Competitive culture: the factors, the effects

When some students in sophomore Nicole Kates’ fifth-grade math class were placed in an accelerated course and she was not, Kates could not help but feel discouraged.

“I feel like that’s when I first started to really compare myself to others, academics-wise,” Kates said in a video conference.

Dr. Denise Pope, senior lecturer at Stanford University, said in a phone interview that academic competition starts early on, in elementary school, when students begin to associate smiley faces with good work or a lot of red pen with bad work.

“If there were no grades in school, just comments and feedback and teachers saying ‘Hey, you’re doing a great job here, let’s work on this together,’ it would be very different in terms of comparison and competition,” Pope said.

According to Kates, the comparison among her peers increased when she got to high school because she felt pressure to participate in every single club and be in honors or AP classes.

At the end of freshman year, Kates said she heard others talking about being recommended for AP classes.

“I felt I was comparing myself to others, hearing them all taking those harder classes,” said Kates. “I talked to my social studies teacher and asked him if he thought taking a harder class would be right for me.

“He straight up told me that it would be really hard for me, that I would probably struggle a lot more,” Kates said.

According to Pope, the difference between middle school and high school academic competition is college.

“We know that grades count for college admissions, and not everybody gets into everywhere they apply,” said Pope. “That’s why the pressure’s on, I think more at the high school level than middle school.”

School psychologist Jill Rodriguez said in a video conference that students at Glenbrook North may feel the need to go to a great college especially if their parents went to one, which is not always the case in other communities.

According to Pope, over the past few decades, getting into college has become more difficult since the number of applicants has increased. 

“Many years ago, it was not an issue to get into college,” said Pope. “The wealthy elites went to college, everyone else didn’t. It really didn’t have to do with GPA.” 

According to Kates, she feels pressure to be equally as smart as her two older siblings.

“They both have gotten into their dream schools and never really had that issue with feeling that others were a lot smarter than them,” Kates said.

Lauren Schifferdecker, owner of Inspire Counseling Center, a private counseling practice in Northbrook and Kenilworth, said in a phone interview that in high school, students’ brains develop to orient toward their peers.

“During teenage years, the brain is developing, growing and changing,” said Schifferdecker in an email correspondence. “In order to prepare for adulthood, teenagers’ brains are designed to value friends and their peers more than ever before.”

According to Rodriguez, students want to be similar to their peers so they do not stick out. 

“Once the comparison cycle starts, it’s hard to stop it,” said Rodriguez. “It can easily blend in between, in and out of everything from what you look like to how you’re performing.”

Families and friends may increase the academic pressure a high school student feels, Rodriguez said.

According to Pope, competitive culture can have serious consequences related to students’ mental and physical wellness including anxiety and sleep deprivation.

According to Kates, dealing with stress from academic competition becomes very difficult when students are trying to be perfect in each of their classes and also in their extracurricular activities.

“There are more negatives than positives, but [academic competition] has motivated me to do a lot better,” said Kates. “I just wish that motivation came from something other than comparing myself to others.”