What’s Up With Stuy’s Competitive Culture?

Most students at Stuyvesant compare their grades and GPAs, but though this can stimulate friendly competition, it can also have negative effects.

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By Grace Louie

Stuyvesant is well known for its rigor, prestige, academic excellence, and perhaps most of all, its cutthroat competition. This traces all the way back to the SHSAT, a competitive exam that determines students’ eligibility for Stuyvesant using one score. From the very start of one’s Stuyvesant career, it is grades and percentages that measure one’s intelligence. All the while, students face internal pressure to keep up in a never-ending competition with their past selves. 

Some believe that sharing Grade Point Averages (GPAs), as well as individual test scores, is a productive practice. “On the positive side, it can motivate those who didn’t score as well on a test to try to ace the next test, which is essentially positive peer pressure,” sophomore Sophie Zhao explained in an e-mail interview. In addition to peer pressure, it can be helpful for students to learn how well others did on a certain test to assess whether they are falling behind their peers or whether their scores are above average. “It can also help students establish a ‘benchmark score’ that they strive to achieve on future tests,” Zhao explained. If it seems the typical score for a test is quite low, students are also able to see that their low score is not a reflection of themselves, but possibly of the test itself. Though Zhao saw the positive effects of comparing scores, she also acknowledged its many negative effects. “Sharing scores tends to stimulate feelings of jealousy and low self-esteem because some students feel the urge to emulate their peers in academics. Scoring terribly on a test compared to others makes you seriously doubt your own capabilities or intelligence, which shouldn’t be the case,” Zhao explained. She feels that competition should never cross the line to feelings of envy and doubt. Zhao, like many Stuyvesant students, has had the experience of feeling bad about herself because of her grades. “Although it’s good that I’m motivated to work hard in terms of academics, I often find myself in the unhealthy realm when it comes to score sharing. When I perform badly on a test relative to other people, I can’t help but look down upon my own abilities,” Zhao assessed. 

In addition to personal struggles with self-esteem, many students also face pressure from external sources, such as their parents, to do well in school. “I’ve always had strict parents. They’re always serious about education, always like telling me about academics, which I have to focus on, and I think that kind of mentality just built on to me, naturally also I feel like I want to be competitive,” described freshman Nafis Mahim. Growing up in a household with constant academic advice and pressure contributes to the sense that one must beat others in terms of grades. This drive to “win” can stem from the desire to impress one’s parents and stand out among other students.

Sophomore Amanda Greenberg agreed that sharing grades has a predominantly negative effect, though she is not always as impacted. “When people compare grades, it can ultimately affect their self-esteem. If you find out that someone that you’re really close to has higher grades than you [...] you feel that you’re on the lower end of the totem pole, and really suck, then you’re going to internalize those feelings, and it’s not going to actually help you do better,” Greenberg described. Despite the temptation to find one’s place on the totem pole, Greenberg steers clear of these toxic habits. She advised, “Detach yourself from other people’s scores. Someone else’s accomplishments have no bearing on yours. [...] The more I distance myself from it, the less I get drained.”

All this prompts the question: what motivates students to compare grades in the first place? “Part of it is just subconscious,” Greenberg explained. “You notice other people asking ‘What did you get?’ and it just becomes a natural part of conversation to you.” At Stuy, academic comparison is so standard that it has become a casual topic of conversation. Escaping it might also mean losing opportunities for socialization, meaning sharing scores is part of Stuy culture. Greenberg assessed, “It just becomes more normalized when I don’t think that it should be.” Existing at Stuyvesant sometimes means unwillingly succumbing to certain practices, like the habit of comparing grades. Students must use this habit almost as a tool to survive high school; it becomes a form of bonding, external validation, and day-to-day conversation. 

