The Need to Succeed: High schoolers are accustomed to a culture of overextension

How students’ expectations for themselves impact their high school experience


Today’s teenagers have heard the same messaging throughout their entire childhoods: College is a requirement, and to make that happen, students have to be the best at everything.

For today’s younger generations, going to college is an expectation, and having a robust resume to show off during college applications is a necessity.

Recently graduated senior Elizabeth Riedel served on the state officer board of the Technology Student Association, was co-captain of Castle View High School’s speech and debate team, was president of Castle View’s National Honor Society and was the head of her school’s aviation club.

By the time she graduated from high school, Riedel took 14 Advanced Placement (AP) classes —- the most rigorous classes offered in Castle View’s curriculum.

“There is this constant culture of overextension,” Riedel said. “If we’re not doing as much as we can then we’re failing. I think that whole notion is incredibly harmful to a lot of people. I’ve certainly been affected by the notion that I cannot stop. If I’m not doing things to the best that I can, then I’m wasting my high school years. You have to be perfect here or the rest of your life will fall apart.”

Riedel’s sentiment of a cultural expectation of overextension is shared by other students throughout the Douglas County School District. ThunderRidge High School senior Sonrisa Scott, who recently graduated, has been the student government class president for four years, played volleyball, and ran track and field and cross country.

Scott is in National Honor Society and Spanish National Honor Society as well as the notoriously rigorous International Baccalaureate (IB) program. For Scott, being involved in school wasn’t an option so much as an expectation.

“From when I was little, my parents kind of always pushed me to be involved in school, and it's always with that main goal; you need to be involved for college,” Scott said. “That's definitely where I've been pushed my whole life. So, I've pushed myself to perform better. That pressure to perform comes from outside variables — that was obviously implanted in me — but I kind of took that and ran with it. That’s definitely affected me with how I take on life and what you do.”

For Breitin Curl, who will be s senior at Castle View High School in the 2022-2023 school year, pressure to be college-bound has followed him throughout his education.

In elementary school, Curl was identified by the state as needing an Advanced Learning Plan. The weight of that qualification has been something Curl has carried his entire academic career.

“From that point on, I was the accelerated kid. You just get so hooked on what you first learned — that being accelerated was the expectation,” Curl said. “A sense of obligation builds up inside and ultimately the person that ends up contributing so much to the pressure is myself. At the end of the day, it’s me who’s locking myself in this box, but I’m not the one who built it.”

The added pressure to perform and be involved for the sake of being an attractive candidate to colleges creates a constant time crunch for seniors like Douglas County High School student Lucas Gauthier. Most days Gauthier’s at sports or in club meetings until at least 5 p.m. on school nights.

On top of his IB classes and school-sponsored activities, Gauthier spends a lot of his time volunteering and working with the district’s Student Advisory Group.

“There are some nights, depending on the different activities that happen, where I don't get home till the sun is down,” he said. “It's really draining to get home and then still have a whole stack of things that you need to do”.

When students feel like they are under pressure to constantly perform, they begin to sacrifice their well-being in order to feel successful.

“I’m aware it’s unhealthy, but at the point where I’m at, I don’t really have a lot of options when it comes to doing schoolwork,” Riedel said. “Sacrifices in sleep must be made. In general, I don’t have a lot of time for myself. I’m always putting my responsibilities above taking care of myself. I’ve just kind of built up this idea of myself and I have kind of divorced myself from reality in that aspect. It’s self-inflicted, so it’s not like I can complain.”

According to Gauthier, one of the hardest things for high-achieving students is to develop realistic ideas about success compared to expectations they get from outside sources.

“I think from people looking in, everybody in IB is smart and everybody in IB is, like, all of these great things. Although you may be perceived this way. In reality, a lot of IB is struggling because the course material and content is so challenging,” Gauthier said, “Going into high school, your goals are simple; you're going to get all As, you're gonna study hard, you're gonna like this as the primary focus. It was that way for the first bit, but then you realize that things are more challenging than you thought they were. You kind of have to find a balance.”

Scott has also dealt with a disconnect between what she is capable of doing and what she expects from herself.

“Success for me is trying my absolute hardest. There's a very fine line between trying too hard and overworking myself. I run for cross country and I never knew the fine line between injuring myself and just being a healthy competitor. I've injured myself so thoroughly that I can't even run anymore,” Scott said, “This year, I had such a heavy course load and it got to the point where my mental health was completely deteriorated. I actually dropped a class — I've never done that. It was hard because I think taking a step back and noticing like, ‘I'm pushing myself too hard,’ it's hard to do that, especially when I have certain expectations of myself.”

While Curl notes that pushing kids is necessary for them to do well and be successful, he wishes education would focus on healthier forms of motivation for students.

“Failure is my academic motivator. It’s really coming from just absolute deathly fear of failure. I have not once had to face the reality that I’m not academically inclined enough to do something. The second I lose that, I lose myself. It’s part of my identity. And that doesn’t seem fair to me,” Curl said.


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