No Pressure

The pressures placed on students and struggles with academic validation threatens student psyche and further success.


Carolyn Gilbert

Tola Willingham a junior in the HOSA program.

The silence is deafening and the burden is almost unbearable.

The focus on the grade is all that matters, and if the expectation isn’t met, any and all goals should be kissed goodbye in that very instant. Hair is pulled out and nails are filed down to the stub between gritted teeth as that report card is opened or the stark-white page refreshes online.

Eyes prey on the mistakes of the face behind the screen, eyes that are unforgiving and watch closely for any aspect of inadequacy. Eyes that shriek and claw despite the blood, sweat and tears poured into the knowledge acquired.

Please don’t say the grade is too low. The work is way too taxing for its reflection to be too low.

Academic validation and scholastic pressures affect students worldwide as competition, demand and the weight of time management continues to hit heavy on those struggling to find what truly defines their success.

“It’s like I’ve accomplished all of these things, but there’s still that drive to go one step forward to make that mark because it’s almost what schools expect,” junior Tola Willingham said. “And then there’s the parents… it’s like a combination.”

Academic success, despite success itself being a very abstract concept, often finds itself sitting somewhere on a predetermined scale. As senior Jackson Nichols says, external pressures often force students to overexert themselves when it comes to school and extracurriculars.

“I think academic pressure comes from all three [students, parents and teachers], and it really just depends on how the student was raised,” Nichols said. “Each student is going to have their own different story… Personally, a lot of the pressure comes from the student to succeed because of the goals and aspirations I’ve set for myself.”

These academic burdens, created by any of the three factors, are further defined by the differences in the rigor of courses that a student can take which plays a hand in determining grade point average (GPA). This average ranks students amongst each other and often is a deciding factor in college admissions, pushing students to work harder in hopes of making it higher in the ranks.

“You can have different things between parental pressure or just how the school system itself is organized,” Willingham said. “You don’t feel like you’re achieving anything unless you’re an AP student or a K student… You have that academic pressure of ‘You have to be in the top 5%, you’ve got to be the best, you’ve got to do this or nothing will matter that much.’”

The stress of taking all of these courses often weighs heavy on students, causing them to pack many difficult courses onto a schedule and neglect other courses that they have more of an interest for.

“If you’re happier in what you’re doing, you’re obviously going to perform better,” Willingham said. “If you’ve ever seen somebody write an essay about something they’re not passionate about versus someone that is, you can definitely tell the difference. It’s kind of the same thing when it comes down to mental health because if you’re struggling mentally, you’re not going to be fully applying yourself to what you’re doing because you’re too focused on how you’re feeling.”

These demands of student success begin early, often seen as early as elementary education in children which begins with placement tests and provocation into becoming “better” than the next child.

“When I was in kindergarten, they had those academic tests to see if you got into Horizons or not, and I remember thinking ‘Oh my god… this is to see if I’m better than everyone else, I have to pass this’,” Willingham said. “From the get-go we’re conditioned to be better than everyone else… It’s a little test that you’re given, and now you’re a gifted and talented student for the rest of your life.”

Enforcement of success also comes in the form of tangible stimulus whether from teachers, parents or the students themselves. This could be found in monetary compensation, class treats for the highest averages and more behaviors meant to boost a student’s morale through work.

“For me, there was an incentive at the end of the grading period,” Nichols said. “I got paid just a dollar for an A, but a dollar is something that can lead to unhealthy habits in the future because we tie success to our grades and things like that… I normally don’t think it’s a big deal because there’s not really a consequence tied to something like that, but as time goes on, you realize that the importance doesn’t always fall directly into the standardized testing, but into the grades themselves.”

These phenomena as a whole often lead students to lose some of their shine, falling victim to the cookie cutter standard and identifying themselves as the numbers they receive rather than their personal character, a situation otherwise known as academic validation.

“Academic validation is a thing, and it’s definitely something I’ve seen within the group of friends that I’ve grown up with that affects us all,” Nichols said. “I know it’s not true, and we have to tell ourselves that we don’t derive what we are as a person straight from our grades, but our personal self-worth or what we perceive ourselves to be is a reflection of our grades because it ultimately describes what school we can get into.”

This stress for perfection is even predicted to continue on the backs of students as they move to the next stages of their lives. A study by the American Psychological Association estimates that up to 87% of American college students say that education is their primary source of stress. Students like the junior valedictorian, Samah Ahmed, are expecting to continue the back-breaking through college in hopes to become ready for life with a career.

“I think that it [academic pressure] definitely carries on. I mean it does depend on what field you want to go into, but like for me, college won’t be the last step because I want to be a pediatrician,” Ahmed said. “Overall, success is something people want to achieve, and I don’t think that stops just in high school.”

Even if this is the case, the scale of grades that the stress covers does seem to shift from making all A’s or A’s and B’s to simply passing all of the given college courses in a semester. This would alleviate some of the pressure on students, but still calls for question about the mindset shift between those two circumstances.

“I do think it continues on and into college and trade school, but I think it takes on a different weight,” Nichols said. “Like a 70 here would make a lot of people cry and become very distraught…because of how competitive our school is and what that means toward their grade and their GPA. However, in college C’s get degrees and any grade that isn’t failing is taken in a different manner…”

Alleviating academic pressure piggybacks off of focusing on mental health and coming to terms with standards that are far too high to meet. Setting realistic goals and not facing self-punishment over failure to make them is the only way to end this epidemic.

“Don’t take it as seriously and prioritize your mental health over your grades,” Nichols said. “Find something that you really love and devote your time to that because although grades are important, extracurriculars are what make a student unique and themselves. You can have a perfect GPA and a perfect SAT score, but if you don’t have a personality there’s nothing to work off of.”