My college friends did not believe me when I told them that I thought high school was harder than university for me. High school in the Bay Area is notoriously stressful and high-pressure. A consequence of growing up in Silicon Valley and surrounded by constant world-changing innovation is that high schools easily turn into overwhelming environments.
When I was in high school, I was convinced that I needed to not only get into college, but get into a good one. There were only thirty “good ones” in my mind: the top thirty colleges in the United States (according to U.S. news). The pressure of getting into college combined with the pressure of succeeding in school and living up to the incredible standard set by the amazing individuals in the Bay Area can feel like far too much for many high schoolers to bear. It’s hard to remember sometimes, but there are so many reasons to value ourselves outside of the rigid expectations for success that permeate Silicon Valley. Being a good person is just as important, if not more important, as being a smart one. Here are some tips on how to deal with the stress of high school.
Your Grades Do Not Define You
In high school, my self-worth was, for at least the first two and a half years, linked to my grades. When I did well on a test, I felt like I was worthwhile. When I did poorly on a test, I felt like I had failed down to my very bones.
The environment of many Bay Area high schools almost encourages this kind of thinking. In my high school, teens were always comparing their scores on exams with one another. As soon as I got a test back, half a dozen kids were crowding around my desk asking, “What did you get?” Cheating was rampant. When you feel like your grades are a measure of your worth, the desire to do well becomes overwhelming and the anxiety of doing less well than expected can become suffocating.
Though it is one of the hardest things to do, recognizing that your grades are not in fact linked to your worth, intelligence, or potential future is one of the best ways to mitigate the stress of high school. One of the mantras I started telling myself in high school was that, “even if I do badly on this test, I’m still a good sister.” Having one thing that you can feel good about in yourself consistently can help to remind you that you exist independently from your test scores.
Grades are not the end-all-be-all of the world and the more you can start to separate your life from your grades, the less stress will affect you.
Take Breaks When You Need Them
I have one vivid memory of my sophomore year in high school. I woke up feeling like a pile of flaming garbage. I took my temperature: 103˚F. I stared down at the thermometer in disgust. I had trigonometry, chemistry, and contemporary world history that day: I was quite certain I could not miss school. If I did, my fever-ridden mind assured me, the world would end.
My parents saw me stumble out of my bedroom, backpack slung over one shoulder, face pale as I made my way to the front closet to put on some shoes.
“Are you feeling alright?” My dad asked.
“Fine,” I said, rather unconvincingly.
“Hmm,” he replied.
My parents made me take my temperature. They made me stay home despite my impassioned pleas to let me go to school. “You don’t understand,” I wailed, “Everything will be over if I don’t make it to Mr. O’Connell’s chemistry class.”
The world did not end. I drank soup.
Taking breaks in high school can feel like the last thing you want or need. Even so, we all need to take breaks sometimes. When you feel sick, stay home. The world will go on, and so will you.
I have a few memories of trying to study late into the night far past the point of exhaustion. I always did better when I decided to go to sleep versus when I tried to push through the fatigue. Taking breaks does not make you weak, it is a sign of understanding your own needs. Everyone has limits, and respecting your own boundaries is a way to lower stress.
Mental health days — days where you stay home from school to either study for upcoming exams or catch up on much needed sleep — really do help lower stress levels. Being honest with your parents about your needs can help them see when you would benefit from a break.
Bay Area teens have a tendency to overcommit to a variety of activities, and to avoid burn-out, it is necessary to sometimes take a bit of time away from your busy schedule to recharge.
Going to an Ivy League College/Stanford is Not the Only Path to Success
Getting into a good college seemed to be the focus of everyone in my high school. We worked ourselves harder than was healthy and participated in clubs, extracurriculars, jobs, and internships, and enrolled in numerous AP courses, all for the goal of getting into a “good college.”
The students in my high school who did not want to take so many APs or didn’t participate in all of the extracurriculars often felt like they were invisible to the school and their peers. Existing outside the mold of perfection can feel just as isolating as trying to fit into it.
It is important to remember that college is not the only path to success. Some teens don’t like classrooms, and that’s okay. There are many jobs someone can hold without a college degree. Many in-demand jobs, like electrician technicians, gaming managers, MRI technologists, beauticians, chefs, and agricultural managers do not require a bachelor’s degree. If going to college and sitting through four more years of school does not seem like the right fit, you don’t have to do it.
Additionally, organizations in every field hire individuals who did not attend one of the “top 30” schools in the US. Recruiters increasingly like students from state schools because they tend to be hard-workers with a good head on their shoulders. Going to community college for two years before finishing at a four year institution can be a great option, and it does not impact job outcomes. Even the FAANG companies (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google) hire people from schools all over the country, not just the “elite” ones.
If I had known earlier in my high school experience just how little your college impacts your future, I would have been a lot happier. The truth is that by the time you apply for a second job, your employer cares far more about your work experience than your degree. Work and internship experience also play a role when employers look at job applicants. And most of the time, employers just care that you got a degree, it doesn’t matter if it is from an elite private school, a small liberal arts college, or a huge state school.
College is not the end-all-be all. It’s just college. It feels much bigger than it is.
Maytal Booth is the 2021 Teen Initiative Intern and a current undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University. Maytal sang the Shema before she learned the alphabet song and spent most of her childhood running around congregation Kol Emeth. As the author of “Dear the Man Upstairs” and a lover of history, Maytal believes that Judaism’s written and oral traditions are key to the continuing success of the religion, and that story-telling and debates are how teens, families, and adults build community.