88 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2015 | BETHESDAMAGAZINE.COM
some say, to stay up until early morning to finish homework and then crash
for a few hours before downing coffee or
high-octane energy drinks before heading to school.
Before retiring in June, Karen Lockard
says she witnessed students dealing with
health issues ranging from eating disor-
ders to having suicidal thoughts during
her seven years as principal of Bethesda-
Chevy Chase High School. “We do a dis-
service to students by creating a culture
in which they feel they have to go to the
Ivies,” she says. “They feel ‘lesser colleges’
are not good enough.”
Joe Wiedemann says he doesn’t con-
sider himself a “very stressed person.”
His mother holds a different opinion.
She often worried about him during his
junior year, describing him as moving
“ 100 miles a minute.”
“Honestly, it was a source of conten-
tion in our house,” Liz Wiedemann says.
“I kept asking him to do less. I couldn’t
make him do less.”
ON A TUESDAY afternoon in mid-May, I visited Whitman to talk about
school stress with Principal Alan Goodwin and a group of students he’d invited—
one sophomore, four juniors and one
senior, all of whom were involved in
school sports and organizations. Whitman is one of the county’s top public high
schools, regularly boasting the highest
SAT scores and sending students to the
country’s elite colleges.
Whitman students are well aware of its
legacy. For these six students, including
Joe, the message they’ve heard at school,
home and through the media is clear: Their
success later in life would be defined by the
college they attended. The students were
eager to share their experiences, feeding
off each other’s stories as I listened.
Michael Faulkner said that as he
started his sophomore year, he began to
realize how important it was to plan his
schedule so he’d take the right courses
to get into a science-based college. “If
you can’t get into a good college and you
don’t have that as part of a résumé to get
to a job, then…life sucks,” he said.
Other students talked about the
importance of managing their time,
especially if they were involved in activ-
ities or had after-school jobs. “It’s hard to
lessen the pressure,” junior Rebecca Fisch
said. “I cheer, so I have to be there for all
the games, all the practices. If you can’t
manage your time, you are lost.”
For junior Selvi Ulusan, thinking
about college was a “huge stress” because
she wasn’t sure she’d be able to afford it.
She had to give up playing lacrosse to
make time for her job at Chipotle.
“I have to think about having a job to
help my family out, and at the same time
all my friends are spending thousands of
dollars on SAT tutors and I’m, like, work-
ing in a book, and all my friends are going
to college counselors and having tutors
for all their hard classes and I’m at work
making burritos,” she said. “I just feel like
I can’t compete with everyone else.”
Goodwin said the stress and anxiety
generated by trying to keep up leads
some students to abuse alcohol. “A lot
of them say that they drink to relax...
because they’re working so hard,” he
said. “Therefore on Saturday night they
feel like they need to drink so they can
just forget for a while.”
WHY DO OUR TEENS worry so
much about getting into college?
I and other parents I know recall a
much different high school experience.
Sure, there was pressure to fit in, to be
part of the cool crowd, to think about
the future after graduation.
But constantly stressing over grades
and worrying about getting into the
“right” college, sometimes as early as
middle school? That just didn’t happen,
even among those of us who were top
students. We took the SAT once, maybe
twice during junior and senior year with-
out studying, applied to a few schools, and
then headed off in late August.
Today’s teens study for weeks—often
with tutors—before taking the SAT or AC T
multiple times. And now that students can
apply online through The Common Application, they are seeking admission to more
colleges, creating larger applicant pools.
That in turn allows colleges to be more
selective, making it harder for kids to get
That’s why Goodwin blames colleges
for increasing student stress. Though colleges say they seek well-rounded students,
Goodwin says elite institutions in particular are looking for applicants with rigorous academic records. Applicants compete
directly against their classmates for a slot,
so that means students at schools like Whitman face extraordinary pressure to keep up
with their super-achieving peers.
Even colleges that used to be considered “safe” schools, such as the University
of Maryland, have become more selective
because they are attracting so many more
high-quality applicants, allowing them
to raise the academic profile expected of
Parents also share the blame. “There are
parents who have too high expectations
for their children,” Goodwin says. “They
don’t realize how hard it is to get into college [now].” Case in point: Goodwin notes
that the average weighted GPA for a Whitman student accepted to Maryland last year
was 4. 35.
College counselors say they’ll show
parents and students data about college
admissions to help them figure out which
choices are feasible. “Parents sometimes
come in with expectations, and we show
them where their student falls, and it’s these
data points that help bring parents down”
to reality, says Lynn Kittel, associate director of college counseling at Bullis School