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The Stress of the Super Student

Boston College is a school made up of ‘super students.’ At orientation, when a speaker asks the freshmen to raise their hands if they were valedictorian, student body president, president of a club or captain of a varsity sports team in high school, nearly everyone in the room jets his or her hand into the air. Whether coming from professors, guest lecturers or other adults on campus, the common refrain is, “You go to BC. You got in here so you must be smart.”

But what happens when you get 9,000 über-competitive superstars in one all-too-small environment? New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz and a growing number of skeptics of elite education would say: they crack.

It all begins in high school, when students, typically from upper-middle class families, first feel the immense pressure to obtain that sweet, sweet Ivy League acceptance letter. The methodology for being accepted into elite colleges, Bruni writes, is, “Lose a few winks but never a few steps.”

Sleep—something that is indisputably necessary for good mental and physical health—falls to the wayside in favor of resume-cushioning clubs, SAT prep and overloading on Advanced Placement classes. The path to Harvard’s front doors is both strenuous and sleep-deprived. Remember that stereotypical teenager, ornery and nearly impossible to drag out of bed (think Lindsay Lohan in Freaky Friday)? She’s so 2000.

But if adolescence has become too intense to make time for sleep, when does it all end? At what point are we going too far to get the competitive edge over peers who are trying to do the exact same thing?

The stress doesn’t end after the admissions letters have been distributed. And it doesn’t end after freshman year either. Far from wiping their hands of the whole stressful mess, in college, these students’ struggle for perfection only continues. Stress-induced anxiety and depression and a general inability to cope with problems are a veritable health crisis on campuses across the nation.

In another of his columns, Bruni suggests that the best way to alleviate this anxiety about achievement is to overhaul how we define ‘achievement’ in the first place. Achievement and its associated stress may very well look different if what we’re pursuing is fulfillment as opposed to prestige or wealth.

Bruni offers a strong argument for public universities as places that do help their graduates find fulfillment, and Deresiewicz says that the Ivy League, in his opinion, is the last place one should go to feel fulfilled.

A survey conducted by Gallup and Purdue University, which Bruni cites in his column, found that graduates of elite liberal arts colleges reported their personal well being (comprised of satisfaction with their relationships, community, economic situation, sense of purpose and physical health) to be only marginally (about 2%) higher than that of public university graduates.

And when it came to graduates’ satisfaction with their jobs, 39% of public school graduates felt fulfilled in their work, versus 41% of graduates of top-50 universities.

Better portents of post-graduate success that the study cites are whether or not a student engages deeply with an extracurricular activity (the more in this case is not the merrier) and whether or not a student interacts with a meaningful mentor.

Fortunately for students of traditionally less-prestigious schools, there are clubs, brilliant and encouraging professors and other enthusiastic students at nearly every college. Bruni himself passed up on attending Yale University to go to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. There he encountered motivated and socioeconomically diverse students who not only went to class, but worked part-time jobs off campus. During college, Bruni dedicated much of his time to writing for the campus newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel.

Meanwhile at Yale, Professor Deresiewicz encountered students who he found to be smart, yes, but unmistakably lost. In an interview with The Atlantic, Deresiewicz compares elite students to “excellent sheep,” because they do a phenomenal job of jumping through hoops but they have absolutely no idea why they’re doing it.

He explains that students who engage in this all-or-nothing mentality (Yale-or-bust!) are dependent on conditional things like the grades the receive and how they are performing compared to their peers, rather than being driven by an internal sense of worth and purpose.

This habit of doing things for the sake of appearances and external approval has the effect of cheapening behaviors that are otherwise of a good character: leadership and service are not done for their own sake, but in order to make one look like an ideal Ivy League candidate or a promising prospective employee. Service is no longer about others; instead, it mutates into self-aggrandizement.

The remedy for this auto-pilot achievement, Deresiewicz writes, is a college education that gives students the materials they need to learn about the world and to learn about themselves—what truly motivates them and what kind of career will really make them happy, for instance. Self-knowledge, he says, should be what motivates students to achieve.

And his prescription for better self-knowledge: time for reflection. School, he urges, should not impede on time for reflecting, for breathing, for finding authentic dreams. It should not impede on time for sleeping. Now that’s something Frank Bruni could get on board with.

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