Am I Doing Enough?

Stuyvesant students undergo a lot of pressure, from academic stress to commitments outside of school, and this burden is only exacerbated by impostor syndrome.

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If there’s any environment for impostor syndrome to thrive in, it’s Stuyvesant. The immense pressure that students place on themselves to succeed is only exacerbated by seeing the same mindset in others. The disconnect between the efforts that Stuyvesant students make and their sense of accomplishment is warped by competition, causing them to wonder if they are ever doing “enough.” The reality is that Stuyvesant students are doing more than enough by most standards, with some of the most impressive academic and extracurricular records in the nation.

Though school work is only the baseline for the stress that students face at Stuyvesant, it often creates a breeding ground for comparison and competition by giving students numbers with which to define themselves. Unlike other activities, grades are fairly standardized and act as an apparatus for students to assess how they measure up. Distorted perceptions of academic accomplishment also arise from comparisons between grades and SAT scores, so even after working hard to maintain good grades, Stuyvesant students are left unsatisfied. Most often, this consequence is because students’ assessments of their performance relative to their peers tell them that they could have done better. Junior Sarah Peter is one of many students to see this effect firsthand in her classes. “Every time we get a DBQ back, a quiz back, an exam back, you can feel the tension in the room. I hear this cacophony of sighs and groans, and then it gets dead silent,” she said. “The thing about Stuy is if you see someone worrying about their 95, then you worry about whether your 92 is even acceptable.”

Grades aside, Stuyesant can be seriously exhausting. Between homework, classes, and tests, at times it’s hard to believe that many students make time for big commitments outside of school. One such student in the midst of extracurricular decisions is junior Ziying Jian, who is currently producing STC’s spring comedy. Even during the tension of play auditions, she calmly articulated her thoughts on balancing extracurriculars and academics. “Every time I go to extracurriculars, I make sure that I’m enjoying myself and spending my time well,” she said. Jian knows that what she does with her time in high school is important, both in terms of looking good for prospective colleges and self-fulfillment. “My mom always warns me that I’m taking three APs, [that] I’m a junior, and that I’m having college recs soon. Because of that, I don’t overexert myself.”

Despite her involvement in a number of commitments, as well as parental support, Jian still has some worries about balancing her extracurricular portfolio. “I kind of want to make up for the lack of things I did the last two years,” she explained. “If I knew more about the college process, I think I would have done more things earlier [...] I wouldn’t say I’m doing a lot more extracurriculars, but I’m putting myself out there to try something new.”

Jian’s worry about appealing to colleges isn’t unfounded: for many Stuyvesant students, extracurriculars serve as not just a fun pastime away from school, but also a fundamental addition to their college applications. Colleges are often on the lookout for students who pursue their interests, but still, students find it difficult to figure out which interests to pursue or whether to pursue them at all. Sophomore Matthew Monge, a current cast member in STC’s spring comedy, feels somewhat conflicted about developing his array of activities. “A few days ago, I expressed some interest in getting this job to friends who were like, ‘Oh, get an internship instead. Internships are better!’ which sort of confused me,” he said. “I feel kind of pressured to look more into [internships], but at the same time, I’m doing things over the summer that aren’t exactly super appealing to colleges.”

Monge made note of a particular summer plan, a theater-infused study abroad opportunity in London, but still has doubts about its impact on his college-facing portfolio. For some, such worrying can even impact the general feeling of connection to others at Stuyvesant. Focusing intently on the amount of effort put into extracurriculars and schoolwork can dilute the experience of each involvement. “The thing about Stuy is, yeah, we’re all a community,” Monge explained. “But that’s only because we live our lives here.”

There’s a lot of decision-making involved in getting into and staying with various extracurriculars, and for students who tend to overthink their choices and regret those they haven’t made, this sphere can be especially stressful. Time management is an aspect that offers an unfortunate comparison: Stuyvesant students are, by nature, pretty good at getting things done at some point. However, this skill can lead to ambitious students packing their well-organized schedules with blocked out activities.

As students juggle all these academic and extracurricular pursuits, they are also alienated by the Stuyvesant environment. Though the weight of all their responsibilities takes a toll on students, they feel obligated to put up a strong front in order to hide their vulnerability. To seem put-together in the eyes of peers, students strive to conceal as much of their stress as possible. A number of students have anonymously reported a sense of obligation to seem happy in the eyes of their friends and feel as though they can be more open with their stress and mental health struggles outside of the school environment. To avoid being perceived as worrisome, a majority of Stuyvesant students are left to cope with their stress silently. A lack of transparency in Stuyvesant’s student atmosphere prevents students from realizing just how common their struggles are.

Additionally, the question that often goes hand-in-hand with whether Stuyvesant students are doing enough is whether they are suffering enough. Sleep deprivation and caffeine addictions are worn as medals of honor in recognition of the hard work students put in. Stuyvesant’s competitive atmosphere even extends to students’ struggles, as deteriorating mental and physical health that result from heavy workloads quickly become topics for competition. While hearing complaints from peers about their lack of sleep is supposed to be a comforting similarity, finding that one gets more sleep than others can be a guilt-inducing experience, as it implies that one is not working as hard. By equating these struggles with their work ethics, students are put under the impression that they should be making bigger sacrifices to their well-being for the sake of productivity.

It’s more important than ever to remember that impostor syndrome is a common struggle among the vast majority of the Stuyvesant student body. Students are definitely not alone in their worries about whether they are working hard enough. Monge said it best: “I was just concerned that I’m not doing enough, but at the same time, I don’t really know what’s enough.” But is this sense of worry warranted? While students tend to consider college admissions a key component when assessing their extracurricular portfolios, many lack clarity on what exactly colleges are looking for in their activities. According to college counselor Jeaurel Wilson, “Colleges really want to see what students are passionate about.” Wilson added that colleges are aware of the struggles students face to find multitudes of activities that interest them, especially now, given the effects of COVID. Students’ worries about how to appeal to colleges through impressive lists of activities and academics is self-defeating, as their passion is what makes their efforts “enough.”