But Now We’re Stressed Out: The Class of 2017 and Their Overwhelming College Stress


Isabella Very '17, Staff Writer

In a study conducted by the OC Eagle Eye concerning the stress of the senior class over college applications, one student lamented, “Everything we go through in high school to get accepted, like spending our entire senior year worrying about submitting applications to the best of our ability (and waiting in suspense for an answer), is not worth being accepted to any college.” Right now, in the fall of their senior year, the class of 2017 is feeling overwhelmed and overworked by every aspect of the college process.

The college application process includes not only tedious demographic details, lists of classes and extracurriculars, and transcripts, but also difficult writing, an average of two to three questions per application, which require thoughtfulness, but often conciseness, a type of writing high school students have little experience with. One high achieving student, who hopes to attend a small, liberal-arts based college next year, described her anxiety over her writing and how she hopes her resume and transcript reflect her overall character in case her writing does not. The sheer volume of the application process, including required supplemental essays, which widely vary from school to school, intimidate even the strongest of applicants; another senior whose college list includes both Columbia and Brown University detailed exactly this phenomenon.

The sudden increase in workload is also affecting students’ daily school work for several reasons, including having trouble focusing, working on college applications, and looking on college’s websites during class, “The stress comes from whether or not I am good enough to get into the schools I would like, and from whether or not I can finish all the applications to the best of my ability by the early action deadlines in addition to all of my schoolwork.” Recently, there has been increased recognition of high school “burnout,” when seniors are overworked so much during their last year in high school that they end up spending their freshman year of college simply recovering from their overwhelming anxiety from high school. A student unpacked this further, analyzing that this sensation occurs during few months in which seniors are expected to complete applications while keeping up with schoolwork, “The uncertainty of it all, on top of everything we have to do for school and to look ‘good’ for college, is a lot to take in over 3-5 months when we don’t have that much time to absorb throughout the day because of everything else we’re doing.” The balance between daily school work and college applications overwhelms students and leads to higher stress about applications, but also about school and major choices.

The class of 2017 is widely varied in terms of school and major choice. Many particularly high achieving students are applying to five or more reach schools, which has a significant impact on their stress level. When comparing the number of reach schools to which students are applying versus their stress level, there was a predictable positive correlation between the two. For every increase of about two reach schools to students’ lists, their stress level increased by one point. According to the data, a surprisingly high 20% of students’ overall stress level is accounted for by their number of reach schools. This can compare with the data collected about confidence in acceptance to a student’s first choice, which barely affected their stress level. Although one may think that stress over whether a student will be accepted to their first choice or not would be the leading cause for overall anxiety in the college process, the data only found a student’s confidence level in acceptance to their first choice to account for only 1% of their overall stress. Although the study showed a predictably negative trend, it was much less significant than expected. One student, however, does have a clear first choice, along with approximately 58% of the Class of 2017, and it is significantly impacting hers and others’ stress levels, “I know that I’ll get into college and that I’ll get my degree and be successful regardless of where I go, but I still feel the urge to be competitive in this process and go to unnecessary lengths to get into my first choice college.”

On top of school choice and acceptance, seniors in high school are also expected to pick a major or concentration on which to focus their studies for the next four years. 78% of students do expect to enter college as a specified major, as opposed to Undeclared, however, not all of them have decided on which major they will study. “Not having a specific major in mind causes me more stress than I would like to admit, although knowing what I could do in either field in the future does really excite me,” acknowledged a student who has already been accepted to University of Pittsburgh and is having trouble deciding between an Engineering and a Pharmacy major.

One would think that girls applying Early Decision would have a higher current stress level than their Regular Decision peers as their deadlines are earlier and the decisions are binding. Surprisingly, the result of the Eagle Eye study showed that students who planned to apply Early Decision, who made up only 12% of the senior class, had a noticeably lower current average stress level of 7.3, nearly an entire point below their Regular Decision peers, with an average of 8.2. Although when asked about how they anticipated their stress levels to change as their deadlines approached, the average was significantly higher, however the trend remained identical, with the Regular Decision applicants at 9.2 leading the Early Decision students by almost a full point again at 8.3. The results may indicate a more relaxed outlook on the application process from students who have a very clear idea of where they want to go or, perhaps, underestimation of the volume of the application process, which many Regular Decision applicants have only now begun, causing them inordinate stress.

Because of the relatively affluent community that makes up the majority of the Oakland Catholic population, financial worries are not a huge contributing factor to their overall stress. For every decrease of one point in a student’s ability to pay for college, there is an increase of only .2 points in their stress level. Confidence in their ability to pay for college only accounts for 2% of overall stress levels. It would be wrong, however, to discount that significant part of the population for whom the financial aspect of the college is a major worry. One student, although she has a clear first choice, is not able to apply there Early Decision, despite increased acceptance rates and her desire to go there, because she is unsure of whether or not she will receive aid. Luckily, her first choice, Case Western Reserve University, also has an Early Action option, which she will be applying to. There are those students, however, who are not so lucky and are kept from applying to their first choices, which use the binding Early Decision, no matter how much they want to attend the school, by their financial insecurity.

Students feel that testing is not a good representation of their character and application as a whole and that the emphasis put on test scores by college admissions committees is not proportional to their actual worth. Subject Tests are considered to be worthless hoops to jump through, barely corresponding with the curricula of high school courses. Even though an Oakland Catholic student may take the CE Physics course with University of Pittsburgh as a junior, they still could get a bad score on the supposedly corresponding SAT Subject Test if the class just happened not to cover a portion of the material that the College Board deemed important. The same prospective Case Western student worried, “My test scores don’t reflect what kind of student I am, and now my bad grade from one singular test is going to make applying more difficult even though that is not the student I really am.” There are so many variables involved in taking a standardized test that results are often neither predictable nor indicative, which cause students major anxiety over whether or not their test scores will keep them from acceptance to the colleges they want to attend.  

Ultimately, students, especially Oakland Catholic students, just want to be accepted to colleges; however, they are realistic when it comes to acceptances. They realize that the college system is broken by competition between schools. Tuitions, rejection rates, and the number of applicants are high, and, in the end, prospective students are the ones losing out. A senior denounced the process, “Yes, college has always been stressful to get into, but seriously these colleges do everything possible to compete among themselves, ‘to be the best’, so more students will apply and more students will be rejected.” Colleges’ merit is often judged by how low their acceptance rate is, which means that they invite students who they do not expect to accept to apply, despite their likely rejection, simply to lower their overall acceptance rate and make the college look better. Essentially, Oakland seniors are realizing that while the college process is more trouble than it really is worth, it is also necessary and unavoidable. “I think that right now we are all very stressed because the future is unknown, but once we are all accepted and committed to where we are going we will realize it all wasn’t worth the stress and anxiety it caused.” The feeling that students’ stress and anxiety are all for naught spreads throughout their senior year, which could be considered the cause of “senioritis,” when seniors seem to lose motivation throughout the year and especially in their second semester. The stress of working towards college while keeping up with difficult classes affects seniors beyond simply overwhelming them, but to the point that they lose motivation, attentiveness, and perseverance. A senior summed up the feeling of anxious powerlessness, “This is my future, and it’s in the hands of my over-worked brain and the stressed out college admissions departments.”