Competitiveness Addressed: Is Stuy as Cut-Throat as it Seems?

Discovering what Stuyvesant students really think about the competitive culture of the school.

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Stuyvesant’s reputation often paints an intimidating picture for prospective students. Though many of the rumors around competitiveness come from fallacious gossip spread by middle schoolers, they manage to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of many potential students, making them question if this is the right environment for them. However, these rumors don’t come from nowhere, and—as most Stuyvesant students find out—there is a strong sense of competition embedded in Stuyvesant culture.

The school’s reputation makes many high school applicants apprehensive. “[The competitive culture] was kind of the main thing you heard about Stuy,” junior Luca Bistrong said. “I was a little concerned because I wasn’t sure if I belonged there.”

Others, such as junior Margaux Scandura, went through a similar experience. “I heard about the competitive nature at the school, and it almost stopped me from applying. I didn’t want to constantly be competing with my classmates.”

While the competition is generally considered off-putting, it can also be a part of Stuyvesant’s appeal. Senior Polina Maller was excited by the idea of going to such a rigorous school. “I was one of two people from my middle school who got into Stuy,” she said. “Even though I had heard about the rigorous environment, I felt super cool applying. I was excited to be challenged and be surrounded by kids who wanted to be the best.”

As its reputation suggests, it is true that students experience a sense of competitiveness at Stuyvesant. Part of this comes from the fact that the most academically inclined and passionate students from every middle school usually come to the school, so the environment has more intensity than most middle or high schools. “In my middle school, there were 10 to 15 other kids who were consistently at the top of the class. At Stuy, almost everyone is one of these kids,” sophomore Zoe Chun said.

A lot of this tension also stems from the structure of classes and the pressures teachers put on students. Senior Gabriel Huang explained how teachers reinforce the comparative attitude. “Many of my teachers encourage competitiveness by sharing class averages and standard deviations. Many people I know, including myself, compare themselves to this average and sometimes it can make me feel inadequate,” Huang said.

Though teachers are not always directly comparing students, the average Stuyvesant student often does this themself. “Some teachers name students with the highest scores just to give other students a goal to aim at,” junior Ty Anant said. “For me, comparing myself to the class average is more competitive because that has to do with the whole class rather than just one individual.”

Quite a bit of how students allow competitiveness to influence them comes from their individual mindsets. Oftentimes, the pressure to be better is intrinsic. “I expected an intense environment, though not necessarily because of other students,” Chun said. “The mix of teachers’ expectations and my own is what worried me about Stuy.”

The presence, or absence, of parental pressure is also a big factor in the way students perceive the competitive culture. “Unlike a lot of other Stuy parents, my parents are really laid back about how I do in school and don’t care as long as I don’t put too much pressure on myself,” freshman Sophie Shih explained. “Coming to Stuy with that kind of mindset is definitely a benefit and I am less stressed about school than others.”

Perhaps due to the competition encouraged by teachers, many students don’t feel comfortable discussing their grades or assignments. “I usually never tell anyone my test scores,” Maller said. “I feel uncomfortable discussing test scores compared to my peers regardless of what their thoughts are.”

Many at Stuyvesant share this sentiment, while for others, it’s a matter of who they trust with grade information. “I feel like within my friend group and the people I know, I actually share test scores and grades a lot less than I know other people do. […] I know it can be pretty unhealthy,” Anant said.

Junior Ella Yemini has felt how unhealthy comparison can be, but tries to shift these feelings and the competition at Stuyvesant to be productive. “I am a little jealous when someone does better than me, but I use this as a motivation to try to do better the next time instead of holding negative feelings,” Yemini said.

Others use this strategy as well. “My friends and I always compare test scores,” junior Arielle Nudelman said. “It does make me feel somewhat worse when I get much lower grades but I’m not jealous of theirs because they worked hard and I just use it as motivation for next time.”

While competition seems to define Stuyvesant, it hides the extent to which students actually collaborate and give each other helping hands. Throughout the halls, peers are commonly seen working together on assignments or helping each other study. There is constant collaboration on group work and many in-school tutoring opportunities help students connect and aid each other. “I’ve met people who are ultra-competitive, but […] I’ve never witnessed a situation where someone was refused help,” Bistrong said.

Many teachers often go out of their way to help their students beyond the classroom as well. Though some teachers may contribute to competition, most teachers offer AIS tutoring or are easily accessible by email to schedule office hours.

Out of the range of intellect in the 3000 students at Stuyvesant, students ultimately try to support each other. “There is your fair share of really smart kids, but there’s also your fair share of really dumb kids, so we all know that we passed some threshold of intelligence, and that’s all that really matters. We’re not here to work against each other,” Bistrong said. This is even clearer in Stuyvesant’s hundreds of clubs and teams, which encourage camaraderie and succeed because of students’ ability to work together.

Ultimately, the perception of a competitive environment stands true only if one facilitates that kind of environment. “Stuy is definitely a hard school, and it takes a lot to excel within the school, but [...] between the kids [I don’t] really see much animosity since everyone is in a similar situation,” Anant explained. Despite elements of jealousy, so long as one has some element of confidence, as well as the willingness to reach out for help and support from other students and teachers, the pressure isn’t unmanageable.