Sophomore James Clare appreciates the high standards that Stuyvesant upholds, though he acknowledges that his opinion may not be universal. “If anything, it’s good that you can set a high bar for yourself. As motivation. So live up to a version of yourself that you know you can be,” Clare stated. However, Clare does see the drawbacks of the pressure surrounding grades. Clare said, “I have a friend who’s like very much a stereotypical Stuy student, where he recently hasn’t been sleeping very much and his social life has basically evaporated. So a couple of our friends asked him, ’Do you feel like you’re studying your life away?’ And he says, ’Yeah, but I need to get my GPA up.’” The scenario that Clare describes is certainly not uncommon in a place like Stuyvesant. The stress over maintaining one’s GPA between some arbitrary range of points often overwhelms the other aspects of high school life. However, Clare himself says that this feeling doesn’t apply to him and that he is able to see the bigger picture. He recommended, “I think students just need to be improving their mental health, [such as by] reading books that [...] make them realize what the important things are.” For Clare, the act of comparing grades is healthy motivation, not a means of evaluating one’s success relative to others.

A school where so many students care deeply about their grades easily fosters competition. “Stuyvesant specifically is so prone to the sharing of grades because students tend to be very academically inclined [...] Students are curious on how they fare in this academically rigorous environment. Are they still considered ’smart’ at Stuyvesant?” Zhao hypothesized. Stuyvesant students often come from smaller middle schools where they stand out as stellar students — a big fish in a small pond. When they arrive at Stuyvesant, they are no longer so sure of their standing as big fish in a large pond filled with equally impressive fish.

Of course, another factor in the competition between students is the pressure to stand out in college applications. “This school is also an Ivy League feeder, and many students want to live up to that name by representing themselves for the school, which also adds extra pressure,” Mahim explained in a follow-up e-mail interview. The stress of having to get into a top school causes many students to strive for perfection. 

What many students fail to realize is that comparing scores is often an unfair way of judging a student’s work ethic. In addition to personal challenges that affect students’ lives, some classes are considered “easier” than others to do well in, even if the curriculum is the same. “I feel annoyed that disparities in GPA are, in part, caused by disparities in the grading/teaching styles of different teachers. Based on what I heard about certain classes, a teacher can mean the difference between a 92 and a ’free 100’,” Zhao explained. Some teachers give out extra credit, test curves, and corrections, or other grade boosters, while others are far stricter with their grading policies. “In a society that tends to correlate GPA with intelligence, the GPA disparities caused by differences in teaching/grading style prove that GPA doesn’t honestly or accurately reflect a student’s true ability. The truth is, luck in getting certain teachers plays a role in your GPA,” Zhao continued. 

Students also notice a pressure to maintain grades throughout their four years of high school. Sophomore Sophia Lin remembers asking her guidance counselor for advice about grades, and paraphrased the response: “Either start off strong and keep it that way, with minimal changes, [...] or your grades get higher during the years.” Under this philosophy, there is no room for messing up. “When [my guidance counselor] meant minimal changes, I thought she meant like one percent up and down. She meant like half a percent,” Lin said, expressing her shock. This minuscule margin suggests that students have extremely little room to waver, and when they do change, it should only be in one direction: up.

Lin finds this expectation unrealistic for Stuyvesant students, most of whom increase the difficulty of their classes as the years progress. “Especially as things get harder, you have more and more commitments, [...] the material gets harder, you’re taking more and more classes each year, and with each grade, you’re taking more and more APs,” Lin stated. Harder courses come alongside more leadership in extracurriculars, outside activities, and other significant time commitments. Even so, students are expected to thrive.

Though it may be difficult, it is important to avoid comparing grades when it becomes harmful to anyone involved. “Students can counteract this competition by just being humble and avoiding those sensitive areas,” Mahim said. Instead of following the bandwagon, choosing to stay out of it can eventually lead to a better, less competition-focused Stuyvesant culture. “Remember, a competition is only created when there are competitors there willing to compete,” Mahim explained. Though everyone will inevitably compete with themselves, this shouldn’t translate to competition between different students. As Mahim remarked, “Your best version is better than anyone else’s best version.”

Stuyvesant’s tendency towards competition between students has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As students continue to compare scores and attach meaning to grades, that habit will become increasingly central to school life. All the while, as classes and extracurriculars become more demanding, students will feel more of a need to live up to a standard they had once set as overachieving middle school students who excelled at the SHSAT. Though elements of this environment may indeed motivate students to do their best, the constant cycle of pressure and stress is unsustainable, as it ultimately results in burnout and deep dissatisfaction. As Stuyvesant students, we must all take a step back to understand the role we play in this cycle and how to counteract it.