How the Pressures to Get Into College are Harming People’s Mental Health

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Being back in school as a grad student, I’m reminded of the ways the academic system brings out the worst in me.

My obsession with grades. My workaholism. My comparison-itis. My drive to be perfect.

It brings me back to when I was a teenager and it felt like my goodness as a person was tied to my GPA, the number of leadership roles I took on, and how many extracurriculars I participated in. On the surface, I was excelling. But on the inside, I was suffering.

The Stress Is Real

I was feeling stressed about getting into college as early as the fifth grade. By that time, I had already received the messages that grades mattered, accomplishments were important, and every decision I made super important to my future success. That’s a lot for a ten-year-old.

“In my clinical experience, I’ve found that teens tend to be more focused on college readiness at an earlier age compared to past generations,” Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D. and Ohio-based Talkspace therapist said. “In part, I think this is due to a greater emphasis in schools on college preparation, as well as parents expectations about college readiness.”

For O’Neill, the biggest stress for teens about getting into college is anxiety. “It’s not uncommon for students to have a lot of worry about the future, especially because so much of it is out of their control,” she said. “Some may try to prepare by hiring tutors or doing whatever they can in order to obtain some sort of edge to admission,” she added. “This can lead to stress because it might reinforce the notion that the student has to constantly work to set themselves apart from their peers.”

The pressures on young people about getting into college (and a good college at that, however good is defined) may help explain why teens from upper-middle class families in the US are more likely to have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse than any other group of young people. This is troubling because there’s more evidence that academic success doesn’t necessarily predict that a thriving career.

A Therapist Different From A College Guidance Counselor

Looking back on my teens, I wish someone had taught me how to manage my stress better. While the college guidance counselor helped me with the logistical components of getting into college, having therapist to turn to for support with the stress and anxiety that accompanied the college admissions process.

O’Neill agrees that college guidance counselors and therapists offer two distinct ways of supporting teens. “With a therapist, a student can explore larger issues within their life,” O’Neill said.

“Additionally, it’s possible that what they’re experiencing now might be something that they experience later in life when they deal with other types of stressors (for example, starting their first job, getting married, having a family, etc),” she said. “A therapist can help the teen learn coping skills so that they’re prepared to deal with future stress in their life.”

How Mindfulness Can Help

You may have heard of mindfulness — it’s basically everywhere now — but did you know that mindfulness can teach you how to pay attention to present-moment experiences (without trying to change or get rid of them) and cultivate non-judgemental awareness (so you learn how to accept things as they are). Research shows that one of the benefits of practicing mindfulness meditation is a decrease in the repetitive negative thoughts about the past or future (rumination) that sometimes feels hard to escape when you’re stressed about college admissions.

O’Neill uses mindfulness-based activities to help teens learn how to take things one step at a time. “I like to focus on the idea of mindfulness and acceptance of the present moment,” O’Neill shared. “Having a daily mantra or incorporating daily affirmations are another way to incorporate the idea of being more than simply an SAT score.”

A2013 study supports the benefits of mindfulness by that showing undergraduate students performed better on the reading comprehension section of the GREs (the SAT for grad school) following two-weeks of mindfulness training.

Three Amazing Resources

Here are three amazing resources that O’Neill recommends for any teen looking to nurture their mental health, boost their self-care, and feel ready to tackle the challenge of college admissions without hurting their mental health.

If you are feeling overwhelmed about getting into college, be extra kind to yourself. This is arguably one of the most stressful times in your life. Remember: you’re not your GPA, the number of leadership roles you take on, or how many extracurriculars you participate in. You’re doing the best you can and that’s often good enough.

Published by

Elizabeth Su

Contributor