When Dreams Become Demands

Stuyvesant students often have incredibly high expectations placed on them, especially regarding college; this can have negative impacts on their mental and physical health.

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Students at Stuyvesant are no strangers to expectations. Whether positive or negative, external pressures are the driving force behind everything from a student’s academic performance to her choice of extracurricular activities. Internalized expectations for personal achievement may have even contributed to the student’s admission into Stuyvesant in the first place. While these pressures can serve as effective motivators, they also have the potential to turn ambitious dreams into heavy burdens.

The expectations that students face stem from a variety of sources. Perhaps the most influential of these are parents and guardians. Director of College Counseling Jeffrey Makris has noticed that students’ hopes for the future often reflect the paths their parents want them to follow. “Kids are internalizing the expectations or the desires of their parents, [who often] have a certain set of colleges that they’re more familiar with or are operating on the assumption that in order for their kids to be successful, they need to attend a highly select[ive] institution,” Makris explained.

However, it is often students, not parents, who place the most pressure on themselves, and Stuyvesant’s environment serves to inflate these internalized standards. High-achieving students are surrounded by other high-achievers, and success is often defined by how well students “measure up” to their peers. “Imposter syndrome really hit hard in freshman year because of that culture shock of ‘How is everyone else doing so well in this class?’” junior Monica Lai explained in an e-mail interview. “It lent itself to a lot of me comparing myself to others.”

This tendency toward comparison extends to areas outside of academics. Students enter Stuyvesant with varying degrees of stress surrounding the college application process, and those initially less focused on building their resumes are often made to feel that they aren’t doing enough. “When you realize how much people really care about college, then you start to really care about college,” freshman Audrey Hilger explained.

Students often focus on trying to become the “ideal” candidate for prestigious institutions such as Ivy League schools. The problem with the formulaic gathering of achievements—AP credits, volunteer hours, extracurriculars, internships—is that it feeds into a singular idea of success as opposed to a focus on personal growth.

To achieve this narrow-minded definition of success, students often worry about getting volunteer hours and doing extracurricular activities that will look good on their college applications, in addition to maintaining a high GPA. “I do think colleges looking at volunteer hours was a bit intimidating,” senior Samira Murad recalled in an e-mail interview. Luckily, she has managed to focus her extracurriculars around her interests rather than what admissions officers might want, allowing her to find more enjoyment in her time at Stuyvesant. “It felt silly to waste time doing things I hated just so I could look good on paper, so I did what I wanted to do. It also allowed me to find out who I am and what I enjoy,” Murad explained.

Guidance counselor Sarah Kornhauser emphasizes the importance of adopting mentalities like Murad’s. However, it can be difficult for students to prioritize their own interests when they have grown accustomed to unhealthy expectations and external pressures. It can be helpful for them to talk to a trusted adult at school so they can see their situation from a new perspective. “Sometimes we are not the best judges of how we are doing. So we need to spend time with maybe an adult who could be a mirror to us and show us that we’re actually so exceptional and working really hard and improving and overcoming obstacles,” Kornhauser shared. “And ideally, someone like a guidance counselor or a trusted teacher could be that for us or appear like an adult who’s not caught up in it in the same way we are. You have to kind of step out of the rat race every now and then, like, wait a minute, there’s more to life.”

This shift in perspective is not only necessary for a healthy relationship with academics, but also for one’s mental and physical health. “For some people, school really stresses them out and they [pull] a lot of all-nighters,” sophomore Brandon Waworuntu described. Losing sleep can have drastic consequences, including memory issues, difficulty concentrating, high blood pressure, and weight gain. Many students choose to ignore this fact when trying to push themselves to their academic and extracurricular limits.

Makris noted that students’ internalized pressures can hurt not only their physical health, but mental health as well. “In a really difficult environment like this, [striving for perfection] is very hard to do and it does create an extra level of stress and anxiety, and it can be profoundly unhealthy. This idea that kids have to be perfect all the time isn’t realistic,” Makris explained. Students often feel that they need to be perfect to make their parents and themselves proud, but going down this path only makes them feel worse about themselves. If students face chronic stress from external pressures, they run the risk of developing serious stress-related health issues that could follow them long past high school.

While Stuyvesant’s competitive environment and the expectations students face can have negative impacts, there are times when they can also act as positive motivators. “It’s really fun to find friends who really care about something and are hard workers,” Hilger noted.

Additionally, the pressure that sophomores and juniors feel to curate perfect college applications can serve to deepen their relationships with teachers. “Every junior, especially in the past and next couple months, will likely feel some sort of pressure to build or continue having a good rapport with their teachers for a letter of rec,” Lai explained. Though one might expect this part of the college process to make student-teacher relationships more fraught, Lai thinks that it actually does the opposite. “I make sure to actively pay attention to my teachers and go to office hours when I have questions. This has definitely developed a friendlier and more communicative relationship with my teachers,” she continued.

It’s undeniable that for many students, getting into a top-tier school can seem like the determining factor of their futures. “A lot of people want to get into an Ivy because they feel like they have to in order to succeed in life,” Waworuntu explained.

  Makris clarified that this belief is a common misconception. “What’s important in long-term success is students’ engagement in college, their academic skills, their interpersonal skills, and more importantly, what they do when they enter the real world and the workforce,” Makris said. “Understanding [this would] allow kids to have a more healthy and productive high school experience and to feel better about themselves, not only when they’re here, but when they’re entering the next phase of their life.”

During the four years at Stuyvesant, it is important to remember that it is okay to fall short of expectations. Allowing oneself to enjoy adolescence and appreciate even the smallest achievements can be far more beneficial than striving for the “perfect” GPA. You are not defined by where you go to college, but how you make the most of the opportunities that come your way.