Competition taking over American life

Saints no strangers to pressure to succeed


Senior Amanda Furtmann is driven to excel in the classroom and on the soccer field.

Amanda Thomas, Staff Writer

One hundred percent of NDP students surveyed said they feel pressure to excel academically. This pressure to excel at high levels is not merely limited to the classrooms but evident in countless other aspects of daily life.

Senior Amanda Furtmann is no stranger to the pressure to succeed, as she is a varsity soccer player and magna cum laude graduate. She said she is driven to succeed because “I hate losing,” adding, “I always have soccer, but school comes first.”

American society has become synonymous with competition. It has been a driving factor in the lives of nearly all Americans, from teenagers to adults and has come to influence all spheres of life from athletics, academics, and college admissions.

Competition and the resulting pressure to excel lead many to feel stressed. In fact, 84 percent of NDP students surveyed claim that this pressure leads them to feel anxious and stressed.

Admissions rates have become increasingly lower over time, contributing to the culture of competition. Students often feel pressure to excel academically, stand out and get involved in and specialize in a sport early on in childhood. This immense pressure can lead to many students feeling that a single mishap can bring about complete and utter failure.

Pressure to succeed in college admissions, athletics and academics has lead many students to feel stressed. Many students find ways in order to keep this pressure in check.

College Admissions

Lisa McMorrow, one of NDP’s college counselors, attributes the culture of competition to parents. “Parents have gone crazy,” she said, adding that this stems from the whole notion of “everyone gets a trophy, everyone wins.”

Over her six years as a college counselor, she has seen the increase in competition in the college admissions process. Ms. McMorrow adds that, in general, there are more applications and fewer kids are being accepted. 

In a recent article, Alexis Brooke Redding, an advanced doctoral student at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, addressed the growing college-aged population that creates a supply and demand issue. There are more students applying, but the number of spots that need to be filled is unchanging. She said that admission to colleges “changes year to year.”

Additionally, Ms. McMorrow said that especially among the most selective colleges where “everyone has the same credentials,” it comes down to wanting to diversify the campus by gaining people from different areas of the country.

Eighty percent of NDP students surveyed said that a desire to be accepted into the college of their choice has caused them to take certain classes or become involved in certain activities.

Senior Sophie Rodriguez applied to 14 different colleges. She said, “It definitely became very overwhelming trying to write all of the essays [because the essays] were probably my main source of stress.”

She added, writer’s block combined with “the stress of how many essays I still had to write would build up and make the problem even worse.”

High school seniors, with sweaty palms and shaking hands, meticulously open letters from colleges, anxiously awaiting the news if they have been accepted or rejected. These days, an increasing number of students will be disappointed to find a small rejection letter instead of a large acceptance packet as a result of decreasing acceptance rates.

The acceptance rate for Baylor University’s class of 2018 was 44 percent, 10 percent less than the 54 percent accepted the year prior. Additionally, the highly selective Harvard University’s acceptance rate of 5.3 percent is a record low. This is not just a trend in private schools, as UC Santa Cruz showed a large drop in admissions: 22.7 percent from 2003 to 2013, a mere ten year period. The acceptance rate for large public institutions such as Arizona State University are aligned with this trend as the admission rate was 83 percent in 2016, lower than the 92 percent in 2006.

In today’s world of college competition, GPA and test scores do not ensure admission to the most selective schools. Ms. McMorrow recommends a student seeking admission to a competitive school do something to stand out, such as starting a nonprofit because it shows a passion and desire to make a difference.

“It shows initiative, vision, and motivation,” Ms. McMorrow said, adding that it requires a lot of paperwork to do,which shows organization. She said that even starting a club on NDP’s campus could help one stand out in the competitive world of college admissions.

Ms. McMorrow summed up the negative effects of competition in one word: “stress.”

Redding states that because students are pushed by their presents to be the best they can be, the current generation of high school students is the “most anxious, stressed, sleep-deprived generation ever.”

In the same article, it is said that the stress is manifested in the high numbers of reported headaches, stomachaches, stress-related insomnia and depression along with increased rates of “concurrent substance abuse and other risky behaviors.”

