College Pressure: The Oh-So-Real Struggle

William Zinsser in “College Pressures” talks about his time as Master of a residential college in Yale University. He talks about the present-day undergraduate students, “a generation that is panicky to succeed” (p. 381) and scrambling to do whatever it takes to one up each other. Students are eager and desperate for instructions, a laid out path, that they can “follow unswervingly to career security, financial security…and…a prepaid grave” (p. 381). They are under different kinds of pressure to succeed and study fields not necessarily important or interesting to them, but those which will land them high-paying careers. The four sources are economic/financial pressure, family/parental pressure, pressure from their equally over-achieving peers, and ultimately self-induced pressure.

Society as a whole puts high achievers like multi-million dollar athletes and business people on a pedestal, so much so that this mentality has become “a potent state religion” (p. 381). This unattainable ideal of success leaves no room for students to experiment with academia, for students to learn from their mistakes, or to actually enjoy their youths. Zinsser observes that “the young are growing up old”, and go into college not aiming to make it into an experience of self-discovery and experiential learning, but just as a stepping stone to even more education–and ultimately, hopefully, a well-paying job.

Just from reading about his position at Yale on page 380 of the reading, I knew that I would likely read about Zinsser’s over-achieving, over-worked, competitive students who are apprehensive about their futures, struggle to stand out both among their fellow Ivy-caliber peers as well as college students from around the country. Everyone is in a shuffle to be the most unique, the most academic, the most involved and the best graduate/medical/law school candidate they can be. Zinsser laments the college atmosphere during the 1960s and 70s, when the undergraduate experience was relaxed and experimental, and not cut-throat as it is today. Zinsser’s advice to students is that “there is no ‘right’ way to get ahead” and not to be under pressure to know exactly what they are doing from the get-go, that everyone has a different path and will reach their destination. He tries to instill this idea into his students, even bringing guest speakers who have reached success through routes that were circuitous and not pre-planned.

I absolutely agree with Zinsser’s observations and the fact that students feel all kinds of pressure to follow a set path in college, be well-rounded, and get into their dream graduate or professional school. I for one can relate very much to this experience, both for myself and for my peers. As a biochemistry major on the pre-dental track, I am under a lot of pressure (self-induced, financially-induced, and peer-induced) to do a million and one different activities, get the best scores possible, and get into dental school. It is stifling in itself to study the courses that I and other science majors/pre-professional students have to take, but even more so when we inevitably compare our performance to that of other peers. The college experience is like a battlefield, a Darwinist game of survival and academic “fitness.” This is especially true for students in competitive schools like Stony Brook University. I can attest to this even more so as an Honors College student, where the students are even more competitive and high-achieving.

Midst all this competition and craziness, students also have a thirst to have fun and truly enjoy themselves, and not always necessarily in extracurricular activities that would “look good” on resumes. Not everyone prefers to relax by writing novels that would be the envy of Mark Twain. Not too many people spend their free time composing musical masterpieces, building homeless shelters, or winning Rubik’s cube competitions. Some students might instead prefer to play video games and finish entire bags of Cheetos. What I mean is that in a rush to be the best they can  be, students don’t have time to actually be themselves–to do things that they enjoy or that helps them relax because they are in  a struggle to have “admirable” past times that they can out on their resumes and with which they can impress graduate school admissions counselors.

It is stifling to be faced with so many pressures and still have the ideal college experience which Zinsser talks about. I am sure that students would love to do what Zinsser advises, and some are able to, but I think it is easier said than done. Personally, I think it is easy to pick out successful adults who achieved a lot in life in a non-“traditional” way, and who have gone through many detours before getting into their desired fields. However, I would also like to see how many successful individuals–politicians, professionals, producers, business-people, leaders, artists, writers, scientists–got to where they are because they knew what they wanted to do since freshman or sophomore year of college and were the most competitive, high-achieving, well-rounded and all around best candidates for graduate/professional school. I know that they are always some lucky few who reach success in a non-traditional or pre-planned way but I believe that this will not be the case for the average college student. I believe that realistically, for students who want to get into competitive careers (like law, medicine, dentistry, veterinary, and business), surviving–and thriving in–the stifling college atmosphere is the only way to do it.

The value I give a college education comes from not only the preparation it gives a student for their future educational and career goals, the opportunities it gives to students to do research, be involved in various extracurricular activities, music, and the liberal arts. By “value” I mean intellectual value AND financial value (the price tag is worth the education). Ideally, a college would be strong in both the sciences and the humanities, and there would be no overwhelming majority of the student body studying one discipline (for example, if everyone majors in Engineering, or in Biology, etc etc).  I put value on the kind of college education that teaches me not just material in preparation for postgraduate school (which is of course important) but one that teaches students to think in different ways, to consider a new perspective in thinking, and to gain knowledge which is applicable to multiple disciplines or real-world issues.

I found this interesting article on the NYTimes about a study which found out that college students today have worst emotional health and highest stress levels. This bolsters Zinsser’s observations of the “stressed-out undergrad” archetype. It has become so bad that some students are entering college already taking psychiatric medication. The pressure is on from the parents and even exacerbated by the economic downturn. Students are feeling stress from every direction to succeed in college, and to make matters worse they also have to worry about the economy and if there will even be work for them when they graduate. I think these worries resonate with many people.

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1 Response to College Pressure: The Oh-So-Real Struggle

  1. elizabethparisi says:


    This was an incredibly well-written blog post. I agree with you wholeheartedly when you say that it is more likely that being successful in a competitive atmosphere will land students where they want to be than the examples that Zinsser showed his students. While I don’t think that he has a bad message, I think that he is being unrealistic to suggest that all students should strive to be mavericks and take the unconventional path to professional success. It is a brutal competition, and not everyone is equally equipped to succeed. However, I do feel with proper time management skills and the ability to say “no” when they have to, it is possible for high-achieving students to still do the things that make them feel fulfilled and less stressed.

    I also like that you included an article that points out the damages caused by the high-stress atmosphere in academia. The rate of suicides on college campuses is startling – 1,000 victims per year. In addition, 1 in every 3 college students report having felt so depressed it was difficult to function in the past year; 1 in 10 have considered suicide in the past year. To me, these are startling statistics when you think of how many people you come into contact with on a daily basis. Any one of these people could be dealing with debilitating depression, have lost hope, or are wanting to die. One or more of these people could be someone very close to you. While we can’t directly change the economic situation or the job market, I feel that we can and should look out for each other. As hard as it is to be a student at a competitive University, we all deserve to be here another day.

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