Straight Talk Advice

Sep 14, 2011

Pressure-cooker high schools

DEAR STRAIGHT TALK: Sometimes I think our schools have gone crazy. We expect our kids to get a 4.6 GPA, letter in sports, run student government, play in the orchestra, and after five hours of homework a night, start their own nonprofit or make a feature film. I’m hardly exaggerating! Many kids I know suffer from anxiety, eating disorders, gray hair, alarming cynicism, use far too much caffeine and get far too little sleep. My son says there is no way to get everything done without caffeine. What do your high-achieving panelists have to say about today’s pressure-cooker schools? Is it true that some top-rung colleges are easier? — Mom with Shattered Nerves

Emily 17, Fair Oaks, Calif. Ask me a question

You’re not exaggerating at all! I go to my large public school at 7AM, take four AP classes, get as much homework done as possible during class, go to cross-country practice, followed by meetings or appointments, then home to finish homework and work on other extracurriculars (running a nonprofit, coordinating elementary school programs, Science Olympiad, clubs, piano). I have friends who are chronically depressed, anxious, disillusioned, and extremely sleep-deprived. They blindly heed a voice in their head (or from parents) telling them they must do “more, more, more” for their “dream college” resume. The key to sanity is actually caring about your activities and having an enjoyable outlet for stress (mine is running). That is how I am able to remain healthy and happy.

Elise 19, Orlando, Florida Ask me a question

Attending a private prep school, my dad expected A’s for the money he paid. On top of schoolwork, I did sports, drama, and other activities. Some days, the insane schedule and constant pressure of perfection made me almost lose it. College definitely seems easier. Have your son replace activities he doesn’t enjoy with those he does. They all look good on a resume. Make sure to stay in close communication.

Tori 17, Sebastopol, Calif. Ask me a question

I attend a private prep school. Yes, it is my choice, but the overwhelming pressure invades my thoughts every single day. Society has brainwashed me into thinking that where I go to college will decide whether or not I am successful, and, therefore, happy. My peers and I are in a frenzy to exceed a 4.0 and do as many extracurriculars as possible because this, we are told, is the road to happiness. We took a poll in Economics and over half the class does school-related work 40+ hours a week. One quarter works 60+ hours. Henry Ford discovered that humans are most productive in a 40-hour, five-day work week (as opposed to a 48-hour, six-day week). So why are high schoolers driven to work 60+ hours, seven days a week?! Subjects that should be fascinating become “more work.” Cheating and plagiarism are everyday coping mechanisms. This problem requires educational reform. But first, parents need to care less about college and more about their child’s mental wellbeing.

Jennifer 17, Sacramento, Calif. Ask me a question

“Cheating is caring” is an underground motto at my pressure-cooker school. Many feel they can’t care for themselves AND the college app without it.

Matt 17, Villa Park, Calif. Ask me a question

I am an honors student, athlete and student leader, juggling multiple extracurricular and community service activities. Fortunately my parents help me identify my passions and interests and steer me away from helter-skelter achievements. This provides sanity so I can also be a normal kid who hangs with friends and goes to the beach. Nothing can replace health and happiness.

DEAR MOM: You’ve written a three-alarm letter and the panel rang it even louder. Most parents say stress is the top concern they have for their teen. I’d like to continue this conversation with more solutions. Readers: what are your ideas for reforming the system?

Editor’s Note: A note on the 4.6 GPA. This is known as ‘weighted’ grading. Not all private prep schools give weighted grades even though their classes routinely qualify as honors or advanced placement classes. But public school honors, advanced placement (AP), and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs almost all give weighted grades. There is some variability, but the rule of thumb on weighting is to raise the grade one-half point for an honors class and a full point for AP and IB programs. So, in an honors class, a 3.5 becomes a 4.0; in an AP or IB program a 3.5 becomes a 4.5. This explains the over-the-top GPA scores you hear about.

The definition of Tori’s “school-related work” is all the hours spent in class (not counting breaks and lunch), on homework, and on extracurriculars and community service.

I have some thoughts on how to reform the current system. Let’s hear yours, too, and we’ll run another column on this subject.—Lauren

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