She adds that students feel like a failure when they do not get accepted into the college that they and their parents have been so focused on attending.

Redding adds that the pursuit of perfection causes students, especially the most academically talented students, to find their worth in achievement. She adds that when they fail to achieve admission into the elite schools that had long desired to attend, the begin to feel shame. This contributes to an achievement-oriented society that foster competition in order to succeed.

Ms. McMorrow concluded by saying we have forced kindergartners to read when really they need to be outside playing. “Kids just need to be kids.”


According to “Admissions Decisions: What Really Counts,” an article recently published by the College Board, “a student’s grades in college-preparatory classes remain the most significant factor in college admission decisions.”

Since academics are a major determining factor for eventual college acceptance, many students feel immense pressure to excel academically. In fact, 100 percent of NDP students surveyed said they feel pressure to excel academically.

These overwhelmed students who are surrounded by competition have looked for ways to stand out from the crowd in any way possible, whether it be a large number of AP classes or graduating with distinction. This is manifested in the increase in Summa Cum Laude diplomas awarded by NDP over the past few years. In 2010, only 28 Summa diplomas were awarded, whereas 60 were awarded in 2015.

Additionally, students often feel the need to take the most rigorous curriculum possible in order to give themselves the best chance of being admitted to the college of their choice.

Senior Zain Majeed said he takes advanced placement and honors courses in order to “be challenged and surround myself with people who I want to be with.”

Majeed also said that the competition in the rigorous classes he takes, “always drives me to try to do better” while the “people will make me a better person.”

This desire to take take on the challenge of more rigorous classes is seen in the increase in Advanced Placement test takers. 33.2 percent of public school students in the class of 2013 took an AP exam, whereas 18.9 percent of graduates in the class of 2003 took AP exams.

This increase in test takers has also brought with it a greater success rate. According to College Board data, from 2003 to 2013 there was a greater increase in scores of three or higher than scores of ones and twos. More people are not only taking these exams but competing to achieve higher scores than before.

Many look to these AP scores to give them another way to stand out. Success in multiple exams can lead to recognition, another way to show demonstrated achievement to colleges and even gain college credit.

This pressure to excel can negatively affect students, as high levels of stress are manifested mainly in feeling overwhelmed. Students at NDP also report that this stress also causes them to become easily agitated and possess low energy levels.

Yet another way competition and the excessive pressure to excel can negatively affect students is that students must “ discern when competition is warranted and when cooperation is appropriate.”

If students are unable to correctly determine when to compete and when to cooperate, their social skills could suffer.

In the classroom, students are expected “to develop social skills and need to work with others whose interests and abilities are different from their own.” At the same time, students are expected to excel academically, according to Erv Napier, a teacher educator.


This pressure to excel academically is compounded by the competition within athletics and other extracurricular activities.

Athletics has been another way students aim to find a way to stand out and gain recognition. In fact, 77 percent of NDP students surveyed are involved in athletics and 71 percent believe it will help them gain admission into the college of their choice.

Furtmann said she combats the pressures and attempting to balance her academics, athletics, social life and other responsibilities by staying organized. “I try to stay focused with work, so I get it done as soon as possible,” she said.

According to the recent article “When did Competitive Sports Take Over the American Childhood?” by Hilary Levey Friedman, “Three million children between the ages of 5 and 19” play competitive soccer and are registered under U.S. Youth Soccer.

Furtmann is among this group who has played soccer from a young age, as she started playing when she was 6 years old. She said she originally started playing “because my mom played. I continued playing because I loved the game.”

NDP student survey results about participation in athletics

In fact, 46 percent of NDP students polled started playing the sport they currently play before entering middle school and nearly 64 percent began playing before high high school.

Today sports have become increasingly competitive leaving some athletes to feel burnt out. According to Keith A. Kaufman, Ph.D, this competition can lead to burnout that manifests itself in the form of mental and physical exhaustion as well as a lack of motivation. He adds that, “training stress can come from a variety of sources on and off the field, such as physical, travel, time, academic or social demands.”

