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The Pressure to Impress

Boston College makes no secret of its competitive environment. In fact, it is a point of pride and often touted at orientations and tours. And as BC continues to rise in annual college rankings, one can reasonably expect it to grow even more competitive.

The pattern has already been established. It’s not uncommon to hear older alumni joke, “Oh, I couldn’t make it in there today!” Current undergraduates may be repeating that same line to their own children.

But where do BC’s competitive academics leave the student? The answer varies from one individual to the next. There seems to be two prominent camps.

One holds that academic competitiveness drives students to excel and become the best versions of themselves. Students like Josh Eichenbaum, MCAS ‘18, exemplify this attitude. He says that the competitive nature of BC can sometimes be overwhelming. But that doesn't stop him from looking to the “successes of those around me to inspire myself to work harder and have similar successes in my own life.”

The other camp believes too much competition stifles growth and prevents the most meaningful kind of education. Statistical analysis can sometimes persuade an individual to one side. But even the scientific method can leave one indecisive.

There may be trouble on the horizon if recent reports on collegiate mental health are to be taken seriously. A 2014 report by the American College Health Association found that over 15% of American college students had felt “overwhelming anxiety” within the preceding 12 months, and nearly 22% of college students’ academic performance was negatively affected by anxiety in some way.

The 2015 report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health showed that “depression, generalized anxiety, and social anxiety are showing slight but consistent increases.” However, the CCMH report does note “flat or decreasing raw scores...for academic distress.” The growing mental health struggles of college students are clearly multi-faceted. One must wonder what the distinguishing factor is in determining whether or not academic competitiveness affects a student’s mental health.

The answer may lie where students find their sense of worth. Senior Staff Psychologist at University Counseling Services Julie AhnAllen said, "In my experience working with BC students at UCS, I hear more damaging impacts of competition as students often place a lot of pressure on themselves and feel rejected when they hear disappointing news..." Professor AhnAllen continued by saying, "Many of our students place such high value on being on top of that competition. If your core identity is tied to winning and being the best at everything, it can be highly disappointing to not be 'chosen.'"

Professor AnhAllen went on to note that the students who can handle disappointments are the ones “who can value many parts of themselves as well as acknowledge their strengths and growing edges.” Perhaps one cannot say there is something inherently wrong with an academic environment as competitive as ours, but thriving in it may require a certain detachment and the ability to not internalize failure.

Professor Thomas Kaplan-Maxfield said that academic competition can be either healthy or unhealthy depending on how the individual approaches it.

"Competition is both a pushing against the other and an understanding that it's only by means of the connection—this time via competition—that we actually excel," Kaplan-Maxfield said. "But who are we excelling against? Others, or ourselves?"

He believes that students grow isolated and anxious when they choose to compete “against” others and not “with” them. One major problem with BC’s student body is how it interprets the school’s motto, “Ever to Excel.”

BC students too often take that to mean excelling beyond everyone else—a problem according to Kaplan-Maxfield. Computer Science major Andrew Heimerman, MCAS ‘18, echoed Kaplan-Maxfield’s attitude in speaking of his own department. Computer science majors, he says, thrive when they work with each other, rather than against.

Because of the small size of the department, the creativity of coding itself, and his fellow majors’ shared goal of making the best product, Heimerman said success “becomes a team effort in a way. We all help each other out to make each other better...so it is very difficult to be a lone wolf.”

It would be nice if other departments encouraged the same attitude, he says, but some subjects seem more conducive to it than others.

Another student, Joelle Resnik, MCAS ‘18, also spoke out against approaching academics as a sort of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses.

“It’s all about perspective,” Resnik says. “Someone will always have more than you and someone will always have less. That's what everyone forgets. Just run your own race.”

It would be healthy for those who feel burdened by academic competition to search for motivation within themselves. The implication of this, of course, is that those who can best find their academic motivation from within are also the ones pursuing education for their own betterment.

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