High school students juggle college-level classes, sports and extracurricular activities–all in pursuit of getting into a top school. But at what cost?
Joe Wiedemann has just begun his senior year at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, and he’s busy cataloging his accomplishments so he can apply for college.
A passionate drummer, he’s captain of the Whitman drumline team and performs with a jazz combo he founded with friends. He’s a member of Whitman’s water polo team and is vice president of the Student Government Association. He also is working on a project to earn the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest in Boy Scouting.
All of this while earning a 4.3 weighted GPA, learning to drive, studying for the SAT and working at least 12 hours a week at Bethesda Bagels, a job he has held since he was 14.
By all accounts, Joe should think of himself as accomplished. But that’s not how this student at one of Montgomery County’s highest-performing public high schools sees himself.
“I’m no Harvard-bound student,” he says. “I’m a pretty average guy, pretty average goals.”
And because he feels that way, Joe was starting to lose confidence last spring that he would be able to live up to what he believed were his parents’ expectations: getting into his top choice for college—the highly selective U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
So Joe continued to push himself, spending more than 20 hours each week writing music and creating formations for the drumline. He finally reached a point one night when he says he “kind of cracked under the pressure.”
“I told my parents that if I didn’t get into this school that I was a disappointment,” he says.
Their response surprised him. “When they finally opened up to me, they explained, ‘You’ll end up where you’ll end up and you’re going to be OK,’ ” he says.
STUDENTS IN THE BETHESDA area describe high school as a “pressure cooker.” They say they’re often at the breaking point as they juggle college-level classes, play sports and participate in extracurricular activities—all in pursuit of college admission.
The intensity of the competition faced by today’s teens was highlighted in June’s news reports about a Korean student at Fairfax County’s top-ranked Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology who felt so much pressure to be successful that she faked acceptances to Harvard and Stanford.
According to a 2014 American Psychological Association (APA) survey, teens feel more stress during the school year than adults do on a regular basis. Eighty-three percent of the more than 1,000 teens surveyed said that school was “a somewhat or significant source of stress.” Nearly 60 percent reported that “managing their time to balance all activities is a somewhat or very significant stressor.” And 36 percent reported feeling tired and nervous or anxious.
Parents have taken notice. A 2013 survey conducted by National Public Radio, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health found that nearly 40 percent of parents said their high school students “experienced a lot of stress,” with nearly 25 percent saying that homework was the main reason.
“Especially in our area, a lot of students have this idea they have to be perfect to get into a school,” says Jodi Edmunds, director of counseling services at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. “Everyone is trying to keep up with each other. They’re not really doing what’s right for them.”
Local school administrators say they are seeing more students diagnosed with anxiety disorders than ever before. And the suicides of several local teens in recent years—including a June graduate of Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville in the summer of 2014, a student at Walter Johnson in January, and a seventh-grader at Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School in Silver Spring in February—have raised concerns among local educators, parents and students themselves.
Mental health experts are quick to point out that school stress is not a leading indicator for suicide, which usually is the result of deeper mental health issues and family problems. And they say that experiencing some stress can be a good thing, motivating students to achieve. Still, too much can push some students over the edge, and that’s causing worry.
“There’s an alarming number of suicides and self-harm…and you have to wonder how much of it is all the stress these kids are under,” says psychologist and author Mary Alvord, who has offices in Silver Spring and Rockville and has contributed to the APA’s public education guides on resilience and stress in children and teens.
Students say they break down in tears because they can’t finish a night’s worth of homework—or don’t show up for a test because they are too anxious, opting instead to take a more difficult makeup exam. It’s become routine, some say, to stay up until early morning to finish homework and then crash for a few hours before downing coffee or high-octane energy drinks before heading to school.
Before retiring in June, Karen Lockard says she witnessed students dealing with health issues ranging from eating disorders to having suicidal thoughts during her seven years as principal of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. “We do a disservice to students by creating a culture in which they feel they have to go to the Ivies,” she says. “They feel ‘lesser colleges’ are not good enough.”
Joe Wiedemann says he doesn’t consider himself a “very stressed person.” His mother holds a different opinion. She often worried about him during his junior year, describing him as moving “100 miles a minute.”
“Honestly, it was a source of contention in our house,” Liz Wiedemann says. “I kept asking him to do less. I couldn’t make him do less.”
ON A TUESDAY afternoon in mid-May, I visited Whitman to talk about school stress with Principal Alan Goodwin and a group of students he’d invited—one sophomore, four juniors and one senior, all of whom were involved in school sports and organizations. Whitman is one of the county’s top public high schools, regularly boasting the highest SAT scores and sending students to the country’s elite colleges.
Whitman students are well aware of its legacy. For these six students, including Joe, the message they’ve heard at school, home and through the media is clear: Their success later in life would be defined by the college they attended. The students were eager to share their experiences, feeding off each other’s stories as I listened.
Michael Faulkner said that as he started his sophomore year, he began to realize how important it was to plan his schedule so he’d take the right courses to get into a science-based college. “If you can’t get into a good college and you don’t have that as part of a résumé to get to a job, then…life sucks,” he said.
Other students talked about the importance of managing their time, especially if they were involved in activities or had after-school jobs. “It’s hard to lessen the pressure,” junior Rebecca Fisch said. “I cheer, so I have to be there for all the games, all the practices. If you can’t manage your time, you are lost.”
For junior Selvi Ulusan, thinking about college was a “huge stress” because she wasn’t sure she’d be able to afford it. She had to give up playing lacrosse to make time for her job at Chipotle.
“I have to think about having a job to help my family out, and at the same time all my friends are spending thousands of dollars on SAT tutors and I’m, like, working in a book, and all my friends are going to college counselors and having tutors for all their hard classes and I’m at work making burritos,” she said. “I just feel like I can’t compete with everyone else.”
Goodwin said the stress and anxiety generated by trying to keep up leads some students to abuse alcohol. “A lot of them say that they drink to relax…because they’re working so hard,” he said. “Therefore on Saturday night they feel like they need to drink so they can just forget for a while.”