Academic Excellence, But at What Cost?

For most students today, getting an education is a high-stakes game – one in which they are betting their future. From a young age, we are trained that we must perform well in high school so that we will be accepted into an esteemed university…so that we can get into a prestigious grad school… so that we can land a powerful position at a Fortune 500 company … so that we will ultimately be what? Happy and healthy?

If well-being is the ultimate goal, then students are headed in the completely wrong direction by shouldering impressive, yet extremely demanding course loads.

A 2013 study published in the Journal of Experimental Education demonstrated that excessive amounts of homework are tied to increased stress and serious health risks. For many students, homework is the primary obstacle to getting the recommended nine hours of sleep per night. In addition to sleep deprivation and exhaustion, the students in the study reported headaches, weight loss, and digestive issues.

Regardless of the struggle in managing their current workload of homework and tests, students are tirelessly urged be proactive in thinking about their future. The pursuit of college acceptance is a rigorous course that starts as early as freshman year for many. Students are expected to load up on rigorous coursework, perform exceedingly well on aptitude tests such as the SAT and ACT, apply for competitive scholarships, and beef up their resumes with extracurricular activities and community service projects – all of which consume countless hours and a great deal of energy.

In the midst of all this, it is not difficult for students to feel more like a walking resume devoid of any true character than an actual person.

With all this pressure, something has got to give. Students often cut corners in an attempt to keep all the plates they are juggling in the air. For instance, the unfortunate issue of cheating is the product of a simple cost/benefit analysis. Many students would rather spend an hour scouring the internet for answers to a worksheet than to actually sit down to work out the problems the old-fashioned way for an hour and a half.

Many students feel as though they can justify this behavior because their school system reinforces the ends, not the means. High test scores and GPAs are much more revered than hard work, a love of learning, or even long-term retention of knowledge.

The product of this outcome-based educational system is a slew of young men and women that are doggedly focused on end results; they have plenty of ambition but often lack the proper skills to fulfill their goals.

Consequently, when such goals fail to be met, students who have been conditioned to think that perfection is the only option face a reality that can be crippling.

This is one of the most unfortunate paradoxes of the high-school student: the ones with the highest GPAs and most stellar records are very often the ones who lose the most sleep, who must struggle with anxiety and depression as well as the accompanying physical ailments.

Personally, I am just as guilty as the next student for allowing the competition of education get to me. I check my Edline account religiously and fixate on my class rank a little more than I would care to admit. I pour over a mountain of AP textbooks and Princeton Reviews well into the wee hours of the night and attempt to schedule extra-curricular activities for every waking minute, which are more than a few, considering I shirk sleeping-time for studies.

Despite the fact that I have seemingly succumbed to the perfectionist hysteria, I have realized that there comes a point where one has to draw the line. No letter printed on a piece of paper should be able to define an entire human being. I shouldn’t be able to recount the entirety of my high school experience by merely sounding off a transcript.

The only way to remedy this growing epidemic is to make students conscientious of the bigger picture: health and happiness should never be solely contingent upon academic success.

After all, adolescence is one of the most developmentally significant times in a person’s life. It is a period of crucial growth in mental, emotional as well as physical maturity. It is a time to have adventures that span well beyond Huckleberry’s, to experience parties that have nothing to do with Boston or tea, to make bonds that do not have to be classified as either ionic or covalent.

Academic competition is not innately bad for students; it drives us to expand our limits. Nonetheless, the current amplification of competition in the educational system allows for truly unhealthy realities for far too many.