Was It All Worth It?

Members of Arlington's Class of 2018 reflect on stress, ambition and burnout on the road to college.

MD Duran for Unsplash

Not long after I received my last of six college rejection letters (out of eight applications) my mom asked me if I wished I had taken fewer classes. I had loaded up my course schedule to impress colleges, and that strategy hadn’t worked out as planned. At first, my answer to her question was no, but then I thought about it more and realized the answer was more complex than a one-word answer. The only two classes I could have dropped were ones I really enjoyed. Dropping them would have meant missing out on impactful experiences. But I was also incredibly stressed for most of my senior year at Washington-Lee, and the additional work only exacerbated that issue.

More questions started plaguing me: Do I wish I had done fewer extracurricular activities? Should I have spent more time perfecting my college essays? Are my plans for college and my future an adequate justification for all of the stress I went through?

In the end, all of the second guessing boiled down to one common question—one that I realized I couldn’t answer outright. Was all of the pressure of my high school experience in Arlington worth it?

I decided to consult a few of my fellow graduating seniors. Like me, they didn’t quite know how to answer. Most began with one gut response, but then migrated to another, thinking aloud and discovering more nuanced considerations as they talked. “Sitting right here, it was definitely worth it, but if you had asked me while I was going through it, I probably would have said that it wasn’t,” says Emma Lehman, a Washington-Lee grad now planning to study English and neuroscience at the University of California Los Angeles. Remembering the time she put brewed coffee through her coffee maker (in place of water) to increase its potency so she could pull an all-nighter, she begins to change her answer. “Do I think that the level of pressure and stress that I was under is justified by the outcome?” she asks herself. “I can’t say, honestly. I don’t know.”

Some students thrive in Arlington’s competitive pressure cooker, Lehman observes, but others struggle. She says all of the people she knows either burn out from working too hard or don’t try hard enough. “I think we have this culture of glamorizing overworking yourself,” she says. “If you’re not super stressed out all the time, it’s like you don’t have anyone to relate to.”

Lehman cites peer pressure—rather than direct pressure from the schools and parents—as the primary source of her own stress.

Categories: Education