Homework. Sports practice. Model United Nations. College applications. Science fairs. SATs. AP classes. Thursday’s algebra test. Friday’s violin recital. Students these days have a lot on their plates. They are overextended and stressed out. Indeed, scores of articles now talk about the alarmingly high levels of stress among high school students in the United States, and frequent articles now point to ways that high school students can reduce stress.

The good news is that education and college admission experts have taken note and are attempting to restore sanity to high school students’ overly full schedules. Education experts are starting to encourage different practices to foster learning and ensure that students get sufficient rest and classes encourage learning and developing critical thinking skills (such as later starts to school day, experiential learning, rethinking homework, etc.)

Above all, many experts are underscoring the need to define success differently—students (and their parents) should define success beyond being admitted to an Ivy League college and start to emphasize the ability to think critically, act responsibly, cultivate empathy and awareness, etc.

College admissions officers, for their part, are now stressing that students do not have to engage in a dozen extracurricular activities, and well-rounded classes do not need to be composed of students who are interested in, and excel at, everything.

What Are the Risks of Over-Extending High-School students?

Overscheduling students can lead to burnout, stress, anxiety, substance abuse, self-harm, cheating and a distaste for learning. Students and their parents should keep in mind that there is no formula for getting into college, and there are no guarantees that tailoring a student’s education to “what colleges want to see” can backfire in a number of ways.

Not only can college admissions counselors tell when students are simply padding their resumes (or conversely, genuinely passionate about a given activity or subject), but students can miss out on the excitement of finding new interests and pursuing them, because they are too stressed to enjoy learning or participating in extracurricular activities, or because they take up too much time doing activities that they think will “look good on the college application.”

Of even more concern, such constant pressure can prevent students from actually retaining the information that they are supposed to be learning. The more students feel like they are going through the motions, the less likely they are to learn not just facts, but critical thinking skills.

Here are some ways for students to get a grip on their packed schedules:

  • Follow Interests, Not Trends
    • Students should experiment with different activities and classes that seem interesting to them early on. As they do, they will come to see which activities and subjects really interest them, and can pursue them in greater depth as they advance in their high school and college careers.
  • Manage time wisely.
    • What has to be done? When?
      • First, students should know what they have to get done and how much time they have to accomplish their tasks. It goes without saying that procrastination will not help students reduce their stress. Students should begin assignments sooner rather than later.
    • Jot It Down
      • Whether they do it in an old-school planner, or on their smartphones, students should keep track of their time and schedule in time for sleep, relaxation, and fun as well college application deadlines, due dates and exams.
      • To-do lists are an excellent way to keep track of what needs to be accomplished, and the feeling of checking items off the list can be remarkably satisfying.
    • Break It Down
      • Breaking tasks into manageable chunks can help the process. For instance, instead of jotting down “finish application to X University,” students should list smaller tasks, like: “Finish activities section of X University application,” “Revise personal statement for Y College.”

Why Am I Doing It?

But students should also manage their time in the sense that they should make informed decisions about what they spend their time doing. Students feel free to say no to things. Students should make sure that they know why they are participating in specific activities.

If students don’t know why they are doing an activity (i.e., they don’t enjoy it, it doesn’t interest them or challenge them in a valuable way, they are not required to do it), it is a good indication that they might want to revisit whether they should continue participating in the activity. For instance, if a student dreads getting into the pool, yet swims 20 hours a week anyway, s/he should start thinking about why.

  • Do It For a Reason
    • As we’ve said elsewhere on this blog, in the end, students should study subjects and engage in extracurricular activities that genuinely interest them. Colleges want to see students engaging with the world and attempting to learn new things, but students should control how they engage and which things they want to learn about more deeply.

A Word About College and Time Management

And, speaking of college and time management, the sooner high school students develop their time management skills, the better. It is an important skill to have for college, where students will have much more unstructured time that they will need to decide how to spend.

Make time for rest and enjoyment

Students are increasingly overcommitted, but in order to perform at their best, they must get sufficient sleep, and they must have downtime. Students should allow themselves fun activities so that they don’t spend their days joylessly going from one task to another.