Slow Your Honor Roll: Curing "Chronic Achievement Syndrome"

High school is not merely a gateway into college. It is an experience in itself, perhaps even more important than college in terms of self-development. In my mind, people (especially parents) sometimes have an attitude that treats every phase of life as preparation for the next one...high school is treated as a way to get into a good college, college as transition into graduate school, graduate school as a gateway into the work force, once you've got a job, it's time to start saving for retirement. "Just close your eyes and bear it until retirement," people seem to think. Why can't you stop and enjoy life before you're sixty-five? Give me a break.

It aggravates me to no end when students justify doing things because "it helps you get into college." I'm doing community service because "it helps you get into college." I'm gritting my teeth and taking five honors and AP classes, and not doing the things I love, because, well, "it helps you get into college." You get the picture.


"But if you do everything merely for tomorrow, then there's nothing to keep you happy today."
There are certain reasonable steps you can take in order to keep your college options open, like taking a relatively high level of academics, getting good grades, studying a bit for the SATs, etc. But if you do everything merely for tomorrow, then there's nothing to keep you happy today. If you love to write poetry, for example, but you're spending so much time doing math and science that you no longer have any time for writing--is it worth it? If you just hate English, but you love science, and you're studying and studying for that AP English course and don't have any time to devote to science--is that going to make you happy? If you have extracurricular activities that mean a lot to you, and you feel like you have to give them up because people say you should be spending time doing other things because they "help you get into college,"--think about it first. Don't give up your passions to get into college. It doesn't pay off.

For some reason, when I first got to Berkeley High School (BHS), I had a deep desire to achieve at a high level and go to Harvard or one of the Ivies. Who knows where that urge came from, certainly not from my parents, but it was there in full force. Let me preface this by saying that I have always loved to write--poetry, fiction, anything really. From a young age writing has been my primary genre of creative expression. When I got to BHS, I enrolled in every high-level class that was available to me, but all of the AP/honors classes that were offered at the ninth grade level were in the maths/sciences. There were no freshman honors classes in the humanities.

As a result, I worked really hard and did well in these classes, but I wasn't able to keep up with writing, wasn't able to maintain that passion. Halfway through my freshman year, my parents noticed what was happening, and questioned what I was doing. In conversations with them, it became apparent to me that I was giving up a part of myself, and it just wasn't worth the payoff. And so the following semester I went into the normal maths/sciences, and cleared more time for myself. For the rest of my time at Berkeley High, I followed my heart, so to speak. I poured myself into activities that spoke to me. I edited multiple publications on campus, I published poetry, I spent hundreds of hours doing things that meant the world to me.

"If you don't get into the exact college that you want to, at least you'll have had four good years of real education, growing in yourself, following your dreams. There will be a college that fits you, that wants you."
All the while, people told me that I was making a mistake, that if I wanted to get into a good college, then I should do what all the other college-bound kids were doing, putting their noses to the grindstones, trying to do everything at once, be in every AP and Honors course in every possible academic area, join every club, etc. But I didn't listen, and I'm glad I didn't. I took care of business, I had a good GPA and a decent SAT score when I applied to colleges, but more importantly, I was happy and I had a good sense of who I was. There is something in high school, in education, that goes beyond grades...there is a joy to learning that is often forgotten. A good teacher and friend once advised me: "Don't let school get in the way of your education."

I ended up getting into most of the colleges I applied to. I got into Stanford, UC Berkeley, etc. I'm saying this, not to brag, but to emphasize my point: Maintaining your passions and following your dreams helps your future. It doesn't hurt it. The same theme came in to play in my choice of college. After all the letters came rolling in, everyone assumed that I would go to Stanford, or maybe UC Berkeley. Why? Because of the prestige. But after visiting the colleges to which I was admitted, I decided that those two really weren't the schools for me. I chose the much less-known Occidental College in Los Angeles, because it speaks much more to who I am, and has, in my opinion, a comparably high level of academics. As I told someone recently who questioned my decision: Prestige isn't going to make me happy when I wake up every morning.

High school was one of the best experiences thus far in my life, and I'll always remember it fondly. I don't hear this kind of comment too often, and that makes me sad. If you let yourself take care of business, but also follow what you love, then you will flourish. And if you really do this, then college will take care of itself. I recently read a quote from a college counselor in Newsweek. She was talking about getting into prestigious universities, about how to be a patch on the 'quilt' of admitted students. "With no outstanding passion, you don't fit into the quilt. I don't care what you do, get out and do it. If you collect butterflies, get out there and collect them." I couldn't have said it better. And if you don't get into the exact college that you want to, at least you'll have had four good years of real education, growing in yourself, following your dreams. There will be a college that fits you, that wants you. Even if it's difficult to see in the moment, I look back now, only a few months later, and see how true that is.

Steven Barrie-Anthony is a freshman at Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he intends to major in English Literature and Religious Studies. He has a special interest in attempting to convey academic ideas to the mainstream, perhaps through print journalism.


Steven isn't the only one concerned about "chronic achievement syndrome." Read what college administrators think about it in an article on SF Gate.
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