in my drafts inbox two months later! Whether you agree, disagree, or have mixed feelings about this article, I love a good discussion, so feel free to leave a comment!

One of the worse things you can tell an ambitious, high-achieving high schooler is to “relax — it doesn’t matter what college you go to. You don’t need to be so stressed all the time. You don’t need to be pushing yourself all the time.”

Now, before I get downvoted, let me get this straight:

I’m 100% certain you’re right. If you’re actually speaking like that to a student of yours, it probably doesn’t matter what college this individual goes to in the long run; person matters so much more than college name, and the fact that this student is working so hard indicates that they truly want to thrive. I’m sure they’ll end up utilizing the resources they’re given to their max potential no matter where they end up—in college or otherwise.

But there is a misconception, I believe, about this particular subset of high schoolers, deemed “high achievers,” and their effects on school culture.

But there is a misconception, I believe, about this particular subset of high schoolers, deemed “high achievers,” and their effects on school culture.

In the south bay particularly, where I attended middle and high school, there is a supposed “academic pressure cooker” environment with the assumption that a good majority of [insert school name] high schoolers just want to get into a “name-brand” school because their parents are pushing them to. Or because it sounds good. Continuing the stereotype, these kids may or may not have a tendency to browse endlessly on r/ApplyingToCollege, muse over other students’ stats on College Confidential, complain endlessly about leadership positions, and snag all the hardest AP’s at their schools against their counselors’ pleading.

Yes, this environment certainly sounds toxic. In an area with a predominantly Asian population, it goes to figure that a small group of individuals, students and parents alike, do harbor this unfortunate mindset that the only way to go is (1) Name Brand School and (2) Toxic Comparison.

But I can attest to the fact that a good number of high-achievers, who often end up pushing themselves endlessly (sometimes over their own limits) by taking hard classes and searching for ways to take responsibility in extracurricular activities, don’t do so because their “parents tell them to,” or because “everyone else is doing it,” or because they got an epiphany from College Confidential.

It’s because they genuinely want to challenge themselves. It’s an intrinsic motivation, discipline, desire to open new doors, and genuine hope to do something good for the world that prompts these kids to, what some may say, “contribute to this problematic academic pressure cooker.”

I think it’s wrong to demonize these genuine efforts as toxic.

I think it’s even more wrong to ignore the countless individuals who end up with mental health breakdowns due to this high-stress environment.

Yet what’s the most wrong, I believe, is telling these high-achievers from the get go that they’re harboring too much stress. That they’ll break down. That they need to relax and stop putting themselves under so much pressure.

Because I promise, from personal experience, that while these assertions may be well-intended, they do nothing to help.

Photo by Nicolas J Leclercq on Unsplash

Different people have different definitions of de-stressing. What may be an “hour of relaxation chilling in front of the TV” for one student may, instead, result in an hour of guilt for a student who has bigger goals.

Now, I’m certainly not preaching unhealthy tendencies like workaholism. But in certain contexts (let’s say one has a test the next day), small sacrifices make sense.

And for someone with a long-term goal of, say, HYPSM (I know I’m being incredibly generic/cookie-cutter here with the college choices but it’s often the case), this same concept of “willing sacrifice” applies in the long run. Telling a high achiever to “relax,” or “take it easy for their mental health,” often earns nothing better than a scoff or eye roll. Because to them, the idea of “taking it easy” through conventional means such as “just being more chill with stuff and not worrying” isn’t a happy one. It adds additional stress. The original concept is not wrong — I certainly am not going against the intent. But for a high schooler who has greater goals, “take it easy” sounds incredibly shallow and out-of-touch.

What should be preached instead, to address what could inevitably turn into potential burnout or a stress-induced mental breakdown for these students (Yes, I’ve been there), is to help students invest in activities that they can enjoy and de-stress in — not in the conventional “take it easy” way, but in a manner that simultaneously benefits a students’ own goals.

