Programmed to Succeed: Why Are NYC High Schoolers So Burnt Out? 

By Sofía Lewis

Both parents and teachers alike are burdened with hearing the daily complaints from their teens about school. It’s so common that high school hardships have almost become a fact of life. Too much homework, no free time. Too many tests, no sleep. In recent years, a wave of studies and articles have been published in the U.S detailing the effects of school on motivation and burnout. These studies highlight mental health issues amongst teens, contributing to burnout being an increasingly popular issue in the media. However, while the topic of mental health in relation to school is starting to be discussed on a large scale, little light has been shed on the New York City public school system, an exceptionally competitive high school environment. 

This competition starts before high school even begins, with the extremely complicated application process. With 1,851 public schools, NYC has the largest number of public high schools in the city, meant to serve the city’s high schooler population of over 320,000. However, despite what may seem like a large variety of options, only a small percentage of these schools have the resources and reputation to make them distinguished choices for rising freshman. Countless high school tours, standardized tests, and carefully crafted essays later, eighth graders submit their ranked list of maximum 12 public high schools they wish to attend, cross their fingers, and hope for the best. Often, Beacon finds itself somewhere on that list. 

With its project-based learning approach and college preparatory curriculum, the appeal of a high school like Beacon is obvious. Accompanied by a shiny new building and a plethora of extracurriculars, upon first impression the school seems like a seamless blend of enriching hands on learning along with necessary rigor. Although Beacon is not in the specialized school category, requiring you to take the SHSAT, the environment is still highly competitive, which is reflected in the notable levels of burnout and exhaustion within its student population. 

It would be wrong to say that student life at Beacon is all tireless work. The multitude of clubs, events, and sports teams add to the vibrancy of the school. Plus, underclassmen are generally eased into the workload of later years by their teachers, instead of a sudden influx of projects. However, once junior year comes around, and the cumulative stress of graduation-level assessments, AP classes, SAT prep and commencing the college process is placed on student’s shoulders, maintaining a school-life balance becomes extraordinarily difficult. This imbalance leads to Beacon students having to sacrifice other aspects of their day to day lives, such as sleep and extracurriculars.

One Beacon junior, Arielle, describes how “the long stretches of weeks with nonstop homework leave me almost no time for sleep. I think during those times is when I feel the most burnt out probably because my thoughts and time are occupied only by homework.” Another junior, Hannah, recounts feeling like her energy level is always low, “I even feel too tired to complete work, which turns into a repeating cycle of sleeping instead of doing homework. It’s like you’re given an ultimatum every night on whether sleep is more important or doing your Algebra homework.” This pattern of losing sleep, and then feeling tired during class the next day, is something that resonates strongly with many Beacon students, and can lead to the overwork exhaustion that is becoming immensely prevalent with high schoolers. 

Another effect of the hefty upperclassman workload at Beacon is having to give up valued hobbies in exchange for more time to complete homework. Whether it’s a sport, a club, or a class, extracurriculars which for years kids have used to enrich their lives and achieve a school-life balance have had to be sacrificed at the hands of immense assignments. Arielle also mentions how, “I got into a prestigious club volleyball team that I worked hard to get onto for the 6 months leading up to junior year, but due to my mental health and fatigue I felt from school I dropped out, which was so disappointing because I felt like I put in so much hard work to train for nothing.” Another anonymous student recounts, “I’ve had to give up art extracurriculars like drama and even just being creative in my free time because school is so consuming that I have no mental energy left for extra things, even when I occasionally have the time.” 

But it’s not just Beacon’s school work and high standards which are leading to high levels of burnout among the student population, it’s also the competitive environment that adds an additional layer of stress to kids’ academic lives. Many students describe feelings of inadequacy when they hear others constantly comparing their grades. “The competitiveness makes me feel out of place,” says another anonymous junior. “Hearing everyone and the way they talk about school and getting upset over 90’s makes me feel less academically intelligent because I don’t complain when I get a 90. Because that truly is a good grade.” This is not to say that an ambitious academic environment is always negative, some students described it as “motivating” and “inspiration to work harder,” but it is also evident that the hyper-fixation on grades and culture of comparison which exists in competitive high schools like Beacon can lead some students to feel disincentivized by the prospect of succeeding academically. 

When becoming an upperclassman, the plethora of work from both inside and outside of school can easily overwhelm many kids, causing many to fall behind in ways they haven’t before. Missing assignments can go from being a rarity to a norm, As may turn into Bs and Cs, and it can become harder to find motivation to do work. It is important to remember that this does not mean those students are lazy, but it may simply take kids time to adjust to an ever-evolving academic environment. The switch from an online pandemic schedule to an in-person one makes this adjustment even more severe. Going from doing a few hours of school and maybe one hour of homework a day to a full day of classes and work is incredibly hard to get used to. 

Again, this experience is not unique to Beacon or NYC whatsoever. Burnout is so common amongst high schoolers across the country and the world that it’s practically a fact of life, which is why complaints from kids to parents can seem so repetitive and pointless. However, the distinctly cutthroat environment of getting into high schools, followed by the equally overwhelming process of preparing for college, makes NYC public school students easily susceptible to burnout. Therefore, it is vital that students uplift each other instead of becoming enveloped in the sometimes ruthless competition of high school. Specifically in the case of Beacon, it can be easy to forget that there is no class rank or valedictorian, meaning that theoretically, self-improvement should be the focus of academic learning, not rivalry. This idea should be fostered throughout the school community, with stressed out seniors and juniors mentoring each other in difficult subjects, as well as giving advice to underclassmen who are daunted by the responsibilities that lie ahead. Additionally, this idea of “laziness” should be thrown away, replaced by an effort to accommodate academic needs and providing meaningful assignments instead of “busy work”. Hopefully, these small but worthwhile adjustments can help to end the ruthless cycle of mental and physical exhaustion which is all too common in high school.