After finishing my first round of finals at Penn, I went back home for the summer just in time to attend my high school’s graduation. As I hopped onto the plane from Philadelphia to Nashville, Tennessee, I couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. My freshman year of college had been great in all the ways most people expect—I’d met interesting people, taken unique classes, and enjoyed the freedom of being able to go out or lay in bed all day without getting a lecture from my parents. But it’d also been challenging, especially academically, and I’d learned exactly what all the upperclassmen I met had meant when they said the environment was intense and at times, toxically competitive.
People said it was impossible to expect straight A’s like many of us had in high school, but that didn’t stop us from beating ourselves up when we failed to get them anyway. One of my friends who was worried about getting a B in an English class said she couldn’t imagine that anyone at Penn was getting B’s or C’s or lower—it felt like everyone was too smart and motivated to do that.
Two months into Penn, my friends and I were already looking ahead to summer internships. Realistically, the world wouldn’t end if we didn’t get a job for a major we hadn’t even declared yet, but it certainly felt that way as the months rolled by and we were rejected from most positions for lack of experience.
I’d learned that pre–professionalism and Penn Face were very real, and I was glad to get away from it for a few months. And I was really excited to go to graduation and reconnect with my teachers and friends. Even though it had only been a year, high school felt distant, and it turned out that I was looking back at that time with rose–tinted glasses.
Graduation was at the local university’s stadium, but I purposely took a detour so I’d get to drive by my high school building. As my car ambled down the street, I spotted the unmistakable “Central Magnet School” sign above the front doors and the announcements board on the lawn, which boasted about the graduating class’s 30.63 average ACT score and its title as “#5 High School in the Nation.”
Through the rest of the drive and even during graduation, I couldn’t shake the feeling of discomfort I got from thinking about the ACT scores and the rankings. It didn’t help that there were not–so–little reminders sprinkled all throughout the ceremony. The principal repeated the U.S. News ranking to the crowd at the beginning of his speech, gave special recognition to the students who’d gotten perfect ACT scores, and invited the audience to applaud for National Merit semifinalists and finalists, titles students qualify for by taking the PSAT.
This year, my school had 55 valedictorians, a record–high that beat out my class’s 44. To solve the problem of who would give a speech, each valedictorian got to film a 30–second video, all 55 of which played on the big screen before the graduates got to walk across the stage.
While the orchestra began to play “Pomp and Circumstance,” it finally hit me why I felt so uncomfortable. Being away from Central had made me forget the school’s competitive, achievement-driven atmosphere, the same atmosphere I struggled to acclimate to in college. I’d gone back to high school, but it felt like I was still at Penn.
What to do about the intense competition and resulting student unhappiness at Penn has been a topic of conversation for years, especially after a series of suicides from 2013–2015. While students and administration have worked to improve the atmosphere through mental health initiatives and CAPS reforms, sometimes it seems like people are focusing on curing symptoms instead of the problem itself. Going back to high school showed me that the unhealthy pressure to succeed doesn’t magically manifest in students the moment they step onto Penn’s campus. It starts much, much earlier.
Central is a 6th–12th grade school, so I got there when I was 11 years old. My memory of my first year is defined by my failure to qualify for a standardized test that would’ve given me the chance to skip 7th grade math. A kid I barely knew laughed when he heard I didn’t make the cut, and I spent the afternoon crying because of it. My parents made me spend the summer taking an online geometry class so I could still be ahead like the “smart” students. From then on, I understood that it just wasn’t good enough to go at my own pace; I had to keep up with everyone else.
The emphasis on scores and rankings only increased in high school as the focus of our parents and the administration turned to college. And it became about much more than just test–taking. Now people focused on building what my guidance counselor once called a “narrative,” which included developing a “spike,” scoring leadership positions, and seeking out impressive summer activities like research on top of getting near–perfect test scores and grades.
