Quietly Quitting The College Admission Race

You have likely heard of the phenomenon called “quiet quitting.” While it has come to represent a range of work and life balance issues, a TikTok post by Zaiad Khan captured it best. He said, “you are no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be our life.” Regretfully, this mentality starts long before the workplace, with origins in many high schools. There, over-scheduled students are often under the false pretense that to be admitted to college they must account for every waking moment with resume-building activities. Simply. Not. True. Spoiler alert: There are only 24 hours in a day. This we cannot change. What we can change is how we approach such a limited resource. Perhaps if we addressed this balance issue proactively, our culture would not be one of hustle and quitting but rather health and quality.

High school students racing from class to activity, sport, job, homework, rehearsal, and back again, create a cyclone of frenzy. It leaves young people with little time to reflect on why they are doing what they are doing, or time for good old fashion fun. This race to nowhere only leads to exhausted, anxious, “doers” whose mental and physical well-being is in jeopardy. In fact, researchers have shown that individuals 18 to 25 report the lowest life-satisfaction than any other age group. Meanwhile, the mental health crisis on high school and college campuses is only growing and students are entering the workforce already burnt out. Maybe, instead of getting to the point earlier in their careers where quiet quitting is the only logical remedy, high school students should quit the hustle culture preemptively and save themselves a lot of angst and energy.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that young people disengage and passively refuse to go above and beyond. I am saying that learning to set boundaries early is a life skill that will serve them well on all fronts. Instead of packing schedules with a litany of “should dos,” students might consider what they really want to do–what fills and inspires them–and lean into those pursuits in moderation and purpose, not mania and pressure.

Challenge Success, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Stanford Graduate School of Education, has a helpful perspective on this. Their mission is to “partner with schools, families, and communities to embrace a broad definition of success and to implement research-based strategies that promote student well-being and engagement with learning.” In their 2021 peer school survey, 45.5% of high school students reported simply “doing school.” Denise Pope is a co-founder of Challenge Success and a senior lecturer at Stanford University Graduate School of Education. She is the author of “Doing School”: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students and Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids. She says, “since there are only 24 hours in a day, we urge students to take a very careful look at their daily schedules to maximize their time in ways that will serve them best. She adds, “at Challenge Success, we use a planning tool to help students figure out which classes to sign up for and how many extracurricular activities they can handle while balancing work and home obligations along with other essentials like sleep (8-10 hours EACH. night).” Pope explains that, “planning ahead in this way ideally allows some time for ‘PDF–playtime, downtime, and family time–all of which are considered vital for teen well-being.” She recommends that “finding even short bursts of time each day to exercise, meditate, hang with family and friends, and pursue hobbies that you really enjoy–will allow you in the long run to be healthier, more productive, and experience greater overall well. -being and happiness.” This is what Eve Rodsky, author of “Fair Play” calls “Unicorn Space”, which she defines as “the active pursuit of what makes you uniquely you and that you share with the world.” She writes, “Even in small doses, Unicorn Space is essential to your ongoing sense of self.”

But what about college admissions? Students worry that taking their foot off the gas will disadvantage them in their college applications. But perhaps it is more about shifting gears. The truth is that colleges are looking for quality, not quantity. In fact, some schools, like MIT, limit the number of activities a student can report to dial down the pressure to over-schedule. Students should also know that colleges value the other ways they spend their time that are not performative. Jenny Rickard is the CEO of the Common App. She explains that “the Activities section of the Common App is a great place to show colleges how you contribute to your families, your school, and your community. ‘Activities’ encompass a wide variety of ways you spend your time and show colleges more about who you are and the experiences throughout high school that were most meaningful and impactful for you.” She adds, “when it comes to this section, the focus should be on the importance to you rather than the number of activities.” The Common App changed their platform a few years ago so students can choose how many activities they report (up to 10). Rickard says this was done so that students don’t “feel like they need to fill up a page with less meaningful activities that ultimately distract colleges from what is most important to them.”

Over ten years ago, Common App also included “family responsibilities” as part of the activities section. Rickard says, “We believe that giving applicants the ability to showcase a wide range of experiences, including important family responsibilities like caring for a younger sibling or working to provide family income, is critical to helping them see themselves as prepared for a college environment– particularly underrepresented and low-income students.” She adds, “and colleges want students to know that whatever their activities are, if they are meaningful and important to them, they are important to share.”

Call it quiet quitting, balance, or self-preservation, I implore young people to pause and consider whether they have bought into that hustle culture mentality. If so, at what cost? Showing up to college burnt out, stressed out, and maxed out is only setting the stage for a lifetime of more of the same. Reach for the stars, but do so on your unicorn. Trust that, if you are doing what you love and caring for your well-being, you will find success and fulfillment in college and beyond.

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