With 2019 drawing to a close, the stress levels of seniors at Berkeley High School (BHS) are peaking. The reason behind this large increase in stress can be stated in a single, loaded word: college. With the release of early decision notifications and application deadlines fast approaching, college is at the forefront of many students’ minds at this time of year.
For Sofia Matthews, a senior in Independent Study, her future always seems to be dominating her thoughts these days. She plans to major in classical violin performance, a particularly difficult focus to apply to. “Music performance is already such a vulnerable act, but adding the pressure of it being the basis of my college admittance brings on another wave of vulnerability,” Matthews explained.
Matthews must go through multiple rounds of auditions to be admitted to conservatories alone. On top of that, she must sometimes be separately accepted into the affiliated universities as well. According to Matthews, the application process is “the worst turbulence of mental stability, especially for music or talent majors.” Juggling school work with learning a massive amount of required repertoire for auditions has repeatedly tested her mental health. On some days, the stress becomes so overwhelming that she is unable to do anything all day.
This stress is very familiar to Aamayah Hoa Hong McCoy, a senior in the Academy of Medicine and Public Service (AMPS). Like Matthews, McCoy is pursuing a performing arts degree. While she said that she tried very hard to keep the stress of applications from taking control of her life, it sometimes overwhelmed her. “There were a couple of days when just hearing the word ‘college’ was a little too triggering for me, and it felt like I wanted to breakdown from just thinking of everything I had to do,” said McCoy.
However, LyLy Colebourn, a senior in Berkeley International High School (BIHS), does not think it has to be this way. Colebourn believes that a large part of the pressure originates from the problematic way in which the “best” applicants are selected — an unfair process that favors affluent students. The further Colebourn went into the college application process, the more her frustration grew. “Applying to college is such an expensive and complicated process,” said Colebourn, adding that, “It’s not accessible or affordable for families who don’t have the proper resources to help their kids.” Colebourn has also realized that success depends heavily on being able to afford private college counselors or expensive tutors. In addition, she found the College Board’s monopoly on the college application process to be problematic because it allows the company to focus on profit.
Matthews agreed, pointing out colleges are still businesses. “Businesses have a lucrative incentive behind every decision they make, and colleges are no exception to this,” she said. While Colebourn feels incredibly fortunate to have the free resources that BHS offers, she knew that the majority of high schools are unable to give their students this extra boost.
College also places a different type of pressure on students’ shoulders— the burden of facing all the possibilities of one’s future and choosing the “right path.” Colebourn feels obligated to go to a four-year university instead of a much more affordable community college because the system promoted the idea that going to a less prestigious college indicates inferiority in work ethic and even intelligence. “For that reason, I completely blocked community college out of my options because I didn’t want anyone to perceive me in that way,” said Colebourn. “I think that’s definitely a box that needs to be broken,” she added. College forced McCoy to seriously consider her future, which added additional pressure to the application process. She felt lost in what she wanted, and at times, it seemed like she was the only one. “Everyone around you has it figured out, and you’re the only person who just has no idea,” said McCoy.
The stress becomes so overwhelming that [Matthews] is unable to do anything all day.
For Matthews, it was a matter of something she had always understood in concept suddenly becoming a reality — like a splash of cold water. “I always knew how much of a risk it was to attempt a career in the music industry, but now I am facing that idea more immediately,” Matthews said. McCoy said that the key was realizing that college-induced stress could only as much power over her as she allowed it to. For her, the most important thing was to attend a school that would be a good fit for her. She didn’t want to choose extracurriculars because of the perceived notion that they would help her go to a brand name school.
Overall, the process was a long road for all, with plenty of ups and downs. “It has definitely brought the concept of self-doubt to a new depth for me,” admitted Matthews. “On the up-side, realizing that my success in auditioning relies greatly on my mental toughness and stability has encouraged me to put my mental well-being at the top of my list of priorities,” she explained. The pressure could be crushing at times, but for seniors, the end of the process is in sight.