Throughout my educational journey, I have gone through a predictable cycle of achieving expectations, overworking myself, over-committing to various tasks, and burning out. I compare the feeling to running on a hamster wheel, hoping to get that drink of water, but no matter how fast and long I run, I do not receive the desired result. In asking my peers if they felt similarly, I was comforted to learn I was not alone, though they shared different reasons for their own versions of burnout. Tesia Shi, a rising senior at the University of Maryland, College Park said she is driven by high expectations from her family and community because of her immigration status. Liv Merryman, a senior at Ithaca College, justified the stress cycle, saying, “We are paying tens of thousands of dollars to go to school, after all.” In asking individuals to define educational success, they all had a similar answer: grades and career. Ellie Newman, a senior at Otterbein University shared, “Getting good grades [is] personally how I feel I have succeeded as a student.” A third-year student at St. Louis University, Sydney Gallagher said, “It is challenging to not consider grades and quantitative measures as elements of success, given that they are regularly given alone as ‘feedback,’ and are consistently employed to compare students to one another.” Merryman mentioned that when getting a B+ in a class, they called their mother crying about whether they could keep their scholarship and satisfy their expectations. I relate to these situations. As a student, I felt extremely disappointed when I did not receive straight A’s one semester, even though it was the first semester that was interrupted by COVID-19. All our lives we have been told that to succeed in life, all you need to do is work hard and go through the checklist of life, which includes college.
Grades have been in the educational system for so long, they are synonymous with the success of students. Higher education is a significant investment that begs evidence such as grades. Over time, the definition of success is changing, due in part to the stress and burnout this obsession produces. But it is clear the remnants of the former definitions remain. Merryman has started to take the steps of prioritizing their mental and physical health, “I’ll ask for an extension or for office hours, or skip class when I’m exhausted.” Gallagher stated that she understands that “grades—or any other single factor for that matter—certainly do not exclusively define my success as a student,” even though sometimes she regresses by sliding back into those attitudes.
Burnout is defined as a “physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes toward oneself and others (American Psychological Association). As many of my peers stated, wanting to achieve unrealistic goals and meeting unrealistic expectations causes them to grind until they burn out. The terms “rise and grind” and “grind it out,” have been associated with success, productivity, and also burnout. Gallagher stated that once she is burnt out, she struggles to gain knowledge and understanding of the academic experiences. Gallagher and Merryman relate the feeling of burnout to acting robotic and moving through the motions. Shi stated that because of the mental health stigma around the world and especially around college students, she “felt like other people saw ‘burnout’ as an excuse for poor work or being lazy,” and shared that she “felt like [she] was drowning…”
The college journey is about more than academic attainment, and schools should recognize and celebrate students’ experiences, responsibilities, and achievements outside the classroom.
I learned more about the prevalence of burnout in talking with my mother. One of her biggest points was her view that we are the most scheduled generation in recent history. From the moment my parents found out that they were pregnant with me, they have been saving money for college and other activities. From the age of two, I have had dance practices, soccer practices, and playdates scheduled. In high school, students can be in classes from 7:00-3:30, go to sports, art, or music practice from 3:30-8:00 or a job, and then they have to do homework. Gallagher stated, “[In high school], my academic, social, and athletic schedules were often planned to the minute,” and now, the freedom in her schedule, once she got used to it, has been freeing. Newman, on the other hand, stated that she bases her college schedule off of her high school schedule because the strict scheduling benefits her.
The college journey is about more than academic attainment, and schools should recognize and celebrate students’ experiences, responsibilities, and achievements outside the classroom. The grading system may encourage students to work hard, but it teaches them to judge themselves based on a letter or title (even encouraging some to become fixated on them), and rewards achievement rather than the process of learning. One solution would be for schools to place more emphasis on the experience of exploration and knowledge absorbed. For example, a business class might include a field experience or exposure to someone with expertise in the business world. Colleges should also explore avenues for measuring students’ success, providing recognition for achievements like overcoming obstacles or working while obtaining a degree, lessening the all-encompassing importance of the GPA. In reality, college grades do not determine or predict if someone will be successful in their life after graduation, so we should find a way to measure achievement in college differently.