Waiting for the Mail: The Undue Anxiety of High School Juniors and Seniors

I must give the disclaimer that I’m not the parent of a high school student. But as a former high school teacher who continues to work with high school students in academic and other capacities, I have an insight into the ongoing cycle of angst.

For families of juniors and seniors in high school, the mailbox brings a lot of anxiety…specifically the applications going out and the responses coming in.

Society tells us that these pieces of paper are the key to unlock our child’s future, but they aren’t. They just aren’t.

The level of anxiety of students right now is unparalleled. They are overextended academically and extracurricularly. Students are taking more AP classes, and earlier.

The concerning part is that taking more AP classes is not correlating to more learning. Denise Pope of Challenge Success a nonprofit affiliated with Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education reports,

“…if you’re pushed into [AP classes] without good preparation and without a safety net in place at the school to help if you get in over your head, then it may be more harmful than helpful.” (Are AP Classes Worth the Effort?)

Students are superficially being pushed into classes that they’re not necessarily equipped to take. They’re expending great amounts of effort to keep their head above water instead of allocating that effort towards developing higher-level thinking and problem-solving skills. This is extinguishing their passions for learning and filling its place with anxiety.

Students are relying on tutors at an alarming rate to help get them through their high school classes. And they aren’t just being tutored in that one tough class. Many have tutors for multiple classes: physics, math, Spanish, SAT/ACT prep, etc. The amount of homework accumulating with 5 and 6 AP classes is unfathomable, often totaling to upwards of 4-6 hours a night.

And for what? To get into a better college? To get into the “perfect” college? Then what happens? This unrelenting push is not sustainable.

One of the students that I tutor in physics told me when I asked about future plans,

“I want to get in a good school but not such a tough school that I’m crying every night about the workload like I am now.”

High school students should not be stressed to the point of tears every night over the workload. They should be working hard in school, yes. And they should be balancing it with sports teams and musical productions, an after school job and an afternoon with friends — with life.

We’re changing the standards of the whole next generation of society.

Even for students that successfully navigate the tremendous workload of high school, the weight of the college admissions process and choice can be suffocating. A local mom of three in high school and college shared:

“Senior year is different for every teen. Even though some seem super confident, have straight A’s, and are driven, don’t forget the underlying uncertainty, worry, and hidden anxiety that comes with this milestone in their life. Some kids handle it with gusto. But if you’re not seeing that in your senior, spend some quality time with them. They need you now more than ever!”

So much emphasis for seniors is put on the decision for what the next year holds. It’s seen as the accumulation of all their work up to this point and the launch of everything that’s to come. It’s implied that a wrong choice steers life irrevocably in the wrong direction…but it doesn’t.

If the college they pick isn’t the fit they thought it would be, they can transfer. If they don’t get in a school they desire, with hard work, they can take credits at a community college and transfer in as a junior.

The decision they make at the end of their senior year is neither final nor absolute.

It’s time that we stop the madness that this piece of paper will dictate the rest of their lives. While it will have an impact on their educational and vocational career, it doesn’t unilaterally determine the trajectory of their lives. And most importantly, we need to recognize that balance and contentment are far more important than prestige.

Academic success at the expense of happiness is not success at all.

Go back to basics even, and especially during this high stakes time. As the parent above said, “They need you now more than ever.”

Cultivate values of hard work, kindness, and happiness, regardless of what school they choose to go to or not go to. After all, isn’t that a real picture of success? I guarantee that with those standards, everything else will work out.


  1. Well said Marcie! There are so many great options and avenues. Thanks for bringing this topic to light! I am not raising a student, but a well rounded human being. God Bless!

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