Facing the stress of high school

May 1, 2020

At 7:15 on December 14, Emma stepped into Ridgewood High School, and tried to calm down. In between heads, she caught glimpses of her friends further up in line. It’s just a test, Emma told herself. She continued the same deep breaths she had been practicing for the past two days. What had her dad said before he dropped her off? “Try your best,” she remembered, “you can always take it again.” He’s right. It was only December of her junior year of high school, and she had time to take the ACT a few more times before she applied to colleges as a senior. The line moved fast, and before she knew it, Emma was sitting at her assigned desk, setting her watch for the English section. 

Around four hours later, Emma went home. She spent the rest of that Saturday reviewing the test in her head. She broke it down: English went well, Science and Reading as expected, but the Math section was particularly hard. Hopefully she made up for it in the other sections. At least it’s over, she thought to herself. It was almost winter break: a break from both school and her ACT homework. Since July, Emma had been meeting with a tutor at least once a week, if not more, and finishing hours of homework in between sessions. Now, for the first time in months, as Emma waited for her scores to be released, she could finally think about something other than the test. 

The last two years of high school bombard students with huge amounts of stress. In a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2013, 83% of teens stated most of their stress resulted from school, and 69% stated their stress came from getting into college and deciding on post-high school plans. American teens, especially those growing up in affluent communities, focus more energy than ever before on the college admissions process. When asked how often he thinks about college, junior Ty Scherer responded that he thinks about it everyday. A lot of the stress surrounding college admissions is centered around taking the SAT and ACT tests. Students report spending at least 5 hours a week studying for the tests, on top of extracurriculars and homework for their classes. This studying includes taking practice tests and meeting with private tutors, which is expensive for most families. Junior Clare Brogan explains that she spent at least 6 hours preparing each week. 

“It was like an extra class,” she says. 

In Glen Rock, it is usually not a question whether students are going to college, but rather which college they are going to. The NJ School Performance Report states that 91.9% of GRHS graduates are enrolled in college. Additionally, since Glen Rock is a small town,  college acceptances and standardized test scores become public knowledge for many. 

“In Glen Rock, like in the bubble, everybody compares themselves to everybody. People say, ‘if you want to go here, well this person got this score and this GPA and they didn’t even get in, so what about you?’” says junior Emma Neubart. This undoubtedly has a negative affect on students. Beyond the stress of achieving their personal goals, they also feel the pressure of how their peers will perceive their post-high school plans.

On the day after Christmas, Emma was sitting on the floor cleaning her bedroom. She had heard that ACT scores were supposed to come out soon, but wasn’t eager to open up hers. She knew that all of her friends would soon be sharing their scores with one another, and wasn’t rushing to be a part of that discussion. However, learning her score turned out to be out of Emma’s hands. As soon as the ACT released the scores, Emma’s mom walked in to inform her that she scored lower than she had hoped. 

A weight settled on Emma’s chest. After months of studying and stressing, she still had ways to go until she met her goal. 

“It’s not the end of the world Emma, you just have to do better next time. You’re signed up for the test in February, and I’ll continue to pay for your tutor as long as you continue studying,” her mom said. Emma wiped tears from her cheeks and agreed to work to increase her score. This was just a benchmark for improvement.

Over the next few months Emma lived up to that promise to her mom. She continued to spend at least an hour every week with her tutor, and completed a full test each week for homework. This was the same workload as before the first test, but it was harder to complete after having had a negative experience with the ACT already. Additionally, with her first score sitting in the back of her mind, Emma was even more stressed for the test in February.

“I felt more pressure the second time because I knew I had to do better,” Emma recalls. 

By February 8th, Emma was better prepared for the ACT than she was in December. At this point in her life, she had taken more practice tests, spent more hours with her tutor, and had become more familiar with the test as a whole. 

Tips to perform well on the test“I surprisingly wasn’t as nervous as the first time. The night before the first time I kept stressing and waking up, but the second time I just walked in and I was fine. But there was definitely more pressure…I felt a lot of pressure,” Emma says. 

Four hours later, it was over. She left feeling drained and anxious, but also relieved that it was over. She then settled into a different stress from what she had felt that morning, as she waited yet again for the scores to be released.

Unfortunately, a lot of the pressures students face in the college admissions process are justified. Colleges have become more competitive over the years, and admissions criteria has become much stricter. Students are aware of this from an early age, and the pressure is consistent throughout most of high school. 

“I went through a period where I thought my GPA wasn’t high enough…and just thinking about that stresses me out,” says Clare Brogan. 

The American Psychological Association survey states that during the school year, teens report higher levels of stress than they believe to be healthy. The survey also details that teens’ reported stress levels exceeding that of adults. This is a new and surprising statistic, considering most adults are expected to have more issues in their life they are likely to worry about. Adults in the past have been known to be more stressed than high schoolers, due the pressures of having to support themselves, and a family. However, as a college degree has become a necessary factor in the workforce, teens now put the pressure of their entire futures on their college decisions. Consequently, since ACT and SAT are fairly significant factors in college applications, a lot of students’ application stress is centralized to these tests. 

“I was dreading opening up the scores. I was dreading it for weeks. I didn’t want to know the date or anything,” says Emma. On February 25, while at her locker before first period, Emma received a text from her mom stating that she got the same score on the second test as the first one. She stared at her phone in disbelief, and tried to process that she was back at where she was two months ago. 

Emma, like most other high schoolers, was forced to place a lot of pressure on how she performed on this single test. Although some people thrive in the test environment, a lot of students struggle to perform to the best of their ability when the day comes. Anxiety, claustrophobia, and even feeling nauseous to the point of throwing up have all stood in the way of test-takers. Doing well on these tests provides a very narrow picture of a person’s intelligence and potential, and the pressure put on students often seems unwarranted. 

While the standardized tests can be a large factor in applications, it is important to remind students that their test scores are only a small part of the whole picture. Most colleges pride themselves in having a holistic review of applications, and understand that students are much more than their performance on these tests. In recent years, over one thousand colleges have even stopped requiring test scores. The list of schools that have become test optional includes some of the top universities, such as the University of Chicago, Wake Forest University, and New York University. However, for the time being, these tests are still a significant part of the college application process and students continue to put a lot of pressure on themselves to score well. 

The goal should be to address this pressure so that it doesn’t become disabling. A study done by NYU explains how the surveyed high school students felt that the demands put on them were inappropriate, and that they overall were too stressed. A beneficial step in solving this issue is for parents, teachers, and students to commit to finding ways to lessen the impact that standardized tests have on teens’ stress levels.

Discussions about the SAT and ACT on social media

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