The Pressure of Perfection

Generation Z struggles with measuring up

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Everyone’s on their phones in the hallway. This time it’s not Snapchat or TikTok, it’s Collegeboard.org. PSAT scores are in.

Sophomore Lily Galloway is one of many to join the madness of friendly competition and congratulating friends. But as number after number flies around the halls, each better than her own, her stomach sinks.

Suddenly, she’s reluctant to share.

She hides her scores and shrugs it off saying, “I did fine.” One thing is running through her head.

“Wow, how did I end up getting the lowest score?”

In reality a 1210 on the PSAT is above average, still in the top 90%, but why did Lily feel like a failure?

There’s a lot to keep up with in high school: GPA, grades, top 10 percent. All of these things leave room for being less than perfect, which means being a failure to students. 

For junior Abbie Hitchins, GPA has been an uphill battle. She started as a freshman in the top 10%, but as high school continued, she fell to the top 25% and now it’s seemingly impossible for her to get back in the top 10%. Just like many others in this position, it’s a confidence killer. 

“So for me to see that, it just took my confidence level from a solid 10 to like a solid two,” Hitchins said.

As of November 18, 2019, 47% of the junior class had a 6.0 GPA or higher. Based on the pressure coming from parents, school, society and even more, students like junior Jacob Grosch began to give up on even trying to do their best due to the fear of not matching up to the standards they hold. It’s almost as if high school is an arena. 

“Okay, who’s gonna battle? Who’s gonna win? There’s already a competitive nature right there. And then you also have teachers that will tell you that,if you don’t work hard, then you won’t succeed,” Grosch said. “And it’s like an automatic just like sense of, ‘Oh my gosh, am I going to make it in life?’ Because we all have seen the whole thing about how, if I fail this class, then I fail on my GPA. And if I fail on my GPA I won’t make it into college. And if I don’t make it into college, then I won’t have a successful life, then I won’t live well.”

With a generation raised on high stakes, standardized testing and a system that encourages competition between students, it’s not a surprise that students marry number grades with self worth and what their futures will hold. Physics teacher Justin Smith shared his opinion on the education structure. 

Our grading system is essentially saying, ‘You are a number to me.”

— Mr. Justin Smith

“Our grading system is essentially saying, ‘You are a number to me,’” Mr. Smith said.

The push for excellence is threatening to perfectionistic teens, especially when it comes to grades. If the pressure is high enough, cheating can become a last-ditch resort to keep that perfect score. Out of a survey of 20 upper-level students, 11 said they felt pressured to cheat. 

“Whenever a kid cheats at school, it’s not because they’re trying to hurt someone. It’s not because they’re trying to be bad,” Grosch said, “It’s normally because they feel so pressured to the point that if they don’t cheat, then they will fail.”

Along with social media, another issue teens combat is “cancel culture” which is an extreme version of holding groups and individuals accountable. Teens feel if they don’t measure up to the standard, their peers will cancel them. Meaning, they will lose all of their friends and never reach their success. Galloway struggles with comparison when it feels like a race she can’t win.

“I tell them what I got on a test, I’m always afraid they’re gonna be like, ‘Oh, you got 95? I got 100 and that’s terrible’…” Galloway said, “It’s hard, it makes you feel like you’re not worth it because someone, the person next to you, is better.”

According to Paradigm Malibu Adolescent Treatment Center, one-fifth of teens ages 13-18 will have a serious mental illness. Head counselor Shayla Rodriguez-Bell thinks most of it comes from within. 

“So I think a lot of it is internal,” lead counselor Shayla Rodriguez-Bell said. “I think with social media and with what kids see is perfection. They’re constantly chasing it. And there’s no such thing as perfection.“

Perfection is impossible to obtain and when students shoot for perfection and miss it can cause things to escalate into breakdowns and can have a major effect on students like Hitchins. 

“It takes a toll. And being in high school, I feel like I’m literally 80 years old because my body aches,” Hitchins said. “So I go through breakdowns all the time. And the things that go through your head when you’re going through those breakdowns are not healthy thoughts.”

Pressure in the academic world isn’t the only thing facing high schoolers; finding self-love and worth in a sea of social media is very daunting for them. According to an article by Forbes, it can spark feelings of isolation as well as jealousy and a lack of self-worth. Social media portrays the perfect life, the perfect body, the perfect everything. It can turn from a connection to comparison for teens like senior Sarah Meyers. 

When all of your friends look like Barbie dolls, you kind of feel like the odd one out.”

— Sarah Meyers

“When all of your friends look like Barbie dolls, you kind of feel like the odd one out,” Meyers said. “And I feel like we talk about self-image a lot more now in society than we ever have. I’m really grateful for that because, you know, to be body positive is self-love.” 

According to LeeAnn Hummel, mother of a junior student, teens don’t feel open to expressing their emotions to their parents or peers. She suggests that there’s nothing better than to be able to let out emotions. 

“Sometimes they just need to cry…” Hummel said, “…Kids don’t think it’s okay to cry.”

The pressure high schooler’s face with academics doesn’t just start freshman year. Some students think It’s a seed that’s planted years before they even reach the ninth grade by everyone from teachers to parents and older siblings.

“I think by sixth grade, we were told that if we don’t work hard, your class will trample you and you will get lost in the sauce better and even coming in as a freshman you know. My mom would tell me ‘saddle up, it’s not gonna be easy,’” Hitchins said. “I think just our academics just here in Cypress is all about, it’s a game. It’s all a game”

As soon as the college process begins in junior year results and acceptance letters are already being anticipated. Early action or early decision letters usually start arriving around December of senior year and regular decision letters are quick to follow, generally arriving in March or early April. Colleges announce decisions and students announce acceptance. One after another, after another.

“I want to be the next person to be like, ‘Hey, I got into my dream school, like, look at me,’” Meyers said. “It’s really selfish. It’s really greedy. And I really kind of hate myself for saying this, but it’s reality and I’m not going to sugarcoat it.”

The root of so much of the pressure high schooler’s face is comparison. Unfortunately, it’s one part of a teenager’s life that may never truly go away as they get older, but it is something that everyone can learn to manage. 

“It is built into you as a child, that you’re going to be compared to in this world,” Grosch said. “And so, as you grow older and that idea develops, you begin to compare yourself because that’s what your parents did to you.”

Learning to handle the pressure of a high school is a journey every student goes through. Meyers shared what she has learned through her senior year and will use for the rest of her life. She’s planning to better herself in her senior year from living out her mom’s advice. 

“My mom used to tell me when I was younger, everybody bloomed in their own choosing, and I believe what waters you is what waters you, what keeps your grass green keeps your grass green,” Meyers said. “And if you can keep doing you, then you can make the world you know your oyster… you gotta be the one to water yourself. You gotta be the one to go step out in the sunshine and take it in. You know, breathe, breathe in the good air, and keep going.”