The Unknown Depths of Academic Pressures in Northern Virginia

Eva Ponos, Editor-in-Chief

It’s no secret that Northern Virginia is known for competitive academics and producing students with bright futures. While this is an impressive feat, there is another side to the success that most people are unaware of. Starting as young as elementary school, and increasing heavily throughout middle and high school, there is a pressure to take the hardest classes and to focus on attaining the grades instead of the knowledge. This all leads to the final goal of sending students off to a college or university that is well-known and respected. Doing all of this is not as easy as it may sound. There are a lot of mental tolls that the mindset of requiring success can take on students who are trying to find themselves during some of the most difficult and stressful times of our lives. Only recently have these concerns been noticed.  

In the third grade I took a test that placed me in a higher academic level and required me to transfer to a new school where these programs were offered. This was my first taste of pressure being placed on me to compete for my grades and focus less on learning and more on achieving. Ever since I went to that school, my mindset has completely flipped. It’s a common misconception that the pressure is on starting in high school, but all eyes are on your success the minute you show promise. It’s a very specific kind of pressure, one that often leads to anxiety and burning out (losing motivation and purpose for academics).  

Growing up, school was a place to learn and develop our minds. We showed genuine interest in learning for the sake of learning. That mindset has completely switched into learning for the sake of getting good grades. We memorize as much as we can, show off all we remembered and see if it was good enough to achieve higher than a 92%. The learning is gone, our only motivation is grades and it all circles back to the initial incentive, college. Each assignment we are given all trickles into a quarter grade, then a semester grade, then a final grade and all that factors into your Grade Point Average (GPA) which is looked down upon if it is not at least a 4.0. Colleges take final grades, transcripts and GPAs heavily into account and that is common knowledge. Everyone wants to attend a good school, and what better way to have a stronger grip on your future than guaranteeing that your statistics look flawless. 

To continue the discussion of statistics, it would be wrong of me to not bring up Advanced Placement (AP) classes and the push to take as many as possible. AP classes are college level classes and while yes, it is important to challenge oneself, it is important to note the unrealistic standard and pressures of taking more than one should. On one hand it is a lot of stress as these classes are usually fast-paced and have a heavy workload, and on the other, it is financially impractical to pay for exams that don’t truly count. The only benefit of passing an AP exam is to have those credits in college, when in reality, most of us will have forgotten the information taught in the class as we only remembered enough to pass. 

After discussing some of the factors that help us get to college, the institution itself is something that everyone and their mother has an opinion on, and has set standards of where people from NoVa should end up. For years these stereotypes of certain colleges have been passed around and laughed about, and yes, while it is funny to joke about such a stressful topic, a stigma has been created around schools that aren’t at the level of the University of Virginia. This known judgement of other colleges and universities creates a negative view of the schools and a scrutiny of those who attend or even apply. It is damaging and needs to stop. Throughout my college application process, I found myself thinking, “Will people think this school is too easy?” or “What will people say if I go here?” Those should have been the farthest thoughts from my mind as this is a crucial process that cannot be influenced by the whispers of my peers. It should not matter the rank or so called level of the school someone attends, as they are going to the school that is the best fit for them. 

Turning to a subject that is even more harshly judged is the negative stigma around taking a gap year, going to community college or going down a different path and not attending college or a university at all. These are all respectable choices that people should not be judged for. A gap year is perfect for someone who is still unsure with what track they want to pursue in life and gives them time to consider their options. It is also a great option for those who want more life experience rather than going straight to college. Community college is an incredibly resourceful education option. It is smart financially and gives someone the education they need with a lower level of stress. Everyone has different situations, some need to be closer to home, in which community college allows for that convenience. One can go to community college for two years then transfer to a college or university if that is the choice they want to make. What people do not realize is that Northern Virginia Community College has exceptional education. It can be compared to George Mason University academically, and there are professors and lecturers from schools like Georgetown and American University. Not going to college at all is another option that NoVa frowns upon but for all the wrong reasons. Once again, not everyone is in the same situation and it could be the best option for them. 

After basically ranting for 800 words my conclusion is that NoVa is meant to be the perfect place to grow up with amazing schools and opportunities. That perfection masks the competitive, angry students that are forced to overwork themselves striving for that perfect application and ultimately acceptance. The acceptance isn’t just to a nationally ranked college, it’s the acceptance into the high school society and culture of seven AP classes and 4.4 GPA. If we dropped the act and opened our eyes to the differences people face, we wouldn’t be so fast to judge someone for their choices because in all honesty, it does not affect us.