On the outside, going to a school that motivates students to develop leadership skills and go above and beyond in pursuing their interests seems great, but in practice, it meant that students tried to achieve in part because they wanted to look better than everyone else. My friends and I always hesitated to tell each other our grades and summer plans because we knew that we were effectively rivals in the college application process. I had to stop being friends with a girl I’d known for years because she would constantly ask for the details of my resume while refusing to tell anyone even her ACT score. I couldn’t handle being paranoid every time I saw her. The whole process made me feel incredibly guilty, especially because it felt like I was “faking” my passions by trying to earn distinction in such a strategic and competitive way.
Alongside the stress of getting good grades, earning leadership positions, and taking as many AP classes as we could handle was another kind of pressure: because all of our time and energy had to go into looking like the ideal college applicant, anything that didn’t lead to recognition or make a compelling essay topic had to be abandoned. Most of the time, that meant kids would quit band, orchestra, theater, or other activities centered around arts and humanities. Most of the AP classes my school offered were STEM–oriented, and people usually perceive STEM classes as more rigorous. And the administration, whose national rankings increase every year because of test scores and AP classes, didn’t help the problem: the arts department was always second-place to STEM departments in status and funding, and the school did nothing to keep longstanding teachers for choir, orchestra, theater, and creative writing from quitting all within the span of three years. As the teachers left, so did students. At this year’s graduation, the orchestra was the smallest I’d seen and struggled to make itself heard in the stadium.
No one seemed to care that art education often helps students grow as thinkers and creators, increases interest in community and culture, and correlates to better overall understanding in other subjects. I played the flute for seven years, and I believe that being a musician allowed me to grow into a better, happier person. But the school system didn’t care that I’d made an amazing group of friends through band, learned from teachers who became my most trusted mentors, and developed a genuine passion for music—what mattered to them was that I was “successful” enough to win awards for my playing, all of which looked great on my resume. Students who wanted to spend their time getting awards for other things quit music entirely.
I realize not everyone went to a high school like mine, but it’s true that schools across the country are emphasizing rankings and test–taking while neglecting creative, expressive activities. Many of my friends at Penn have said that their high schools had a similar attitude on achievement. I think all of us carried this attitude to Penn, where past experiences and the school culture made academic competition more intense.
Almost as soon as we stepped onto campus, we were expected to dress up and study brain teasers to prepare for pre-professional club interviews. Because of forced grading curves, we had to live in the mindset of robbing the A from our classmates every time we took an exam. My friends and I faced even greater pressure to throw ourselves completely into future majors and careers.
Although I tried to keep up with music, by the end of the year I’d decided to quit. Playing in an ensemble began to feel like a burden when I had essays, exams, and applications, especially when I learned that most of my fellow musicians barely practiced because they also saw playing as a burden. There were so many other things to do, and it felt like everyone’s heart wasn’t in it. Music had been the way I’d made almost all of my friends before college, but people shuffled to and from rehearsal at Penn without speaking to anyone they didn’t already know. After a whole semester, I’d made zero friends in the ensemble. I didn’t even know the names of the people in my section.
Going to a school with so many bright and capable people means that competition is unavoidable, but it shouldn’t make us feel like our success is tied to how much of our personal lives we can sacrifice to get ahead. We shouldn’t measure our self–worth on whether we’re better than all our peers, but we do. When you've been taught for years that your creative hobby is only worth something if you win an award and outranking your friends is what opens doors, how else are you supposed to think?
In the end, it’s true that my high school prepared me well for Penn. Because of the work ethic I’d developed at Central, I’ve done well in my classes and found a summer internship. Even though I know it’s not right, I’ll probably continue to fixate on my exam scores, my GPA, and my work experience, because at the end of the day, I still feel like Penn’s definition of success is important.
I don’t have the answers for how to fix the competitive environment, and I don’t even know if it can be fixed—part of me believes it’s just an inevitable consequence of attending a high–performing institution. But going back to my high school made me realize that, if we’re going to criticize the atmosphere at Penn and actually get to the root of the problem, we have to accept that all of it starts way before college.