High school sophomores and juniors around the country check what they received when preliminary scholastic aptitude test scores — better known as PSAT scores — are posted in December. 

The “what did you get?” and “did you do better than me?” questions follow.

Jenny Geng, Iowa City West High School student (Photo provided Jenny Geng) Credit: Photo provided Jenny Geng

“I hate the comparison of test scores,” Jenny Geng, 16, a junior at Iowa City West High School, said. “It makes them feel bad about themselves,” she said about students she knows. “But you can’t stop it and it’s going to happen,” she said.

“I don’t like it.” 

Competition in high school is producing stress for high school students in many aspects of their lives. High school students participating in an IowaWatch high school journalism project this year rattled off a list of ways they compete with one another: how your body looks, social life, academics. Also on the list: the college into which you get accepted to attend; athletics, in school but also extracurricular club teams; music and other arts; who your friends are; and what social activities to which you get invited.

Often, the pressure to compete with peers is self-inflicted, students and educators interviewed in the project, conducted the first three months of 2020, revealed.

Jazsime Vanpelt, Iowa City High School student (Photo by Jhakyra Banister) Credit: Photo by Jhakyra Banister

Jazsime Vanpelt, a senior at City High School in Iowa City, told of how friends encouraged her to take advanced placement — AP — or honors classes although she was afraid that the classes would be too difficult.

“I was usually the only person of color in the class or maybe there were two others, or maybe I was the one in two,” Vanpelt, 17, said. “So it was very scary because it was all these super smart white kids and it’s just me just there existing or whatever.”

Credit: IowaWatch logo

ABOUT THIS PROJECT

High School Pressure is an IowaWatch High School journalism collaboration with the award-winning Iowa City high school newpapers The Little Hawk and West Side Story, at City High School and West High School, respectively. Journalists who produced this project, working with IowaWatch’s Lyle Muller and their journalism teachers, were:

Natalie Dunlap, West High
Marta Leira, West High
Alex Carlon, West High
Kailey Gee, West High
Shoshanna Hemley, City High
Jesse Hausknecht-Brown, City High
Nina Lavezzo-Stecopoulos, City High
Julianne Berry-Stoelzle, City High

Teachers assisting in this project are Sara Whittaker, West High School, and Jonathan Rogers, City High.
This project was supported by a grant from the Community Foundation of Johnson County.

Megan Foley Nicpon, a professor of counseling psychology at the University of Iowa, said she sees more students competing to get high test scores and get into elite schools than she did 20 years ago. She attributes the heightened competitive environment to social media.

“I think social media lends itself to this as well because what do people do? They put forth their best selves on social media,” Foley Nicpon said. “And so, we’re doing a lot of that comparison to others, and it’s a false comparison,” she said. “It’s not the genuine representation of that person, it’s what they present to the public.”

Foley Nicpon said social media doesn’t allow for people to live in their own moment. Rather, young people on social media find themselves worried about what others are doing, she said. 

“It creates more stress and anxiety, that people are missing out or they’re not performing or experiencing life the way that others are,” Foley Nicpon said. “You also have no privacy. You constantly know where each other are, what parties you’re at, what you’re not invited to.”

Heidi Schmidt-Rundell, 16, a  junior at Iowa City West High School, said it happens with students she knows. “They’ll see on somebody’s Snapchat story like, ‘oh my gosh, my friend group went out to like Steak and Shake, and I’m not there.’ And then you feel excluded more often and you feel like you should be doing more things,” she said. 

Heidi Schmidt Rundell, Iowa City West High School student (Natalie Dunlap/West Side Story for IowaWatch) Credit: Natalie Dunlap/West Side Story for IowaWatch

Students interviewed in the IowaWatch high school journalism project were almost all from Iowa City high schools. Students interviewed at both City and West, the two high schools in the Iowa City Community School District in the city, said they felt pressure because they felt the learning environment there was competitive. 

Vivian Gibson, a West High junior, said she hates the comparisons. “I feel like the people I hang around are very smart people and I just don’t like comparing myself because they can say something like, ‘oh, I missed two points, I did so bad.’ And I’m over here, like, ‘oh, me too.’”

Gibson, 17, said she has dyslexia and has heard negative comments from classmates about the extended time she gets to take standardized tests. “Most people are just like ‘wow, you’re lucky’ and everyone’s like ‘that would be nice,’” she said. “Some people make me feel like I’m dumber for it because they’re like, ‘wow, you get extra time to get these things done.’ You still have to perform as well as other people.”

MORE: GRADES, FRIENDS, COMPETITION: THEY STRESS OUR HIGH SCHOOLERS MORE THAN YOU MIGHT THINK

Geng said she compares herself to friends when she hears about opportunities they get and activities they do.

“A bunch of my friends are doing summer programs at colleges,” Geng said. “I have a good friend who’s going to Brown and a couple people are going to WashU and Northwestern,” she said. “When I heard it, I was like, ‘oh my god, maybe I should do this.’ But I really don’t have the time to. It just makes me feel like I’m not doing enough.”

Miguel Cohen Suarez, an Iowa City West High sophomore, in the school hallway in March 2020, before the school was closed during the COVID-19 shutdown. (Alex Carlon/West Side Story for IowaWatch) Credit: Alex Carlon/West Side Story for IowaWatch

Miguel Cohen Suarez, a West High School sophomore, said he felt pressure to be equally accomplished after watching a YouTube video of a teenager explaining how the teenager got into Stanford University.

The video made Cohen Suarez wonder if he’s doing enough in high school, he said.

“With all the technology, you can see people all around the country that are getting into these prestigious universities, and it puts a lot of stress on you,” Cohen Suarez, 16, said.

Nolan Vibhakar, Iowa City High School student (Photo by Jill Meadows) Credit: Photo by Jill Meadows

Nolan Vibhakar, a junior at City High School in Iowa City, said entertainment on television adds to the notion that you have to be competitive. “I think that adds a lot of stress because you see all the time in the media and TV shows and things, and you can see that it’s competitive,” he said. 

Vibhakar, 17, said a lot of students he knows are more competitive with their personal expectations of themselves than with others. Even so, he said, a lot of comparing is done when those PSAT scores are released and students make jokes about scoring higher than their friends.

“Deep down I don’t think anyone really cares that much about it other than being happy for other people who do well,” he said. “I don’t think it’s very competitive other than people pushing themselves and being disappointed when they do poorly and excited when they do well.”

MORE: COLLEGE-BOUND, BUT FEELING PRESSURE ABOUT IT IN HIGH SCHOOL

Jesse Hausknecht-Brown is a junior at City High School in Iowa City and features editor for the high school’s The Little Hawk. Natalie Dunlap is a senior and Alex Carlon is a junior at Iowa City West High School, where Dunlap is online editor-in-chief and Carlon is online news editor and online managing editor at the school’s West Side Story. Natalie Katz and Marta Leira of West Side Story and IowaWatch’s Lyle Muller contributed to this report.

Source: Pew Research Center Credit: IowaWatch graphic by Lyle Muller

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