Cluttered desk, cluttered calendar, cluttered mind: the symbols of life as a 21st century junior

Listen Up! Here is Everything Today’s High School Juniors Want to Tell You

Among the SATs, piles of homework, college visits, and sports, the true weight upon the shoulders of juniors may be much different than we think.

November 6, 2019

Junior Year. 

The third year of high school no longer sparks the same excitement about the rapidly approaching end of one’s so-called “easy years”, but now sends a bone chilling shiver down the spines of those who fear of the demands of the next 180 days. 

Come the first day of school, 11th grade students are bombarded with a myriad of syllabuses, Google Classroom codes, and seven different versions of the same scripted speech about how the coming year will be trying, overwhelming, and, above all, stressful. But is it the classes, colleges, and cram sessions that make high school juniors so miserable?

Juniors have navigated their way through hundreds of the same conversations with adults who seem to have nothing more interesting to ask than where that junior wants to go to college, what classes they’re taking, and to make the same unfortunate worried face about the year upon which they’re about to embark. 

Drowned in work: between the inherent content-heaviness of the year and the added stress of college prep, a junior’s daily planner is constantly filled with that day’s stressors.

Many don’t realize that when we tell you we’re a junior, we do not want to be suffocated with a dozen questions on our five-year plan.

“Juniors feel so much added pressure and added stress about college from their peers,” Darien High School senior Ryan Smith said.

High schools today are filled with overly curious friends who don’t hesitate from turning around the second they are returned a graded exam and asking what grade is on the top of their friend’s. Today, conversations between friends consist of: what class is next? What you do want to do this weekend? And, oh, right, where do you want to go to college?

It’s hard to remember what we used to talk about before we had to option to bring up SATs, ACTs, college tours, or grades. It fills the silence that screams at us about the university-sized elephant in the room. 

“The real world is entering our lives, and that’s kind of terrifying”

— Junior Britney LaVecchia

While some students are able to restrain themselves from the inherent curiosity regarding others’ successes, there is an addiction to comparison and competition present in almost all of today’s high school students. The same year that students are just beginning their search for the place they want their future to begin, the same students insist on making sure that they are more prepared for that future. And the comparisons don’t end there. Conversations soon convert from innocent inquiries of whether or not one’s peers have begun the college search or SAT prep to drilling each other on what schools they are interested in, what their grade point average is, what their scores are and so on; each additional question practically dares its recipient to reciprocate the curiosity, launching the students into a conversation that becomes a competition. 

“I want to be able to think about my future on my own time,” stated DHS junior Lindsay Smith.

She says that the influx of work, extracurriculars, and standardized testing is not the true cause of her stress.

“My stress is made so much more difficult to deal with from doing the work just to prove to other people that I can,” Smith said. 

While the year’s content-heaviness is a large stressor, parents are more directly related to this stress than they realize. That same curiosity follows many students home. Parental pressure overwhelms students who have not yet figured out a way to handle their school work, and oftentimes the addition of future planning is simply too much for them.

Junior Britney LaVecchia says that this pressure felt by today’s juniors is “completely unnecessary.”

She commented on the expectation that we’re supposed to “plan our whole future in a year” saying that the reality of the year is that “the real world is entering our lives, and that is kind of terrifying.”

One of the reasons this pressure is so prominent is because so much of this “real world” is infiltrating our lives so quickly, and some aspects attack us more than others. The most prominent aspect of this is competition. 

This competition between peers spirals into the belief that being overwhelmed with junior year is somehow a sign of inferiority or that it will damage our ability to survive in the scramble to the top of the college admissions ladder. As this constant state of putting our own needs aside in order to “get ahead” continues over time, mental health slowly becomes an afterthought to academic excellence.

“I want to be able to think about my future on my own time, is that so much to ask?”

— Junior Lindsay Smith

A survey conducted by the U.S Department of Health and Human Services found that 31 percent of high school participants reported feeling depressed or “hopeless” during the school week by cause of academic stress.

To you, these statistics may just be the black text on a screen and nothing more. But to us, the people who might constitute or relate to that 31%, these statistics are people just like us who feel so utterly consumed by the stress of high school and our futures colliding that focusing on our own happiness rather than our futures seems like a waste of time.

While many statistics surrounding mental health in teens don’t immediately correlate to school work in the minds of parents, the fact is that high school stress only worsens these issues. Particularly in juniors who are constantly among their own competition, many feel as though admitting to an unstable mental health will either distract from their goal or highlight weakness in their own abilities. We feel as though despite the hundreds of other students feeling the exact same way, talking about what the stress, the pressure, and the workload truly does to us is taboo. Many of us believe that if our parents’, peers’, and teachers’ focuses are on the end goal of a top-tier college then ours should be too, and therefore we will always be tempted to cast our own needs aside.

We need to know that our own well-being comes before our parents’ fantasies of our success. Our hearts already beat rapidly at the idea of our graduation. Our stomachs already tie in knots as we think of the first click of the submit button on a CommonApp application. Our minds will always be packed full of the hundreds of things we are supposed to be thinking of during our junior year, but we need to know that we are not expected to do so with a smile on our faces.

The truth is, there is nothing that anyone can do to put time on hold and give everyone just that little more time that they need to take a deep breath before the hard months come. There is nothing that anyone can do to abolish homework, make college come a little less quickly around the corner, or to make everyone get into whichever dream school they chose. But there is absolutely something that everyone in the middle of junior year, or who is supporting a current junior can do to make students less overwhelmed with their own lives. 

“When we tell you we’re a junior, we don’t want to be suffocated with a thousand questions on our five-year plan”

We put enough pressure on ourselves as it is. The year itself is challenging. We have already piles of homework, SAT prep, and college mailings; we don’t need a pile of pressure. It is so easy for parents and students to become consumed by their curiosity; we understand, we’ve all been there, but we need to be allowed to make our own mistakes, devise our own plans, and face our own challenges. 

We understand that as parents and peers you want us to succeed, so here is my best advice to get us where we need to be: don’t force us to explain to you what we want to do with our lives when we don’t know ourselves. Don’t remind us with every other breath that junior year, for lack of a better word, sucks. Don’t ask us what our scores are or where we want to go to college because we truly have no idea. Please realize that one failed math quiz doesn’t seal our fate. Please realize that not playing a varsity sport or having the time for seven extracurriculars doesn’t mean our futures are bleak. Above all, please don’t add any more stress to our shoulders because we are probably already trembling under the weight. Ask us how we’re doing with the workload and with balancing classes with still being a 16-year-old. 

We beg you, please let the goal of the year be a grasp upon the next steps towards our futures and being content with where we are. Don’t make your goal for us to have perfect SAT scores, be first in the class, and to have everything figured out, because, let me tell you, most of us have everything the opposite of figured out.

And to you, the friend, the classmate, the genius: please don’t make us think that we are in one way or another not as smart or prepared as you, because it will not take much to convince us. Don’t be the weight upon my shoulders, and don’t try to push me down behind you as you try to scramble to the top. Don’t line us up at the beginning of this race we are embarking on and dare us to lose or to fall first. Be our friend.

You see, we really don’t need a million interrogators, more future possibilities to sift through, or any more competition than we already have. Help us be excited for what college and the future may hold. We need support. We need time to still be kids. We need confidence. 


To learn more about mental health conversations within Darien High School or to read about what the college admissions process really feels like once it begins, click here.

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