Response to Frank Ding’s “what I learned from attending an “elite” STEM high school”

Coming from a similar background to Frank, I can definitely relate to some of the struggles he outlined in his post. I went to a public magnet high school in Houston, Texas, called DeBakey High School for Health Professions (DeBakey), which has ranked #1 in the Houston metro area, and has consistently ranked in the top 5 Texas high schools. While at DeBakey, stress from the school workload and comparing myself to others were some major problems that I faced, much like Frank did. In this post, I’ll focus on treating burnout and combating comparison to others while bringing in my personal experiences at DeBakey.

At Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ), Frank emphasizes the struggles of comparing yourself with others and burnout from a heavy school workload. I had an older brother who also went to DeBakey, so tips from him and horror stories prepared me for the intense rigor of DeBakey. However, I know people who burned out, and judging from the 140 people who transferred out of DeBakey by senior year (our total freshman year class was roughly 300 people), burnout was at least semi-widespread, so DeBakey and TJ were similar in that regard.

Preventing and treating burnout is especially important now because of the novel circumstances that can add stress on top of an already stressful college transitional period. Burnout is defined as “a state of mental and physical exhaustion that can zap the joy out of your career, friendships, and family interactions… [that can be caused by] continual exposure to stressful situations, working long hours, or witnessing upsetting news.” To prevent burnout, you should “exercise, eat a balanced diet, practice good sleep habits, [and] ask for help.” Asking for help can include self-care check-ins with family members and friends, and omega-3 fatty acids in foods can provide a natural mood boost.

Comparing yourself with others was less common at DeBakey because our official GPA rankings weren’t released until junior year, but the idea that the people around you could be potential competitors for high rankings was still in the back of my mind. The desire to be as good as everyone, and maybe a little better, is something I still feel even now, compounded by the pre-med track that I’m on.

It’s perfectly fine to take a general survey of others to see how others are doing, but it crosses the line into potentially harmful when you constantly compare yourself to others, or if that comparison is the main motivator for your actions. The emphasis should be on focusing on yourself more and knowing your limits as described by Frank. Focusing on yourself can help “ease symptoms of depression, anxiety, and social anxiety,” some of which overlap with the symptoms of burnout and can help prevent burnout. To focus on yourself, you should “spend more time alone, practice self-care, and celebrate your strengths.” Spending time alone can include taking walks by yourself, creating a list of things that you want to do to improve your life, or asking yourself questions as self-reflection; self-care includes meditation, a healthy diet, and exercise; and celebrating your strengths encompasses giving yourself rewards after completing a goal and setting specific goals.

Self-care to prevent burnout and self-reflection to compare yourself less to others is becoming increasingly important as college freshmen take their first step online and at home. We should be mindful of our physical and mental health, and take some time to care for ourselves.

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