Consequences of Overachievement Underemphasized in High Schools


Graphic By William Gangnath

In response to recent hazing allegations and then charges for five JV football players at Damascus, all athletic directors held a meeting with fall athletes that reviewed MCPS hazing policies.

A wide range of extracurriculars, 4.5 GPA, 1500+ SAT, 300 SSL Hours and a few Varsity letters are all highly likely to be on the résumé of a student who plans to attend a top college in 2018. As the number of high school students applying to college goes up, so does the competition to secure a spot at a top university. While this may sound like healthy competition, this environment has many detrimental effects on students.
Senior Kelly DiFonzo fell into this trap during her high school experience. DiFonzo was a varsity athlete for field hockey, swimming and softball; she was president of the Best Buddies club, a member of the National Honor Society and a member of the Science Honor Society; she also maintained a high GPA. While all of this looks great on paper, it had a myriad of negative effects on her health.
“My health has changed a lot. Freshman year I was scared of getting bad grades. I got my first and only B sophomore year and thought my GPA was ruined. It was definitely an irrational fear and as classes got harder I wasn’t too fearful anymore,” Difonzo said. “I get about five hours of sleep [per night]. I don’t think this is healthy at all.”
Teen sleep deprivation is an epidemic that has no boundaries, according to a 2015 Stanford Medical study. Over 87 percent of students get far less than the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep per night, and this comes with many harmful effects. Sleep deprivation negatively affects one’s ability to concentrate, which results in poor grades, anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide and even suicide attempts, the study found.
“Physically, I had horrible stress headaches throughout the year every day. It got so bad I had to go to the ER and I realized it was because I was always so anxious about school,” Difonzo said.
Senior and 2018 Harvard University commit Michael Pankowski said during strenuous parts of high school, he averaged five hours of sleep a night due to his rigorous schoolwork and extracurricular schedule. On top of all of this, he spent about 7-8 hours a week doing extra studying for class which he felt was worth it despite how it affected his overall schedule.
“My grind was 100 percent worth it in the end. I’m thrilled to be going to Harvard and even if I wasn’t, I’m proud of myself for the work I’ve done and how I’ve focused on my goals in a four year period where lots of people let their dreams fall to the wayside,” Pankowski said.
While Pankowski felt the work he did was worth it, he found that the motivation behind the work can be a major factor in how overachieving can affect a student.
“The grind is worth it if you want it. If you’re doing it for your parents or for your friends or teachers or someone else, you’re gonna get burned out. But if you’re doing it for you, you’ll have that mental strength to keep going, and it’ll all work out in the end.”
While his words are inspiring, Pankowski is the exception. Parents, teachers and especially colleges should not expect or want students to live up to these standards.
Instead of throwing themselves into an unhealthy cycle of sleep deprivation, extracurricular over commitment and academic overload, students should recognize that they can focus on their passions and not feel as if they have to take part in everything in high school in order to get into the school of their choice.
“Most colleges will tell a student that they want to see passion and involvement within the scope of their interest. For example, if you want to be a business leader in the future, commit to that type of activity. Participating in just one activity is perfectly acceptable if you have something to show for your time in that activity,” University of Towson admissions counselor Jennifer Ziegenfus said.
While there will always be some students who can take on a heavy workload and a variety of activities as they pursue Ivy League schools, most students are exposing themselves to unhealthy and dangerous practices that can have lasting effects far beyond high school. Harvard released a report in 2016 that addressed how to mitigate the overachieving college application culture called, “Turning the Tide.” Fifty schools immediately signed onto the pledge, according to a March 18, 2016 article in the Seattle Times. The schools said that they found that “Our cultural quest to construct super-accomplished, résumé-armed, Ivy League-bound teens is doing this nation no good and perhaps damaging millions of its kids.”
In order to combat this destructive culture, students should be required to attend college admissions officer visits in the career center. Students can learn about the colleges they are interested in, and will know the workload it takes to be admitted. With this information, a healthier plan can be created by the students, their counselors and their parents to help them get into the school of their choice.
While it is too late for this year’s graduates, now is the time to provide future students with a healthier high school experience, especially as they choose their colleges.