Keeping the Senior Student Stress in Check

by Evelyn S., Concordia Applied Journalism

Stress is something that every student experiences—but when does it become all-consuming? And what can we do to keep our stress levels in check?

High school counselor Mr. Love discusses student wellbeing and his weekly Wellness Tracker. (video: Evelyn S., Concordia Applied Journalism)

Of course, stress levels vary widely with everyone. “Some students are more self-aware, while some push themselves to the brink,” said Ms. Lewis, a high school counselor. On a scale of 1-10—from least to most stressed—one student reported a 2, while another was a 6.5 and still another was an 8.

It’s AP exam season in May, and students are studying especially hard.  (image: Evelyn S., Concordia Applied Journalism)

It’s AP exam season in May, and students are studying especially hard. (image: Evelyn S., Concordia Applied Journalism)

In general, though, students at high-achieving private schools such as Concordia feel pressure—both from themselves and their environment—to work hard and succeed. Of course, a healthy amount of stress is good: the butterflies you feel before taking an important test can help you perform better. However, too much emphasis placed on success can create a vicious cycle. Once a student feels pressure from others around them, they might bring more pressure on themselves to do well in school. In fact, “chronic stress has been cited as the new ‘cultural currency’ in highly competitive private schools, where students often equate their schools’ level of rigor with the amount of stress experienced by its students,” The Atlantic reported in a 2015 article.


“In today’s culture, people are really busy,” Ms. Lewis explains. “When people are not as busy, they [often wonder] how they are measuring up — ‘Am I doing everything I need to be doing?’”

Personally, I have noticed many people who seem to equate being busy to being successful—filling their plate with extracurriculars and leadership roles, and never leaving room in their lives to just breathe. Yet a stressed and hectic life seems to be the new standard for success—why relax when you can build your resume? But the tradeoff of losing sleep, happiness, and downtime with family and friends is immense.

Isabel C. and Lillian F. are busy studying for their upcoming AP World History exam.  (image: Evelyn S., Concordia Applied Journalism)

Isabel C. and Lillian F. are busy studying for their upcoming AP World History exam. (image: Evelyn S., Concordia Applied Journalism)

Sometimes, it is impossible to find a school-life balance. “School, homework, extracurricular activities, sleep, repeat—that’s what it can be for some students,” says one senior research scientist at the New York University College of Nursing in this report . One Concordia student agrees: “I wish every teacher acknowledged that we have other classes. They always talk about a balance, but we never seem to truly achieve that. We [need to] have a life beyond school.”

So whose fault is it that in general, students are more stressed than ever? We can’t point to one particular factor.

For many students, especially juniors and seniors, the task of applying to college can be a major stressor. “[College apps stress me out] because I’m expected to spend months putting my whole life into a convenient packet for someone to decide in 5 minutes if I'm good enough for their university,” says Hayley S., a junior. Applying to college can be incredibly confusing—which schools should you apply to? What do you need to do to make yourself stand out? Some students feel pressure from their environment (such as their culture and family) to gain admission into a selective university. How do they deal with that pressure? I know many classmates who agonize over their GPA and extracurriculars, trying to predict whether they will be good enough for a certain university.  Hoony K., a junior, agrees: “[College apps] are a lot of work, and we all know that the schools we want to get into are very competitive.”

Even seniors, who are finished with college apps, feel some stress about AP exams.  (image: Evelyn S., Concordia Applied Journalism)

Even seniors, who are finished with college apps, feel some stress about AP exams. (image: Evelyn S., Concordia Applied Journalism)

According to a study about teen stress published by NYU and Columbia University, “The pressure to gain admission to a selective college or university is one of the main factors… driving the conditions that lead to high rates of chronic stress among high-achieving youth.” College applications can be incredibly stressful; as a result, it’s too easy to equate your self-worth to acceptances and rejections. Students can also tend toward building their identity around college applications—creating a self that they believe colleges want to see. In this process, students can be consumed by college apps and lose their sense of self; to remedy that, it’s important to try and spend time with family, friends, or doing hobbies.

It’s no secret that students juggle multiple roles in a day. “Schoolwork, extracurricular activities, certain issues in personal life, and the constant pressure (from myself mostly) to do well especially in school are all factors that cause stress in my life,” said Henie Z., a sophomore. It’s so easy to be consumed by stress—what should we do to maintain balance in our lives?

First, students should change their mindset of comparing themselves to others. Many students (myself included) at Concordia fall into the trap of perceiving their peers as successful and feeling that they don’t measure up. “Comparing yourself to others causes undue stress,” says Ms. Lewis. “You should only compare yourself to yourself.” One tangible way to do this is to “stop asking people what their grades are and what their test scores are,” Ms. Lewis says. Instead, you should “look at your own previous-year scores.”

During exam season, the library becomes a haven for studying.    (image: Evelyn S., Concordia Applied Journalism)

During exam season, the library becomes a haven for studying. (image: Evelyn S., Concordia Applied Journalism)

Second, students should develop healthy ways to cope with academic stress and find balance in their lives. One can (try) to have a healthier sleep schedule, spend time with family or friends, or put more time into their hobbies. Instead of scrolling through Instagram or browsing Snapchat as a de-stressing method, keep in mind that constantly exposing yourself to perfect renditions of other people’s lives can add even more stress to your life. “Social media can send a message of perfection that isn’t real,” says Ms. Lewis. She also says that comparing likes is unhealthy and stress-inducing. “It’s good to disconnect once in a while.”

It may also help to put things into perspective. High school is just a small part of  your life, and it will be over soon. When it comes to stress, “adults have the benefit of experience,” says Ms. Lewis. “Students, in the moment, can feel like it’s the end of the world.”

More importantly (and contrary to popular belief), getting into a selective university does not equate to success for the rest of your life. College is only four years of your life, and it seldom affects your wealth, employment chances, or even happiness. Personally, I think the notion that “selective college = success” is not about actual success (ie. happiness or money); rather, attending a prestigious school is like a label that you can wear. If you tell people you go to Stanford, for example, they’ll automatically get the impression that you are smart, talented, and successful without having to know anything else about you. This might be the reason why Ivy Leagues are so hyped up: everyone knows those schools, so if you attend one, you get “bragging rights”. However, it’s so important to realize that “looking for a college that fits you is important,” says Ms. Lewis. “Being dead-set on one school causes way more anxiety than needed.”

A little note of encouragement in the SMS tech lab. See related story.  (image: Evelyn S., Concordia Applied Journalism)

A little note of encouragement in the SMS tech lab. See related story. (image: Evelyn S., Concordia Applied Journalism)

This advice can’t be overstated: “Talk to teachers and counselors if you are feeling stressed,” Ms. Lewis says. Even if it seems intimidating, teachers are human too, and their job and intention is to help you. It never hurts to reach out and see what you can do.

Finally, the most important thing to do is to strike a balance in your life. Learn to say no, and learn to manage your time so you spend a reasonable amount of time on different things. Leave time for yourself, friends, and family. Stress is inevitable, but managing it is entirely possible.


Want to read more? Several important stress studies are reported here.


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Evelyn S. is a careful consumer who loves to investigate trends at Concordia. She is also the writer/illustrator behind Chasing Little Lights.