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Kids These Days: Nobody's perfect. What happens when teens feel pressured to be?

Katie Raymond
Michigan Radio
How does the quest to be perfect affect teens' sense of self?

Teens who live in a college town like Ann Arbor can feel a lot of academic pressure to get all As or get into the best school. 

So how does this quest to be perfect affect the way teens think of themselves?

Cammi Tirico found out she got into her dream school back in December. But the story she wants to tell isn’t about that day.

It’s about every day that leads up to that day. And it's about what people do or don't do to get into the college of their dreams.

“I remember the first time I opened the Common App portal,” Cammi said. She recalls sitting in the basement with her mom going over the college application.

“And there’s this section where you can list up to 10 activities. And you get 250 characters to describe each one,” she said. “I said out loud to my mom, ‘It feels so weird that my 12 years of playing basketball gets boiled down to 17 words.’”

Cammi’s mom asked her if she regretted any of it. She says, of course not.

“Twelve years...five teams...and hundreds of games. That’s what this huge part of my life gets boiled down to? Just a couple sentences?” Cammi said.

Cammi says it made her wonder: What’s the college process doing to teens’ sense of self? Does it help them discover things they’re interested in? Or do they waste their time doing things they don’t enjoy...just for the sake of filling in all those blanks on a college application?

Amy McLaughlin is Cammi’s high school counselor. She sees how this plays out every day at school.

“I think where we are in the bubble of Ann Arbor, which is probably true for most college towns, I think. We have been told that the system is: you get into a good school, you have this network of people and they’re gonna help you be successful because of who you know, life is about who you know, and I think parents want to set that up for their kids,” McLaughlin said.

She says there have been quite a few students who have cried in her office over this.

“Nobody feels good. It doesn't seem like anybody feels good about this process,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin looks at it this way. She says: tell it like a story. Tell your narrative the best way you can so colleges can see the best version of yourself. 

“I think I would consider myself a successful counselor if I could get students to question more about why you're doing what you're doing and how that narrative fits you,” she said.

Extracurricular activities. Honors courses. Volunteering. Teens these days take on a lot to fill the holes in their resumes.

A study out of UCLA asked students if they felt overwhelmed by all they had to do. In 1985, only 18% said yes. In 2010, it jumped. Nearly a third of the students said yes. And last year, in 2019, more than 40% of kids said they felt overwhelmed. 

Students are getting busier and busier. But what are they sacrificing in order to get into their dream school?

“The truth is, no matter what happens, you either get in, or you don’t. And there’s all this stuff that’s gonna come with it,” Cammi said. “Am I good enough? Will I make friends? What about a job? That’s gonna be equally as stressful if not more. But that’s in the future, that’s not now.”

For now, Cammi says, she's excited for what to come in her freshman year...whatever that looks like.

Hear more about how teens are being affected by pressure to be perfect in episode 8 of Kids These Days on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like to listen.

Support for Michigan Radio's Kids These Days comes from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund and The Children's Foundation.

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Paulette is a digital media reporter and producer for Michigan Public. She started as a newsroom intern at the station in 2014 and has taken on various roles in that time, including filling in as an on-air host.