Penn’s student body has moved beyond the 80s–esque style of peer pressure that our parents warned us about. Rather than sneaking cigarettes in the bathroom between classes or cheating off your classmates’ papers, Path@Penn’s “Request max course unit increase” form and PennClub’s mint green “Apply” button are the most alluring vices on campus.
At Penn, the pressure to always be “doing more” is palpable. A Sidechat post reading that a student “Never felt peer pressure to do drugs at Penn, but [they] constantly feel like [they] need to join 3 more research labs and take 8 [credits] a [semester]” received nearly 500 upvotes and was the most popular post on the app that week, showing just how ingrained hustle culture has become in our lives.
Before even stepping foot on campus, Penn students accumulate a vast array of experiences employing their unique set of skills, passions, and interests. Classrooms are filled by business owners, nonprofit founders, tour guides, class presidents, and more. Being surrounded by so many motivated individuals is inspiring, but it can also be daunting. The line between admiration and comparison is thin—and easy to slip over.
Imposter syndrome runs rampant on campus, a disease students believe they can cure by enrolling in more activities than can fit on their resume. During recruiting season, it’s common to see peers applying to an average of 10 clubs, even if they all require commitments of 5+ hours per week. Rather than choosing programs that excite them, students hunt for which clubs and classes will catch the eye of a future employer.
There’s a name for the resume bloating that occurs on campus: toxic productivity. In an article for RealSimple, licensed counselor Kruti Quazi defines toxic productivity as, “when an individual has an unhealthy obsession with being productive and constantly on the go,” adding that it “gives us a constant feeling that we're just not doing enough.” While hustle culture has been on the rise across America, Penn serves as an intense microcosm of this problem.
Yash Rajpal (C, E '26), studying biophysics and bioengineering in the VIPER Program, has been personally affected by the influence of this phenomenon at Penn. “I honestly feel that if I have leisure time, I’m not doing enough,” he said. “I regularly don’t get enough sleep, and even though I leave time to be social, often I feel like it is more beneficial to advancing my network than actually simply hanging out with my friend.”
Students here are determined to prove that they deserve a spot in the revered Ivy League. “Productivity culture at Penn is grind until you fall. I see students all the time working to their limits; the number of people falling asleep in the library is unmatched anywhere else,” Yash said.
Rachel Blackwell (C '24), a varsity swimmer studying political science on the pre–law track, commented on the influence of business culture on productivity norms at Penn. “The toxic Wharton mindset contributes to this unhealthy lifestyle,” she said. “People always talk about selling out to consulting, or investment banking, or wealth management. I don’t even know exactly what those positions do, but I do know it entails an unhealthy lifestyle.”
The frenzy to find jobs in these fields is a constant stressor. Undergraduates covet these careers, regardless of major or academic background, citing the paycheck as worth the sixty–hour work week. Students seem to be preparing themselves to be stretched to the brim, starting with the view that moments of rest, recuperation, and leisure could be better spent engaging in activities that produce tangible results.
Penn students overloading their schedules with activities they only find moderately enjoyable has negative mental health effects within the student body. In 2019, the World Health Organization expanded its International Classification of Diseases to include “workplace burnout,” showing that toxic productivity has detrimental mental and physical health effects. Corroborating this standpoint, Penn was ranked as the institution with the most depressed student body in both American News Report and Humans of University.
The National Health Service ranks “enjoying yourself” as number two on its list of suggestions to be happier—which is exactly what Penn students should do more of. As an upperclassman, Rachel has removed herself from most of the Penn pressures surrounding resume building. “I try to fill my free time with activities that nourish my soul and help people,” said Rachel. “I’ve never felt the urge to compare myself to people at Penn because I know that everyone’s life is different and everyone’s career aspirations are different.” She followed by saying that “the fact that someone would participate in something just because they would put it on their resume is comical to me.”
The idea that you should only participate in activities you truly enjoy should be more prominent on campus. There needs to be a distinct shift within Penn culture, starting simply with our own attitudes. It should no longer be glamorized to take six or seven course units per semester or apply to a million clubs. The easiest way to go about this is just making a conscious change in the way we speak to our friends everyday. Instead of feeding solely into each other's ambition, feed into each other's passions.
Rachel shared one of her favorite non–academic pastimes. “I cook every single meal after classes; that really helps me de-stress. That’s my 'me time,' where I can really think and meditate about how I’m doing,” Rachel said.
There are endless ways to break free from toxic productivity on campus. Go on a walk down Locust with music and an iced latte. Take SEPTA and explore Center City. Eat dinner at a nice restaurant. We speak of being trapped in the Penn bubble, but we all have the power to escape it. Write in a journal, watch your favorite show, or just literally just lay on your bed and stare at the wall. The mental benefits of pursuing hobbies or passion projects often overlooked. A change starts with us—let’s take the necessary steps.