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

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