If a student intrinsically hopes to challenge themselves, maybe rather than telling them to “take it easy” by cutting down on classes that they are capable of and willing to handle (key words: capable of and willing), maybe try helping them find an activity that they enjoy while also advancing their goals. Like say, a sports team, which is “productive” in the sense of exercise/extracurriculars but also brings socialization and happiness. Or a casual, weekly singing group, to boost one’s mood.

Or, I daresay, find the moments of stress-relief (and awe) within inherently “stressful” endeavors, such as appreciating the beauty of the human body while memorizing their functions for a bio quiz. (I know, easier said than done.)

While from the surface-level, these ideas seem to promote an unhealthy level of achievement-based thinking, I argue the opposite: that achievement and challenging oneself doesn’t have to automatically correlate with toxicity, work, and pressure cooker culture. That “relaxation” doesn’t have to be correlated with “not doing schoolwork” or refraining from activities that happen to benefit one’s long-term goals. Ultimately, extracurriculars, school, de-stressing, and happiness are NOT mutually exclusive, as so many people seem compelled to believe.

Ultimately, extracurriculars, school, de-stressing, and happiness are NOT mutually exclusive, as so many people seem compelled to believe.

With intrinsic motivation comes an intrinsic definition of “success” and “happiness.” For some, this happiness may come from spending an extra hour on a Chemistry concept, going above-and-beyond for an APUSH project that enriches one’s perspective, or putting in extra work for a better Physics grade. For others, it may be getting fit — such as finishing a hard workout, or increasing the intensity of an exercise regimen.

I don’t believe that lowering expectations is a good way to solve problems in the long run — especially if you know a student who fits this general high-achieving category and truly wants to apply themselves. For this demographic, working less is not the solution. But neither is just working hard. The ultimate sweet spot is working smart — and that involves hard work, balance, setting *realistic* yet challenging expectations, sacrifices every now and then, and allowing yourself to have fun too — all mixed in one.

Photo by Chander R on Unsplash

While I’ve been approaching this article from an academic/high school pressure cooker standpoint, it certainly does not solely apply there. What I say about academics may, just as well, apply to an athlete, or a musician, or whatever other pursuit. My ultimate point, however, is that just because someone or some activity is challenging, difficult, or requires effort, it doesn’t mean it’s inherently “work” or “pressure-inducing” if one approaches from a different mindset. The process of learning a math problem can certainly be tiresome. But the moment one solves it, it could, arguably, end up being much more fun than spending an entire hour watching Instagram reels.

It’s hypocritical to want to achieve a certain level of success while also having people say “Relax. Take the easier route” for the sake of mental health. What’s more productive is raising stress and mental health as a legitimate consequence of high expectations, and teaching students how to deal with it productively. Help students correctly evaluate their capabilities so that they push themselves (under the assumption that this is what they want) without overreaching their capabilities. Help them find ways to deal with stress and cut back when it becomes a matter of “yan gao shou di,” or taking on more than they can realistically chew.

What’s more productive is raising stress and mental health as a legitimate consequence of high expectations, and teaching students how to deal with it productively.

As long as a high achiever doesn’t constantly compare themselves with others in an effort to validate themselves, look down on others, or make their classmates feel bad (now that’s toxic), the idea of AP courses, extracurriculars, and working hard for good grades doesn’t need to equate to an “academic pressure cooker.”

There’s no shame in wanting a challenge, and if a high schooler is really aiming for HYPSM or another high-target post-grad plan (based on their capabilities), I don’t believe anyone has the right to convince them otherwise. Or to automatically deem a high-achieving mindset as toxic. As long as they learn how to handle the pressure, take care of themselves, and jump over the hurdles that come with reaching for their goals, I say:

Go for it.

Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash

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Carolyn Wang
ILLUMINATION

CS, Stats, + PPL @ UC Berkeley. Writer, musician, triathlete, & explorer. More about me: carolynwangjy.medium.com/ae3eb5de2324