Editorial: Student involvement, extracurriculars should be determined by passion, not college prospects

Editorial: Student involvement, extracurriculars should be determined by passion, not college prospects

Given the highly competitive nature of schools in the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) as well as others in the Bay Area, conversations surrounding GPAs, test scores and extracurricular endeavors are always present. In turn, many students feel the urge to go above and beyond in order to secure a spot at top colleges.

In 2019, 59% of all Gunn students reported college and their future as a source of stress—the third most common stressor, according to the Challenge Success survey administrated by the district. Additionally, 43% reported being constantly worried about getting into the college of their choice. For many, getting into impressive colleges is a top priority; as a consequence, they feel compelled to not only succeed academically, but also participate in a variety of prestigious extracurricular activities. Rather than pursuing copious extracurriculars, internships, programs and leadership positions that cater to colleges, students should instead participate in activities they are genuinely interested in because it relieves academic stress and equips them with relevant skills for the future.

It’s important to acknowledge the overlap between doing prestigious activities and activities that students enjoy. There’s nothing wrong with a student pursuing genuinely enjoyable activities that also come with a certain level of prestige, such as signing up for a summer program on an interesting subject or a leadership position in a club they’ve been a part of for multiple years. Still, it’s important for students to be aware of their wellbeing and establish a healthy and distinguishable balance between academics and leisure.

At Gunn, students should actively work to minimize the stress induced from the often toxic nature of such an academically-oriented community. For years, PAUSD students have reported high levels of stress; as a result, the district has recently taken a more comprehensive approach to this issue by implementing a variety of solutions, including the SELF program and a new wellness center.

Despite these measures, high expectations and peer pressure remain. According to the study “Privileged but Pressured? A Study of Affluent Youth” by Suniya S. Luthar and Bronwyn E. Becker, suburban students who set excessively high standards for their personal accomplishments are more likely to experience high levels of stress. According to the Kaiser Permanente website, one of the main methods of reducing said stress is participating in interests you enjoy. Participating in activities students are interested in can help students divert their attention away from stressors and engage with their community.

On top of relieving stress, doing activities purely for pleasure helps students in the college admissions process. One common misconception when it comes to seeking out potential extracurricular activities is to participate in activities that look good on paper because they significantly increase a student’s probability of getting into highly selective colleges. While this is an understandable mindset, it is not a guaranteed method and can lead to the sacrifice of enjoyment. According to College Board, a “prestigious” activity list is not always as favor in college admissions. Instead, they value insight into candidate’s lives via their passions and how they reflect on them. “Holding a summer job at a fast-food restaurant can build as much character as attending a prestigious summer learning program,” their website reads. “It’s all about what you’ve gained, what you’ve learned and how you communicate that.” Furthermore, essays give candidates the opportunity to describe their passions. When students don’t have a genuine interest or connection to their activities, essays will likely reflect that.

In Palo Alto, some students have gravitated toward several specific extracurricular activities due to their perceived high level of prestige. During 2020, an internship opportunity for Rishi Kumar’s 2020 congressional campaign attracted many Gunn students. Looking back, many regret spending countless hours making phone calls and supporting a candidate whose ideals did not appeal to them. Similarly, many students join clubs like YCS for volunteer hour opportunities. While spending time supporting the community as well as involving oneself in other extracurricular opportunities isn’t inherently bad, doing so purely for college over genuine interest defeats the purpose of meaningful community contribution.

Activities such as internships, leadership positions and exclusive programs may look good on paper or may improve a student’s likelihood of getting accepted into prestigious schools. Still, students should take into account their own aspirations and goals in life following post-secondary education. A student’s passions and interests shouldn’t end once they get admitted into college; instead, post-secondary education is a way to continue pursuing them. By trying a variety of new activities, students can discover areas of interest and thus better position themselves towards a path in life that they find interesting.

All in all, the inclination for students to pursue more challenging and prestigious extracurricular activities isn’t just an issue present at an individual level. In Palo Alto, it speaks to our community as a whole. In our current microcosm, individual intelligence and one’s probability to get into a better college is determined purely by GPA, standardized test scores, extracurricular endeavors and overall academic success. Unfortunately, this culture teaches students to mold themselves into the seemingly ideal college candidate, rather than pursuing their own interests or acquiring life skills. The admission process is currently being re-evaluated due to Covid-19, opening the critical opportunity to reverse the trend of students participating in extracurriculars for the sole purpose of appealing to colleges. In the meantime, changing students’ mindset surrounding college admissions may alleviate stress with regards to choosing extracurricular activities and allowing students to pursue their true passions.