Being a third year undergraduate medical student, amongst like 3,000 others, I have begun to ponder why students these days choose to go to college talk less of medical school. For many, and for where I’m from, it’s sort of expected — after high school, you go to college, get a degree, and live happily ever after with the job of your dreams. In the midst of this, college is where we are supposed to find ourselves — who we really are, what motivates us, and what we love, as we prepare to contribute to our respective fields. Character development and career development, as universities propose, go hand-in-hand throughout one’s time in college and constitute the purpose of higher education.y
However, today’s elite universities are creating intellectual environments where all that seems to matter is the perception of success, initiating competition among students to get the best grades. Academic competition causes students a tremendous amount of stress and can even push them to pursue certain majors and activities to be portrayed as successful, well-rounded students. For these reasons, elite colleges and universities in the all around the world vandalize the very purpose of higher education by fostering a culture of academic competition that produces stressed, dubiously-motivated students.
Elite universities provide a unique environment where thousands of very talented students learn together. Many students come from high schools where they were the top dog with no one being a better student than them. The transition from being a big fish in a little pond to a little fish in a big pond comes as a shock to most students. All of a sudden, they get surrounded by others who seem to be much smarter than them. This environment created by elite universities makes perfectly capable students believe they aren’t as smart as they thought they were, an effect so powerful that it shapes students’ educational and occupational careers. In fact, the Big-Fish-Little-Pond effect causes high-achievers to pursue careers below their true potential “simply because of the stressors faced from being surrounded by thousands of extremely smart peers at elite universities”. This environment generates anxiety in students who believe they aren’t cut out to compete at such a high level and therefore opt for less-demanding specialisations and therefore less-demanding career paths.
Secondly it’s unfortunate, many students maintain the idea of “resume building” as they transition into college. Students have the fear of not doing enough in their time at college. They believe that trying to drown themselves in so many activities will somehow also “clothe them in an armour of achievement that they hope will protect them against uncertainties like the job market, their status, identity, and self-worth”. As a result, college students continue this desire to outperform their peers and expand their credentials because they believe it will bring them success in their post-college life. With so much time devoted to resume building, students miss out on the very purpose of elite universities —for students to explore who they really are and what they have interest in studying.
Thirdly, The vast amount of material college students need to know and how colleges test the material also causes the development of stress, anxiety, and depression among college students.
Students find themselves struggling to balance their overwhelming academic and social schedule while trying to get enough sleep. To analyse the effects of enduring a medical school workload, Firdous Jahan—general practitioner of diabetology at the Oman Medical College—studied students at her medical college and questioned them about their perception of stress, anxiety, depression, and coping strategies. Jahan found that an “overwhelming burden of information and lots of competition to excel makes students anxious and nervous with minimal opportunity to relax and recreate”. Not only for medical school, but Jahan’s work also translates to elite undergraduates pursuing pre-medical and engineering degrees based on a similar workload and restricted time schedule. With so much information to learn, students dive into their books and forget about the importance of relaxing and taking breaks from studying, both being coping mechanisms to combat stress. Professors at elite universities commonly implement only a few exams during the semester, creating even more pressure for students to do well on exams. When these exams comprise of multiple-choice questions, students test solely on their ability to recall details. High-stakes exams, combined with the fear of doing poorly, lead students to believe they need to devote more time to memorizing every little detail of the material. Memorizing details, however, tends to be a poor method of retention, causing information to exit the brain as soon as the test is over. If one doesn’t retain what they learn as they progress through life, then what is the purpose of college? But today’s undergraduate medical students, of course, will do anything to get the grade.
Some students even to revert to extreme measures to succeed in the classroom like Cheating. As a result, cheaters “succeed in guarding themselves against being in a situation that can potentially overwhelm, stress, confuse, frustrate, and embarrass them” to get a better grade than actually studying, and trying to study only increases their stress and anxiety, then they may choose to cheat. In fact, cheating is not particularly challenging for students at elite universities because of how professors evaluate students. As stated earlier, typical exams consist of being able to recall information in a multiple-choice style, contributing to the idea that students study material by memorization, not by actually learning it. It seems as if elite universities “value merely the results,” “but not the learning process.” Those who cheat justify their motives by saying, “I don’t care how I achieve the desired result even if I cheat. To me, only the outcome itself matters”. Consequently, the very purpose of elite universities — for students to actually learn — becomes irrelevant.
Along with cheating, students at elite universities cope with stress and academic competition through illicit use of prescription stimulants. Elite universities put so much pressure on students to perform well in classes that students are willing to use anything to outcompete their peers. As a result, students turn to prescription stimulants to increase alertness, attention, and energy. If students find evidence that substances like Adderall or Tramadol have the ability to enhance test-taking, students will take advantage of prescription stimulants to get an edge against other classmates. Therefore, elite universities unintentionally promote the use of prescription stimulants because they reduce stress and give an advantage to students while being tested.
Stress and anxiety can be potentially extreme within elite college environments, leaving students feeling hopeless with a desire to end the emotional strain. Suicide among college students leaves a horrifying thought, yet is a true reality seen throughout modern elite universities in the United States. When modern students fail, they no longer see it as an opportunity to learn from their mistakes, but as a crushing blow to their existence. In fact, if students used to doing everything perfectly “get a B” in college, it can “cause them to fall apart”. Students attending elite universities are meant to enjoy college education — not to pay obscene amounts of money only to pursue their own psychological demise.
College is supposed to be a time in our lives when we develop who we are as people and achieve self-actualization, and we cannot let academic achievement drown that out. Forgetting why we are here — and getting overly caught up in the academic competition — can leave detrimental emotional and psychological consequences. Good grades are obviously important, but we should focus more on developing our holistic self – for the self, not our grades, moves on after college.
Jahan, Firdous, et al. “Perception Of Stress, Anxiety, Depression And Coping Strategies Among Medical Students At Oman Medical College.” Middle East Journal Of Family Medicine 14.7 (2016): 16-23.
Salchegger, Silvia. “Selective School Systems And Academic Self-Concept: How Explicit And Implicit School-Level Tracking Relate To The Big-Fish-Little-Pond Effect Across Cultures.” Journal Of Educational Psychology 108.3 (2016): 405-423.
Scelfo, Julie. “Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 July 2015. Web. 08 Nov. 2016.
Shiffman, Mark. “Majoring In Fear.” First Things: A Monthly Journal Of Religion & Public Life 247 (2014): 19-21. Web. 11 Oct. 2016.
Nora, W.L.Y., et al. “Motives of Cheating among Secondary Students: The Role of Self-efficacy and Peer Influence.” Asia Pacific Education Review 11.4 (2010): 573-84. Web.
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