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Young, Gifted, and Exhausted: Burnout and Overachievers

Updated on January 3, 2015

Gifted and Petrified

The price I paid for academic excellence was that I was always petrified of failure. According to a 2014 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association many other high school students around the nation also feel overwhelming anxiety and tension related to the pressure placed on them to succeed. The survey found that on average teens report higher stress levels than adults, and nearly a third of teenage respondents admitted feeling tired, depressed, or overwhelmed because of school related stress. As a high achieving student, I was always particularly vulnerable to feeling stressed about school, but my worries intensified after I entered high school. In 8th grade I scored exceptionally well on standardized tests, and gained admission (in part because of my dazzling standardized test scores) to my school district’s International Baccalaureate Diploma program. The IB Program, in short, is like a globalized advanced high school program. It requires tedious and often time consuming work across 6-7 subjects, but in return it offers opportunities for students (called IB Candidates) to exempt out of college courses and/or receive a well-respected IB Diploma. During my time in the IB Program I learned to work hard and to never give up; I retook the ACT until I finally got a 30. My GPA hovered between a 3.6 and a 3.7, and I was recognized for being designated as an “Outstanding Participant” by the National Achievement scholarship program due to my above-average test scores. My experience throughout high school was not unique to me; for the 11,000 students that were also admitted to UGA in 2013 the average GPA was between a 3.77 and a 4.05, ACT scores ranged between a 27 and a 32, and 95% took advanced classes. My lackluster 3.65 GPA and test scores that failed to set me apart from the other thousands of students scoring in the 27-32 range failed to impress the admissions people at UGA enough to award me the scholarships I’d so desperately been trying to attain. However, from the outside looking in, I seemed like a moderately successful student. Apart from the fact that my transcript screamed the words “academic rigor” (I took 11 Honors courses and 15 IB/AP classes over the course of my high school career.), I also managed to add other credentials that I figured might help me out in the college admission process. I ran cross country, took 3 years of piano lessons, became fluent in Spanish, attended a 6 month youth leadership conference, and was active in church (I also continued my regular chores around the house and looked after my little sister and our dogs). The issue for me was that it seemed nearly every other ambitious high school student around did the exact same thing as me; we were all involved, all engaged in our studies, hardworking, and were all ostensibly intelligent. We also all feared failure, experienced setbacks and mental blocks, and too many of us responded to the stress by making poor life decisions. The confidence crushing combination of doubt, fear and shame that boggled my mind during Senior year was inculcated by a society that values the fancy signifiers of intelligence (high GPAs, stellar test scores, and degrees from prestigious schools) over actual intelligence.

My IB Diploma: An Academic Badge of Honor

A lot of stress, procrastination, and a few mental breakdowns later and I'm finally an IB graduate!
A lot of stress, procrastination, and a few mental breakdowns later and I'm finally an IB graduate!
The PSAT has a scholarship program for high achieving African-American students as well as the more general National Merit Scholarship
The PSAT has a scholarship program for high achieving African-American students as well as the more general National Merit Scholarship

More than Stats

Let’s look at some stats from leading (but not elite) colleges and universities from around the nation: twenty percent of admitted freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill were either number one or two in their high school rank (one out of five new students is a valedictorian or a salutatorian!), and nearly eighty percent of all admitted students graduated in the top ten percent of their class. Even with a 3.66 GPA, I was only in the top 18-20 percent of my graduating class, so it would have been tough for me to get into UNC. Of the 24,500 freshman admits at UC San Diego the average GPA was a 4.13 and the average ACT score was 30. Although my standardized test score may have been up to par with admitted UC San Diego applicants, my GPA was well below average. What I and many of my classmates used to believe was that we were at the bottom of the top; we were comfortably above-average but not brilliant enough to secure a spot in many of the schools of our dreams. For perspective, Harvard’s class of 2017, who (according to an article from The Harvard Crimson) had an average GPA of 3.94 and an average SAT score of 2237, were in a different league from the average IB Candidate at my high school (who in turn were outperforming most other public school students in my local school district). The average GPA of IB Candidates at my school was around a 3.5 and the average SAT range fell somewhere between an 1800 and 1950 (while the typical IB Candidates ACT score fell between 25 and 30). As a matter of fact, the “gifted” IB students attending our Title I public high school may have even been reaching when they applied to less prestigious (but out-of-state) schools like the University of Wisconsin-Madison or the University of Florida (which both have Freshman Profiles that list the middle 50% ACT score as 27-31. The average GPA at UW-Madison for freshman students admitted for the class of 2018 was between a 3.7 and a 4.0, while the average GPA at UF stood between a 4.1 and a 4.5.). Tuition is not the only thing that is skyrocketing amongst colleges nationwide; as institutions of higher learning slowly increase the GPA and test scores required for admission, students all over scramble to maintain competitive stats. For me this meant loading up on advanced classes and forsaking sleep, friendships, and sometimes even personal hygiene in order to sacrifice for the academic perfection I had grown accustomed to. As my friends soar, studying at Cornell as biomedical engineering majors, attending Ivy League institutions like Upenn, and making the dean’s list at Georgia Tech or in UGA’s Honors Program, I can’t help but recall how much we stressed out, cried, and even suffered through mental and emotional breakdowns as we struggled to prove to the world (or at least admissions officers) that we deserved a spot amongst the thousands of students that would be matriculating to one of the top 100 universities in the nation. Research from Ohio State University link overachievers with feelings of failure and self-doubt (as well as depression) when they fail to accomplish goals, which may explain how my anxiety towards what I saw as academic failure is actually characteristic of a much larger set of issues that impacts thousands upon thousands (if not millions) of students nationwide; my self-esteem was wrapped up in my academic performance rather than in my inherent value as a human being. I was defined by my GPA, test scores, and other qualifications rather than by the fact that I’m a loving son, a faithful boyfriend, a loyal friend, or a child of God. I now attend a small, regional university that is not listed as one of the top 100 universities in the nation. Here, I’ve met interesting and intelligent people, learned from insightful professors, and have been challenged to strike a balance between finding academic success and actually living life from the fullest. I urge high achievers to convalesce from a mindset that reduces their brilliance to a number on a superficial standardized test; we only have one life to live, and instead of defining ourselves by class rank or GPA, perhaps we should champion ourselves as complete people, valued simply because there has never been someone with any of our unique perspectives to walk the face of the Earth until we were born. There’s something beautiful, irreplaceable, and even sacred about each and every college applicant’s perspective that could never be fully captured by the statistics listed on a university’s “Freshman Profile”. As I continue to navigate the world as a former high school burnout, I hope to find contentment wherever life takes me (and I pray the same for future and current high school burnouts everywhere).

Irreplaceable and Sacred

Second semester Freshman year I was invite to a luncheon with the donors that has awarded me a scholarship.
Second semester Freshman year I was invite to a luncheon with the donors that has awarded me a scholarship.


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      IB Survivor from way back 2 years ago

      I very much relate to this, having grown up in an overachievement-oriented area that I found suffocating. Thanks