With the pressure of college deadlines, retaking the SAT, and having the perfect GPA, students’ shoulders slouch with each tormenting day. As soon as gaiety takes over after finishing the October SAT, many go back to the agonizing routine of preparing for the December one.
But it isn’t solely the SAT. There’s the TOEFL, subject tests, and AP tests on top of all the assignments. As the school year passes, the importance of this is amplified along with stress.
However, acing all of the above stated standardized tests and having the perfect GPA doesn’t guarantee a place in the dream colleges of students. Students who dream of Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and other Ivies need to excel in various fields including academics, extracurriculars, leadership positions, community engagement, and probably find the cure for cancer.
All this for the safety of being under an institution where the shiny names of elite schools and Ivy Leagues blind them to believe that it guarantees a solid future ahead.
Therefore, students pour out their heart and soul into preparing for the next four years to come. But they are not really preparing. For many, all this time spent in high school ‘preparing for the life ahead’ is merely a preparation to receive an acceptance letter from the college.
It is understandable why so much emphasis is placed on getting into elite colleges as a college degree puts one in a more competitive circle. And elite schools such as the Ivies, on an average, have higher income rates than those of other not-so-elite colleges.
According to an analysis by the New York Times on the Economic Policy Institute’s data, the value of a college degree has an escalating trend and the wages of graduates and non-graduates are almost unbridgeable.
Therefore, merely wanting to get into a college might be a fair enough reason to butcher the four years of high school. For someone in the Korean standardized education system, the grades of the suneung literally dictate the next 80 years of life. And the standards are unbelievably high.
However, at an international school such as Woodstock, it is a waste of opportunity. Living out your whole high school career for the sole purpose of grades, for the alphabets on a formalized sheet of paper, is a waste of time and money. And letting colleges dictate your passions and interest for four years is even more of a disgrace.
Many Korean students come to this school for a better environment to study: where the focus is not solely on studies.
One of these students is Hyunyoung Kim, Class of 2019, who joined the school in seventh grade because of its less standardized and stressful environment.
She explained her reasons for joining the school, “You can choose the subject you want to study. Not everybody needs to study the same thing. You can be good at one thing, unlike Korea where you have to be good at everything to be recognized.”
Kim further clarified that, in Korea, no matter what major is chosen, the universities evaluate all the students through one standardized exam at the end of the senior year called suneung.
The space to find your passion and the freedom to grow and succeed as a healthy individual is quite limited in the traditional Korean education system.
So when asked to describe what Kim would be doing if she were in Korea and applying to colleges there, she gave a likely example of a daily schedule of a high school student in Seoul.
“I would probably wake up at 5:30 a.m., go to school at 6:30 ish, start studying before school starts at 8:00 a.m. Some people go to academies at that time, but I won’t do that,” Kim said, describing a typical morning routine.
Then moving on to the schedule for the rest of the day, she said, “School finishes at about 5p.m., but it depends on the day. Anyways, right after school, I’d choose to go to academies or stay back for night study. On the days I’d have night study, it usually goes on till 10 or 11p.m. Then you’d go to an academy and come back home at about 1a.m. or 2a.m., which most of the students in Seoul do. And then do all the homework. And sleep if you can.”
Kim added, “I’d say my friends get three hours of sleep.”
And after all this hard work, she said that she might have a chance of getting into SKY, the equivalent of Ivies in Korea.
She also argued that this rigorous schedule was another main reason for her to shift schools.
“In Elementary school, I would get back home at 12 after academies. So you kind of get the reason why I wanted to come to Woodstock,” Kim said.
Although this might be a representation of the competitive neighborhood Gangnam of the already-competitive Seoul, where Kim is from, there is a reason why the students are so competitive.
Kim explained, “It’s not like Woodstock where there is a certain grade for an A+: 87 percent. In Korea, for example, the top few percentages of the students receive an A+.”
This direct comparison of students with one another creates overachieving students and high education standards that are well reputed throughout the world. However, it has resulted in Korea having the highest teenage suicide rates.
But this is not the case for Woodstock. The competitiveness is negligible when compared to Korea. Students are actually allowed to breathe. They are given the room to explore their interests and choose wisely according to what they are inclined to.
However, there are students who take it upon themselves to sabotage this opportunity given. Why? For that college.
Well, some throw away the opportunities by doing absolutely nothing, but others, on the other extreme, make getting into school their only purpose. Hence, useless hours are spent agonizing, arguing, about the A, not the A+, that they got in the math quiz.
As observed by the teenage suicide rates in Korea, this heightened pressure halts or decelerates emotional development. By dedicating so much mental space to things that, in most cases, teenagers are unwilling to do, high levels of stress are inevitable. Thus, as a natural consequence, it makes the four years of high school much less enjoyable.
Moreover, most things that the students are involved in becomes less of their interests and more of what the college wants. The line between passion and obligation blurs, which makes it harder to shortlist a few things that make them tick.
I am in no way preaching that students should be less dedicated to academics. I absolutely agree that it is crucial to be devoted to academics and extracurriculars, but it really isn’t worth working with college as the only reason.
So if you fall in the category on the other extreme: overachieving in everything, then, it might be worthwhile to stop. Take a breath. And think what you might be missing out by being so focused on the future.
The hikes in the Himalayas, the deep talks with friends after lights out, the professional CFI visitors’ talks, the freedom to not take five AP tests, and to initiate projects that you’d long desired to do might have submerged underneath the priority of doing what the colleges want you to do.
Getting an A rather than an A+ could be of much greater worth if it saves you from at least some of the stress, and gives you some mental space to think about something other than these alphabets.
It is true that an opportunity is misspent if students aren’t able to look beyond the school’s accreditation as a college-prep school. When provided with the luxury of being able to live somewhat human with the assurance that it will not break your life, it is wise not to choose the path of a standard Korean high school student. Not getting into an Ivy will not destroy your life.
And again, there’s still no guarantee that all the tormenting hard work will actually pay back. And by being Ivy’s slave, there’s no one to blame but yourself for your own unhappiness. This obviously omits the cases where students have no choice but to work extremely hard due to their need for a scholarship.
At the bottom of it all, dedication towards the things you are passionate about will be the fuel for the next years to come. Not some alphabets that depict your worth.
So maybe, just maybe, the passions you find during the four years, the deeper connections you make with the people and the environment, and the life skills you learn outside of classroom might be worth more than that acceptance letter from Stanford.
Edited by Navya Sethi