It is a universally acknowledged truth that there is always someone better than you. This idea, however, is taken to a whole other level in the Bay Area. Most schools from the Bay Area report high levels of academic competition, a phenomenon that pushes kids to try and outperform each other—usually justified by the vague idea of “going to a good college”. The side effects of this competition include low self-esteem, the development of an “if I’m not the best, I’m the worst,” mindset, high levels of stress, workaholicism, burnout, an inability to deal with failure in a healthy way, and increased depression and anxiety as kids equate scoring badly on one single test with never succeeding in life.
So in short, very bad things.
The existence of this academic competition is an accepted notion—almost too accepted, to the point where kids, parents, and teachers alike don’t blink an eye when they find kids pushing themselves to the extreme, and instead applaud them—but despite this, there is a clear lack of an answer the question: Why does this competition exist in the first place?
The strongest theory has to do with what makes the Bay Area famous: its good schools, top universities, and the Silicon Valley. Having universities like Stanford and UC Berkley and large tech companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook in your backyard is a unique environment to live in. Being surrounded by so much success translates into expectations on students themselves to succeed. Combine this with the fact that Bay Area schools tend to value academics highly and offer many rigorous courses, it’s no surprise that students partake in toxic battles for academic achievements. Not only are they pressured to, but they are actively being provided ways to partake as well.
There is a more nuanced theory, however. The Bay Area holds a population with relatively high economic stability—but also a uniquely Asian immigrant one. Around 27% of the Bay Area is Asian and/or Pacific Islander, 64% of which are first-time immigrants. This means a lot of kids have parents who are doing very well in life, but also know intimately what it feels like to not do well in life. Especially in the Asian community, this creates a huge emphasis on making sure you succeed in life, often taking the form of “you must go to a good college” because that is the most common myth circulated among families—that success depends on the college you go to.
At the end of the day, whatever the cause of academic competition, it is clearly here to stay. In fact, as college acceptance rates drop and the job market continues to shrink, the competition will likely only worsen. The possibly worst part of the whole ordeal is that the mindset developed in the Bay Area doesn’t leave students once they go off to college. It will continue to affect them all throughout life. Many will regret “not living” their childhoods out, instead spending all their time in academics and extracurriculars, trying to be the best. Many will burn out, simply choosing to give up and let loose like they never could before.
It’s a very dire situation that is in desperate need of a solution. But finding one has been proven to be increasingly hard.
The obvious solution is to help students realize that college isn’t everything. But switching the narrative from “college, college, you must get into a good college” to “highschool, enjoy your life, you will be fine” is easier said than done, especially since this idea is so entrenched in society. Instead, schools have been trying to mitigate student stress in various different ways—wellness days, school counselors giving lots of support, and days off—to varying degrees of success.
The truth is, right now, no one is sure what to do about the problem of academic competition. All we know is that we’re about to have a generation of Bay Area kids who will graduate, grow up—and need a lot of therapy.
For further reading on academic competition in the Bay Area, see:
Photo Students At Work by Xin Wang on Unsplash