Dear Mom and Dad,
I envy you. More specifically, I envy the time that you grew up.
To be clear, this isn’t another teenager lamenting the loss of an era she never experienced, hoping to keep the spirit of the 80s alive through AC/DC records and John Hughes movie marathons. (Unpopular opinion: I actually like pop music, which seems like a bit of an oxymoron)
What I really envy was your school experience. Mom, you managed to play four varsity sports throughout high school while maintaining good grades and a social life. It wasn’t a problem balancing these because both academics and sports were lower pressure. When it came time to apply to colleges, you only applied to one.
Dad, your high school experience was very similar. School was much less stressful because college wasn’t emphasized. It didn’t even occur to you to apply to anything other than University of Michigan, 20 minutes from home, the college both of your siblings attended. Although there was a risk of being rejected, you remained unconcerned because it wouldn’t be a big deal if you didn’t go to college.
The contrast between our experiences could not be more apparent. College has always been a very concrete part of my future, as natural a step in life as getting married or having a job. For many in your generation, it was not as structured. After high school, many went straight into working a full time job, which was more attainable without a degree.
Now, however, for most high school graduates, a logical step towards traditional success is obtaining a degree. The average yearly income for a high school graduate is $27,900, but that number rises to $51,200 with a college degree. This ever-expanding gap puts more and more pressure on not just going to college, but going to a good college in order to maximize “success.”
From my point of view as a child, I watched my three older siblings go through the college application process and eagerly awaited my own day in the spotlight, when I would find the perfect college for me, apply, get accepted, and be whisked away into the start of adulthood. Although my siblings’ college search was in no way simple, it seemed this way through the filtered perspective of a 12 year old. I heard only the excited rehearsals of polished application essays and I missed the panicky 1AM conversations about rejection and failure. Now, as my college application time ticks nearer, I am disillusioned of the stress-free process I expected this would be.
I am a first semester junior in high school. The most difficult months lie ahead, but already I can feel college looming over me. I miss dinner conversations that don’t revolve around college. I miss the days when I didn’t know the exact ACT score necessary for getting into Stanford. I miss being able to think about the future without a bubble of panic blooming in my chest.
I’m not blaming you. Most of this is not your fault. I’ve heard your message loud and clear: Wherever I find myself, whatever I want to study, whoever I want to become, you will support me. For this, I am immensely grateful. I know that your support, in itself, is a huge privilege.
But you don’t quite get it.
High school is draining. Junior and senior year, debilitating. I have unintentionally done everything in my power to make this process even more emotionally difficult for myself by falling in love with schools with acceptance rates below 10 percent, by holding myself to an incredibly high standard, by constantly comparing myself, not just to my peers, but to my siblings as well.
Applying to colleges will probably take hostage a large chunk of me, particularly the part that laughs easily, exercises patience, and looks at the world with an optimistic mentality.
I’m not alone, either. College has swept over my peers like a plague, taking them silently and swiftly, changing them. There is no cure for this unless we alter our entire societal value system. But there is an antidote. Understanding, communication, and honesty between a child and a parent can make all the difference. The pressure is crippling, but parents can cut that pressure in half by empathizing with their child.
It’s hard for you to completely separate my high school experience from that of my siblings. I’ve pushed hard to avoid getting lost in the wake of your three other children, all incredibly gifted, smart, and successful. Comparison is like a poison that makes achievements look like failures.
It’s also hard for you to completely separate my high school experience from your own experiences. High school for you was a light jog, hardly enough to break a sweat. Because of this, you were able to carry a lot of things – sports, the student newspaper, a social life, sleep. High school in my experience is like running on a tightrope. To keep from falling off, I have to focus all my energy on my footing. This means I’m not able to carry anything extra or take my eyes off where I’m headed.
In the next year, the tightrope might become thinner, my balance might waver a bit, my footing might slip. As long as you see that I’m trying my hardest to keep upright, to keep moving, we can make it to the end. But it will take patience, understanding, and one step at a time.