Why college feels less stressful

High school grads say they learn to relax in college

College is less stressful than high school for many recent Palo Alto high school grads, according to Weekly interviews. Stanford University senior and Gunn High School '08 grad Naomi Shachter said this is true for her and her high school friends.

George Kadifa, UC Berkeley junior and '09 Palo Alto High grad agrees: "I'm definitely a happier person in college."

College feels more comfortable for various reasons, students said: the ability to choose classes, less total class time, more flexible schedules, less pressure to do extracurricular activities, activities that are student-run, more time with friends, greater equality when dealing with faculty, more interesting classes due to professors being able to determine their own curriculum, professors inviting more discussion of "why" questions, less competition among students, less pressure to build a resume (the possibilities after college are more numerous than post high school), and getting away from pushy parents.

"When part of your purpose was supplied by other people, going away to college can liberate you," said Zev Karlin-Neumann, Paly '07 and Stanford '11 graduate.

Stanford School of Education Professor, psychologist and former Gunn parent William Damon said this reaction to college is due to the different atmospheres in high school and college related to fear levels and types of aspirations.

In high school, "There's a lot of fear that: 'I'm not going to pass the test,' 'I'm not going to make good enough grades,' 'I'm not going to the right college,' 'I'm not going to look good in comparison with my peers,' and that fear by the way is communicated directly from the teachers who also are afraid that they're not going to get good performance records because the kids are not going to do well."

According to Damon, "Fear is one of the great emotions that throw people off balance in terms of being able to experience the elevating things in life like a sense of purpose, or inspiration or anything like that. When you make someone afraid, all systems absolutely stop."

In college, he said, the atmosphere is less judgmental and more relaxed.

The other element of difference arises from the high school quest to get into the most prestigious college. "That's a status-seeking kind of aspiration that brings out the worst, most base aspects of the motivation system. It's very tied to greed, where nothing is ever good enough unless you get to the top and even if you get to the top, maybe there's something more than that," he said.

"So these two big emotions -- fear and greed -- are the two powerful emotional systems that deflect the more affirmative, positive, life-giving kinds of motivators," Damon said.

According to Damon, nearly everybody is going to be susceptible to a degree to these elements of fear and greed found in high schools. Youth with well-formed identities or sense of purpose will be more resilient, but they still will feel the adverse effects. Others will be more vulnerable, with reactions ranging from bad moods and discouragement to being completely thrown off course. Some will be able to bounce back especially when they get to college. The change in environment lifts a large burden for many.

Related stories:

Driven to succeed, part 1: Getting off the treadmill

Part 2: Do high schools squash the joy of learning?

Part 3: Whose problem is it, anyway?

Editorial: The achievement treadmill


To facilitate discussion all comments on the cover package "Driven to succeed" are being consolidated here: Town Square discussion: 'Driven to succeed'

Terri Lobdell


Like this comment
Posted by Tyler Hanley
digital editor of Palo Alto Online
on Nov 18, 2011 at 9:47 am

Tyler Hanley is a registered user.

To facilitate discussion we are consolidating all comments on the cover story package "Driven to succeed" to this thread: Web Link

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields

The Saddle Room – A True Friend of Kids
By Laura Stec | 2 comments | 2,060 views

Palo Alto: Pastis owner to open second French restaurant
By Elena Kadvany | 0 comments | 1,213 views

The Four E's--Pope Francis and the Middle Class
By Steve Levy | 3 comments | 947 views

My College Mindset is Intrinsically Motivated
By John Raftrey and Lori McCormick | 1 comment | 819 views

Marriage Interview 9: Make a Date to Have Sex Once or Twice a Week and . . .
By Chandrama Anderson | 6 comments | 693 views