By Callia Gilligan, ’22
“Most people in Hanover, Massachusetts go to college.”
McKenzie Bottomley is currently a junior. She’s a dedicated student and athlete with the future in mind. When asked if she had ever felt pressure to attend college, she replied in a tone that indicated that the answer should have been obvious: “all the time.”
She says that the whole of junior year is based on prepping for college and SATs. She remarked on how there is pressure to do well; “you’ve got to get the good scores to get into the schools you want.”
McKenzie personally wants to attend college to enrich herself academically and meet new people but, like a lot of others, a big part of the draw is to get a job after graduation. When talking with other juniors, I learned that Elsa Little-Gill also wishes to immerse herself in a new environment and further her learning. Julia McGillivray wants to work in Environmental Science which to her, means she “almost definitely has to get a degree.” Caris Mann wants to teach, so she plans on attending college to major in English and education. Katie McGillivray wants to “extend her knowledge” and thinks that in America, “college is the best way to do that.”
There were varying responses when these students were asked if they felt pressure to attend college. Caris said she’s personally never felt pressured because she’s always known what she’s wanted to do and, “to do that I would have to get a higher education.” McKenzie responded similarly, saying that she’s felt some pressure but never against pursuing the path she wanted. Elsa believes that the pressure comes from her family. Julia felt the pressure mostly from her parents and teachers, but “my parents also support other paths like the trades and the military,” so for that she’s grateful.
However, all these students agreed that, whatever the reason, college is the school expectation.
If you go to the Hanover High School website, under the Guidance Department, there is an entire section dedicated to college planning. There is advice for every grade, freshmen to seniors, about what they can do to begin planning for college. This is because, according to McKenzie, “in communities like ours, college is the norm.”
Mrs. O’Neil, an HHS guidance counselor, says the college process for a student typically starts during January of a student’s junior year. “We meet in small groups and go over the basics like what to look for in a college, how to perform a college search, and how to sign up for the SATs,” she said. Then the students work with Guidance to create their college lists, write recommendations and familiarize themselves with college application websites. Freshmen and Sophomores also work with Guidance to brainstorm ideas on what they might be interested in for post-graduation and how to explore those avenues while still in school.
“Once the college process starts, it can feel like that’s all anyone is talking about,” said Mrs. O’Neil. “It can be helpful to talk about schools you’re applying to or where you’re at in the process with friends, but sometimes it can start to feel overwhelming.”
As a community and a school, it seems like college is the expectation. We live in an affluent town. Most of our parents, teachers, and adults we interact with are college graduates themselves. There is an undercurrent that pushes our students toward that path. But is this always a bad thing?
Many students said they were okay with the expectation. They felt that because the majority of students want to attend college, the discussion and ample resources surrounding it are helpful.
“The teachers here really want to help students be prepared for the learning environment they will encounter in college, and Guidance wants to help students be prepared for the social aspects and independence that comes with taking the next educational step,” said Mrs. O’Neil. The Guidance Department is working to create better resources for post-graduation that aren’t college, like trade schools and the military.
“While I think our school culture may seem like it views going to college as the only successful post-graduation path,” said Mrs. O’Neil, “we truly believe that success can look differently for different student.”
So, then, why does the pressure around college often feel so toxic? The answer may lie in our academics.
Elsa said that as a student who takes a lot of Honors and AP classes, she feels that there is a lot of pressure because teachers “are like alright; you really got to do this so you can get college credit for this class.” If you do well on an AP exam, you can potentially get credit from the college you choose to attend. AP classes are considered to be academically challenging and of a high standard, and schools are proud when they can boast of high enrollment and strong scores.
Academics in their own right have a long history of causing stress to generations of students. However, a common issue I’ve noted even in myself is the competitiveness of grades. Elsa feels that a common thought is, “how am I doing compared to everyone else?” Julia feels that, ingrained in students, there is “pressure not to fail.”
I think students tend to obtain tunnel vision when it comes to academics. The pressure, “makes you focus on one thing too much,” Elsa said. “Doing well in school for the purpose of college” is discussed often, McKenzie added. Because of the competitiveness of college applications, this leads to competitiveness within the school environment.
At our school in the sixth grade, students take a math test and, if they achieve a high score, they are placed into an accelerated math program that gives them a head start on high school math. In short, students are separated based on test scores. At age 12.
Toward the middle of eighth grade, teachers began reminding us that we had to do well because course recommendations were coming up. If we did well in our eighth-grade classes we would be put into honors courses for ninth grade. I remember being so stressed that if I didn’t get recommended for all honors, I wasn’t going to do well in high school, and then I wasn’t going to get into college. At age 14.
Elsa thinks that competitiveness is started at a young age, especially upon entering high school and being placed in honors or college preparatory classes. With class ranks and valedictorians, “students base their worth on that.” While it would be radical to eliminate GPAs and class rank altogether, in the back of students’ minds there is a nagging voice telling them that they are not good enough academically. And especially, not good enough to get into college.
So where’s the middle ground?
Especially in a COVID learning environment, it feels like the only thing we have is academics and planning for the future. “I know this year has been weird because we can’t be as social, but typically school is a natural place for social development,” said Mrs. O’Neil. “Group projects, sports, and clubs are all ways in which students improve their interpersonal skills. Even seeing friends in the hallway and lunch and saying hi or joking around is promoting social development.” This year, the academic stress feels greater because there is a lot to be stressed about.
But I don’t think that this is solely a COVID problem. I do believe that we as a school need to address the competitiveness of academics and work on ways to foster development and personal growth, especially at a young age, rather than separation and competition.
However, because the world can never change overnight, there is a lot we can do in the meantime. When the pressure feels too great, Guidance’s recommendation is to talk about it, whether it be with a counselor, friends, family or a trusted adult at school. It is especially important for students to understand “that feeling overwhelmed by the college process is normal,” added Mrs. O’Neil. “We’re here to help with the college process, but we’re also here to talk if you’re just feeling stressed out by the process.” Her recommendation at home is to also set boundaries with your family so they know what you feel comfortable talking about.
“It’s going to be okay. This year has been SO hard for everyone,” she said. “Right now, put in as much effort as you can in school so that you can have the most choices possible for college and career planning. But please don’t forget about the other things in your life. Do activities that bring you joy and check in on your friends and family. Ask for help if you need it. We are always here to listen if you’re not sure who to talk to.”
The biggest reminder I have is that your worth is not tied to your academics, or the colleges you get into, or even whether or not you attend college. There are so many values and traits that are more important than your class rank. In the words of Mrs. O’Neil, “You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to try. Trust me, you will figure out the best path for you.”