“I was really stressed this weekend. I have a calculus class coming up, which means I have to do the homework for the past two weeks. I also have a physics quiz, which, of course, I was behind in that class by two chapters. So I played field hockey on Saturday with the team, and then did all the physics homework on Saturday and Sunday. Then I had two papers for English class. They are short papers, but still, I had to read the stories and then try to say something intellectual about them and relate them to my life. So I took No-Doze on Sunday night and kept drinking coffee, but I fell asleep writing my physics lab. A few hours later, like at 4 AM, I woke up with a stomachache, but I had to do these papers, so I drank more coffee, and just kept writing. I had severe stomach pains this morning which is probably like appendicitis or something, but look at me, I am still drinking coffee! I will finish the papers during lunch and then try to do all this stuff for ASB. I swear I am not going to make it; I am going to die!”
This is how Eve Lin described high school life in Denise Clark Pope’s excellent book, “Doing School”. In Pope’s study all six students profiled said they experienced severe anxiety or breakdowns, and four out of six had persistent health and sleep problems.
Eve is, in her words, “preparing for acceptance to the Ivy League.” Many students believe that acceptance to a selective college is the key that unlocks the door to success in life, and that enduring any amount of stress is worth the reward. The average admit rate for all Ivies this year (2008) was about 12%. Does that mean the other 88%, many of whom had perfect SAT scores or were valedictorians, are failures?
The first step to a less stressful senior year begins with you. Try to approach the college application phase of your life organically – from the inside-out. Ask yourself some questions, keeping in mind Polonius’ famous advice to Horatio in Shakespeare’s Hamlet,“this above all things, to thine own self be true.”
What are my core values?
What do I enjoy doing?
What am I passionate about?
What would I like to change about myself?
Where would I like to be in ten years? Fifteen years? Twenty years?
What career inspires me?
Who do I admire?
What physical, cultural, and academic environment supports my sense of self?
If you’re unsure about the answers consult with parents, teachers, counselors, or mentors for advice. The better you know yourself, the better your chances of escaping the pressure of becoming a slave to a list of colleges picked from a rankings magazine designed to impress your parents or your best friends. Define yourself, pursue your own path, and be bold enough to set your own realistic expectations.
Of course, applying to college doesn’t occur in a vacuum. The demands of your senior year won’t come to a halt because you’re busy preparing for and taking standardized tests (SAT & ACT), researching colleges, visiting, interviewing, filling out applications, getting letters of recommendation, making sure your transcripts go out on time, writing essays (and more essays), and filling out financial aid applications. There’s still your day job as a fully functioning high school senior to deal with. That’s the flash point at which many hard working students run the risk of becoming like Eve. According to the Nemours Foundation advice on teen health, symptoms of chronic stress can be:
Anxiety or panic attacks
A feeling of being constantly pressured, hassled, and hurried
Irritability and moodiness
Physical symptoms such as stomach problems, headaches, or even chest pain
Allergic reactions such as eczema or asthma
Drinking too much, smoking, overeating, or doing drugs
Sadness or depression
A little stress can motivate us to work proactively to find solutions to our problems, but too much stress can defeat us in pursuit of worthy goals. If allowed to continue unchecked, it could put us in the hospital.
Stress, however, is a fact of life. It’s a byproduct of the fight or flight function of our nervous system. Acute stress can save us in a crisis or cause us to rise to the challenge of an important event, but chronic stress brought about by the pressures of daily life; i.e., deadlines, assignments, tests, expectations, family dynamics, uncertainty, can be debilitating unless managed. Here are some tips for managing a stressful work load:
Develop time management skills. Don’t over schedule your day. Create realistic expectations and deadlines. Plan ahead and prioritize tasks.
Pace yourself. Remember that life is a marathon, not a sprint. That goes for school and the college admission process.
Don’t let little things become big things. Take care of small tasks as they arise, don’t put them off until that growing stack of papers on your desk becomes an even larger pile of guilt.
Remember, nobody’s perfect. Don’t demand perfection from yourself or from others.
Take time out of your busy schedule to have fun or relax. Find out what activities engender a feeling of well being within you. It could be reading for pleasure, playing music or singing, meditation, deep breathing exercises, an afternoon power nap, a game of chess – anything that takes your mind off school and relaxes you.
Regular exercise is a proven method of minimizing stress. Don’t over train, but find something vigorous to do that increases your heart rate for at least twenty minutes a few times a week.
Eat well, be well. Too much junk food or fast food will contribute to your high stress levels. Good nutrition is essential to a healthy mind and body.
Get plenty of rest. Avoid all-nighters, and eleventh hour cram sessions fueled by caffeine or other stimulants. That night of sleep you lose can never be recovered. Sleeplessness and chronic fatigue exacerbate stress.
Stay positive. Don’t get caught in a cycle of negativity and frustration. Look for solutions to problems. Learn to be patient and understanding of other people’s behavior.
Seek professional help if you feel overburdened and unable to cope. Don’t put off talking to a counselor or health care professional if you feel overwhelmed by stress.
Don’t shut out your parents. According to the Mayo clinic, “Adolescents who have positive relationships with their parents tend to handle stress more effectively as adults.”
If you’re college bound you can reduce senior stress by getting a head start on the college process. Use the summer prior to senior year to visit colleges, interview with admissions representatives, prep for a standardized test, and most importantly, to begin drafting personal statements. Most colleges post the personal statement on their freshman admission web pages, often under the “Apply” tab. Look for college essay workshops at local community colleges, high schools, even at pubic libraries. The college essay can be the most time consuming and demanding part of the application process. The more college admission work you do before school resumes the less likely you’ll feel like Eve in November.
-written for NextStep Magazine