Three Ways to Reduce Your High-Achieving, Stressed-Out High Schooler’s Burnout Right Away
By Shirag Shemmassian, Ph.D.
For decades, our high-achieving high schoolers have been encouraged to fill their schedules with as much as possible, including tough classes, tons of extracurricular activities, and summer camps and internships.
I know, for example, a junior at a private Los Angeles high school who is currently taking 4 AP classes, 2 Honors classes, and PE, in addition to being on the varsity basketball team, participating in Model United Nations (UN) and Science Quiz Bowl, studying for the ACT exam, and volunteering at a local homeless shelter. A typical school day for this student begins with a 6:15AM alarm to get to school by 8AM, which lasts until 3PM. After school, this student meets with his Model UN and Quiz Bowl teams from 3:30-5:30PM and has basketball practice from 6-7:15PM. He gets home at 7:30PM, eats and showers, and sits down to begin his homework at 8:30PM. After 4.5 hours of homework, he falls asleep—sometimes at his desk—around 1AM. The only other sleep he gets during the week comes unintentionally, during class time.
Unfortunately, this student’s experience is fairly common among high achievers. Also unfortunate, all of this pressure on top of your teenager’s typical struggles—navigating social relationships, hormonal changes—comes at a significant cost.
In a 2014 study on teen stress published by the American Psychological Association, teenagers reported stress levels during the school year that far exceeded what they believe to be healthy, as well as higher stress levels than adults.
Perhaps worse, despite the impact this stress appeared to have on their lives (e.g., feelings of depression, reduced sleep, unhealthy eating patterns), these same teenagers were less likely than adults to report feeling like their physical and mental health was being negatively affected by stress.
Whereas some of the pressure our students feel to achieve comes from within them, much of it comes from high expectations from parents, teachers, and guidance and college counselors.
As a college admissions consultant, I’ve regularly heard about this struggle for years, and I don’t like it (I’m not the only person in the education field who feels this way).
Therefore, in addition to helping my students navigate the many to-dos associated with the complex world of college admissions, I make sure to do my part in reducing their stress along the way.
Now, I want to share with you my top three insights that you can begin applying today to help your child stand out without burning themselves out.
Insight #1: Ask your child what they want, and listen carefully
Here’s the first set of questions I ask all of my students at the beginning of our work together:
- What subjects are you most interested in?
- How do you like to spend time outside of school?
- What problems do you want to solve?
- What are you hoping to get out of your high school years?
- What college(s) are you hoping to get into?
- If I supported you ideally, what would that look like?
Most of my students chuckle nervously when they first hear my questions. Despite not appearing too complicated, my questions even prompt some students to turn to their parents for help to answer them.
Initially, these reactions confused me. Now, I understand that many high-achieving high school students simply aren’t asked what they want out of these formative years.
Nevertheless, they unsurprisingly appreciate the consideration. One younger student even recently emailed me to say, “I enjoyed talking to you; you seem very understanding.”
Asking about your child’s interests and goals—and carefully listening to their responses—helps them feel validated and valued.
Moreover, you will begin to understand which areas to push them in, and which to ease up on.
Insight #2: Shed the idea that your child needs to be “well-rounded,” and encourage them to do less
Back in high school, I kept hearing the following pieces of college admissions advice:
- “Enroll in every Advanced Placement (AP) course your school offers.”
- “Join as many clubs and teams as you can.”
- “Do 200+ hours of community service.”
While this advice comes from a good place, it’s misguided.
Good colleges simply don’t want to admit well-rounded students. In fact, what many parents see as well-roundedness comes across to college admissions committees as “scattered,” “uncommitted,” and “surface-level.”
And it makes sense. If your student has, for example, 8 hours a week to devote to extracurricular activities, there’s only so much they can accomplish if they devote 2 hours each to four different activities vs. 8 hours to a single activity.
Therefore, your child should focus on developing expertise in one—maybe two—areas and applying them to positively impact their community for multiple years.
That way, your child can be seen as a high school superstar while reducing their stress from having to juggle multiple activities.
Insight #3: Nothing your child does is “too silly” or “just a hobby”
A lot of parents tell me that their child has several interests, but that their interests are somehow not serious enough to leverage for community impact and, ultimately, college admissions.
This type of dismissive response can come in many forms, such as:
- “She just likes to code on the computer all day.”
- “He likes to draw, but I don’t know what he could do that colleges will actually find impressive.”
Unfortunately, this way of thinking can dampen your child’s enthusiasm for their preferred activities, as well as cause you to miss a golden opportunity to help your child shine.
Approached thoughtfully, any activity can be turned into a meaningful initiative to help others, in addition to helping your child feel fulfilled.
For example, your daughter who “just likes to code on the computer all day” may start a coding camp for inner-city youth.
Your artist son? He can raise money through his art to benefit a local charity.
The opportunities are endless. The only limits are mental.
One of my missions is to change the narrative around what our children “need” to do to be successful in high school and beyond.
Who said the path to college—or to fulfillment or to making a meaningful impact—has to be so stressful?
If you found this article helpful, please share it with your children, friends, and college counselors.
I would also love to hear from you! Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to ask any questions about the article or share your insights. What one thing can you do to better support your high-achieving child during their high school years? I read and respond to every message.
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian, Founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting, is a college admissions expert who has helped hundreds of students get into schools like Princeton, MIT, and Stanford. Click here to learn, for FREE, the top 10 mistakes that keep students out of elite colleges—and what your child can immediately do instead to dramatically increase their chances of acceptance.