The 2013 research brief from the University of Florida Sport Policy and Research Collaborative stated that “sports specialization for kids ages 6 to 12 led to increased burnout and higher rates of injury than for kids who played multiple sports.”

Furtmann can be considered part of this phenomenon of student athletes becoming burnt out and tired of the sport they once loved. Although she was an influential player throughout her four years on the NDP team and a captain her senior year, Furtmann decided to quit playing soccer after her last high school season.

“I stopped loving it, and that’s when I knew I needed to stop,” she said.

The Fear of Failure

Many American children today suffer from one wrong move syndrome, according to a recent Washington Post article by Valerie Strauss. It’s the fear that one failure will define their lives as failures. This idea is not only held by the children but also by their parents, who are at times the reason behind this fear.

Freshman Sarah Bentzin, in regards to pressure exerted on herself, said, if “I let my parents down I also let myself down,” and added, “I exert a lot of pressure on myself” because “I have a variety of high goals [of becoming a neurosurgeon and attending either Harvard or Stanford] for myself that do require me to get good grades.”

High-achieving students like Bentzin put enough pressure on themselves to succeed, leaving parental pressures to become secondary.

Seventy-seven percent of NDP students say that their parents are a source of their pressure to succeed.

Bentzin said, “My parents ask me everyday about my grades” and “expect me to live up to my full potential and give 110 percent in everything I do.”

In a recent article “Why Affluent Parents Put So Much Pressure on Their Kids,” published in The Atlantic, Rebecca J. Rosen wrote that this fear and subsequent depression stems from pressure that parents impose on their children.

Affluent parents are among the parents who put the most pressure on their children. They encourage their students to be as successful as they are. In American society, the affluent are businessmen, doctors and lawyers and not family business owners. Unlike family businesses that can be passed down, Hilary Levey Friedman, a sociologist, said, “If you’re a doctor, lawyer, or MBA—you can’t pass those onto your kids.”

Thus, children have to work to reach the same level as success of their parents and aren’t necessarily handed a place where they can live.

Suniya Luthar, a professor at Arizona State University, found that students living in wealthy zip codes have “clinically significant depression or anxiety or delinquent behaviors at a rate two to three times the national average.”

The delinquent behaviors that affluent children engage in include “lying, cheating, and theft,” which differs from the delinquency of carrying weapons that poor children engage in.

Thus, parental pressure can have positive or negative effects on their children, which is largely determined by the child’s own outlook and the amount of pressure exerted by the parents.

Minimizing Stress

The stresses of trying to excel academically, perform athletically, be accepted into a dream college and never fail leads many teenagers to become stressed. This is a nearly impossible task.

Echoing the results of a survey of several NDP students, a 2013 survey from American Psychological Association classifies stress as “extremely common among teenagers.”

To aid in coping with some of this stress, the APA suggests exercising, sleeping enough, balancing school with entertainment and enjoying oneself.

Bentzin agreed: “I step away from what I’m doing and do something I enjoy for a few minutes, such as chatting with friends or watching my favorite television show [whenever the pressure becomes overwhelming].” She added that when she feels exhausted and under pressure, taking a power nap helps her keep everything under control and allow her to keep working.

Similar to Furtmann, Bentzin said believes in the importance of time management and getting things done early in order to avoid unnecessary stresses.

Related Story: There are ways to minimize stress in your life, such as pursuing a low stress career.

Finding hobbies that one enjoys and making it “a point to keep doing these things even when you’re stressed and busy” is essential to maintaining a balance between what is necessary and what is enjoyable.

To find focus to complete and avoid the subsequent stress of piles upon piles of work, Class of 2017 valedictorian Sophie Rodriguez said, “I just need to find a quiet place … in an unstressful environment.”

Students hand stress different ways, and researchers say that students fear failing because of the the negative consequences or that they may be labeled as “underachievers” or “empty-headed failures.”

Students who learn to accept the value of learning, make time for enjoyment and manage one’s time can overcome the stress that arises from the pressure, competition and the subsequent fear of failing.

Rodriguez said it best when she said, “It’s important to step back and keep everything under control.”