College Kids More Stressed Than Ever

Pressure from school, work and society is making students freak out

Stress is when you wake up screaming and you realize you haven’t fallen asleep yet.

The best and the brightest are screaming and sleep deprived.

In case there was any doubt, this year’s college freshmen are reporting record-high levels of stress and record-low levels of emotional health, according to a new national survey from UCLA.

Only 51.9 percent of respondents judged their emotional health as above average – the lowest figure since the annual report began 25 years ago. A total of 201,000 incoming freshmen at 279 colleges and universities around the country were surveyed in the fall.

Time pressure. Grade pressure. Career pressure. Social pressure. Financial pressure. For former high-school seniors accustomed to flying above the clouds with minimum effort, it’s a cold shot of reality. And reality sucks.

It certainly does for my first-year students at Penn. When asked to describe their stress, their responses are as articulate as they are heartbreaking. A few samples from the Class of 2014:

“What stresses me most is that the bar keeps getting higher,” says Edgardo Bueser, 18, a Wharton finance and statistics major from Hasbrouck Heights, NJ.

“Business school exacerbates the stress. Everyone is gunning for the same companies — and I mean gunning. It makes college feel like a four-year race. The winners are the ones with the banking jobs, while the losers are left to pick up the entry-level marketing jobs.

“No longer can freshmen sit back, relax and enjoy college in the moment. Catastrophizing has become a normal activity for me. Every mediocre grade invokes images of me mopping floors and cleaning toilets.”

Says Jesse Franklin, 19, an earth science major from outside Lynchburg, VA: “The academic rigor is much more intense than anything I have ever experienced. I spend hours just trying to understand concepts that most others learned before coming to college.

“This, added with the constant demand for papers, problem sets, and projects, sometimes brings me to tears. The stress is only going to get worse.”

Molly Sloss, 18, an urban studies major from Washington D.C., feels Jesse’s pain. “Coming from an inner-city public high school, I am pinned against the smartest kids from academies and prep schools.

“They measure their success by how many classmates they’re besting. I’ve never been in a place where I have to worry about comparing myself to other people. The competition creates a whole new level of pressure. I still don’t understand it.”

Michael Wong, 18, a bioengineering major from Milpitas, CA: “I am most stressed about what I want to do with the rest of my life. I feel like I need to decide my career path by the end of freshman year, but I still don’t have a concrete goal. It seems as if everybody around me already knows where they’re headed. I often just stare into space, trying to figure it all out.

“In high school, I was always the top student — receiving As in all my classes, holding high positions in clubs. Now, it sometimes feels like I’m just one in the crowd, where everybody else is much smarter and ambitious. I feel like I need to work 10 times as hard to accomplish what other students can just pick up intuitively.”

Amanda Laura, 19, Berkeley Heights, NJ: “I was born and raised by two lawyers, so I was never one to be easily stressed out. My parents taught me how to manage my time well. Still, my year has become increasingly stressful as I’ve become more involved.

“I’m taking five classes this semester, was recently promoted to a higher position in the International Affairs Association, am rushing a sorority, and have no idea what I’m going to major in. I often find myself over-committing. What’s even more stressful is that despite having so many other things to do, I want to try more things, but I don’t have the time.”

Ellen Amaral, 18, a fine arts major from Bermuda, has a different spin on it all: “Penn students don’t have more things to get stressed about. The truth is we’ve just gotten better at self-inflicting stress (i.e. Facebook, TV shows, Twitter).

“Procrastination has been perfected to an art form. If there’s one thing I don’t stress about, it’s my ability to put things off. Procrastination feels great in the moment, but its after-effects are unbelievably stressful. What can I say? I’m a masochist.”

Think these college kids are just whining? Check out the other side of the argument.