There’s this poster in my AP Language class. It’s the aghast kid with the “there was homework?!” speech bubble hovering over him and something about the virtue of hard work, there’s a poster of a field of roses that are all yellow. Like dozens and dozens of yellow roses, and in the middle (or maybe not right in the middle, that’s too direct and the aesthetic rules of three’s and all) there’s one pink one. The only one of its kind. And on top, there’s some saying that, despite sitting in that class for nearly a year now, I can’t recite verbatim, but it’s something to the effect of “there’s no one like you” or “being unique is beautiful” or something cliche like that. I’ve seen this poster before. Not the same one, of course, but variations of it, telling me to celebrate what makes me special have popped up throughout my entire schooling, be it in my eleventh grade AP Language and Composition class or my first grade music and arts class. Inherently, it’s not a bad message. Generalizations are dangerous, but say what you will about our generation, we’re certainly the most inclusive, diverse, and accepting of them all. But as the looming threat of college applications (not even college, just applications) nears, I’ve realized that being unique isn’t just something we celebrate anymore. It’s a requirement. A commodity. There’s this relentless pressure to “set yourself apart.” Where good grades and a decent testing score would have cut it a generation ago, many students now experience the fear that they’re not different enough. And while the pervasive role technology and social media, the go-to culprit for the rising anxiety levels among teens in America today, play their role, the fear-eliciting culture around college admissions can’t be underestimated in the danger it poses to our health.
Benoit Denizet-Lewis followed the breakdown of an anxiety-ridden high schooler named Jake, a profile of whom will seem familiar to many students: a hard worker, active in sports, and committed to clubs, challenging himself with an A.P. filled course load. But in junior year, an anxious breakdown, driven by his fear of failure (“He worried about it privately; maybe he couldn’t keep up with his peers, maybe he wouldn’t succeed in life,” explains Denizet-Lewis), trapped him inside of a vicious cycle– “the more school he missed, the more anxious he felt about missing school. And the more anxious he felt, the more hopeless and depressed he became.” And you can’t blame him. I’ve seen Jakes all around me. Of course, a B on your transcript isn’t going to change the trajectory of your life, but that doesn’t stop many students from feeling that way. The incredible, nearly impossible standards we set for students, coupled with staggeringly low acceptance rates in order to up a school’s overall ranking and almost toxic practices on websites like College Confidential, where on a good day you can find some helpful information about scholarship programs or alumni advice, and on a bad one you can stumble upon the dime a dozen “Chance Me” threads in which students can feed their insecurity that they’ll Never Get Into Anywhere Good in the proverbial tap of a finger, no doubt play a part in the unprecedented levels of anxiety in kids today. Snapchat and Instagram are endlessly criticized for the unrealistic portraits they paint, making teenagers feel jealous, insecure, and lonely. But it’s naive of adults to act as if this unhealthy dynamic of self doubt and envy doesn’t extend to being around the kid with the 4.0 GPA, six leadership positions and congressional internship.
Where high school is supposed to be a time to ask questions, make mistakes, figure out who you are and if you’re lucky, discover a passion, and college applications are supposed to be an exciting period where you take a first step into the future, a different, harsher mentality has taken over the minds of students. One where the stakes are higher, and more terrifying. One where the yellow rose students, the ones who don’t meet this convoluted notion of “unique” or “different” (a standard measured by a relatively impersonal application format that often, directly or not, encourages values in students of cut throat ambition and resume padding more than it does qualities like sincerity or emotional maturity) will be thrown to the wolves.
Or at least, it feels like it.