The cycle of academic pressure and academic success at GBHS

Students reflect on the pressures they’ve been facing with their rigorous coursework after coming back to campus in-person.


Amre Abumarkhieh

Students face issues with having to balance their home life with school life

Some high achieving students of GBHS may be dangerously teetering over the edge of an unbalanced scale. On one side of the scale, students stack on AP and honors classes, extracurriculars and responsibilities. On the other side of the scale, students juggle their sleeping schedules, friends and family.

Is pressure to excel academically weighing students down and at what cost to their personal health? 

Granite Bay High School is well renowned for its academic success—in 2019, over 30 percent of Granite Bay High School’s senior class had a grade point average above 4.0, according to a 2019 RJUHSD school accountability report.  

GBHS also tests more students in AP/IB than any other school in Northern California.

These impressively high academic statistics and level of education offered at GBHS are reflective of Granite Bay’s socioeconomic factors. 

Granite Bay is a predominantly affluent city, with a median household income of $125,096, a  substantially higher figure than California’s median household income of $75, 235

This high economic status translates into the high expectations most Granite Bay parents have for their children in terms of success in higher education.

“The expectation (coming in) that you’re also going to excel and achieve at the same level as, as your peers, of your peers’ parents as well as your own parents,” Sabrina Vella said. Vella is the Wellness and Prevention coordinator at both Antelope and Granite Bay High school.

“There’s definitely a theme in this community that success is graduating from high school and (having grades that allow you admission) to a four year university (especially) some of (the) high level UCs, CSUs and (other) top universities in the country,” Vella said. 

In spite of intentions, sometimes the strive for success still stretches students to their limits. 

“(GBHS) has…the highest level of academic pressure (of all high schools) I’ve worked at and that I’ve seen,” Vella said.

This academic rat race may be unintentionally igniting a cycle of comparison culture that can be detrimental to students’ mental health and furthermore perpetuate a need for academic validation. 

(I feel) everyone just wants to come out on top. (The culture) is more about comparing with others rather than knowing your potential.

— Shreya Amin

“(I feel) everyone just wants to come out on top,” sophomore Shreya Amin said. “(The culture) is more about comparing with others rather than knowing your potential.” 

Although Amin compares her academics with others, she recognizes that her ultimate competitor is herself.

“I know what I’m capable of,” Amin said. “So that’s the only person I should compare myself to.”

Academic counselor Tiffani Gieck proposed a differing perspective in which she noted the positives of an competitive academic atmosphere like GBHS. 

“Students have an opportunity to…continue with more challenging coursework that will then prepare them for beyond high school regardless of where they plan to, to go and attend,” Gieck said. 

Sophomore Sarah Alami was inspired to take several AP and honors classes because she wanted to push herself as much as possible. Alami also encourages others to “just go for it” and challenge themselves with their classes as much as they can.

“The only way to do it is to challenge yourself in high school,” Alami said.  

AP psychology teacher Natalie Elkin also motivates her students to take rigorous classes, especially if they are genuinely interested in the subject. However, Elkin recognizes students are commonly taking AP classes for the “grade bump,” a desire spurred by “rampant peer pressure,” and “toxic” comparison culture. 

The seemingly endless cycle of comparison culture can lead students to seek validation through academic success.

This atmosphere, Elkin says, can “easily damage mental health.” 

The high expectations required of a rigorous course load can weigh on both students’ mental and physical health. 

The transition from pre to post pandemic learning has further exacerbated students’ struggle.

Realistically, Elkin says students should expect “one to two hours of homework each night per Honors/AP class,” and some struggle with adjusting to a faster than average pacing of these classes.

Elkin noted that the leniency and flexibility of teachers from last year’s primarily online format  particularly hit this year’s AP driven juniors who have signed up for AP classes without ever experiencing the full rigor of a normal AP/Honors class.

“(As students) come off of the pandemic year, when stress and overwhelm set in, (their) growth mindset stops and become(s) fixed,” Elkin said. “A mistake can feel like failure.”

Elkin and Vella emphasize that academic success does not always equate success in life.   

“Success looks different for so many different people,” said Vella. 

Success should be fulfilling. Academic rigor for the sake of rigor and increased academic success  is an unhealthy and unfulfilling mindset.

Vella also warns that prioritizing academics at the expense of personal factors can “burn out” students and be detrimental to their well being. To prevent “burn out,” which can be both mental and physical exhaustion, Vella recommends students routinely practice self-care.

“Students that… are able to regularly practice self care, which is getting eight hours of sleep, working out, eating right, having some balance between academic life, and social personal life, tend to do a lot better when stress arises,” Vella said.

Even something as simple as a self care routine can bring balance to stressed out students’ hectic lives.

 “I get eight hours (of sleep) minimum every night,” Amin said. “I’ve learned to make stress into a good thing and (use it) to motivate (myself) to do better. My sleep has actually gone up.”

Balance is still attainable for any struggling student. The prioritization of one’s personal and social life should be seen as equally important to academic achievement. Academic achievement does not define success and neither does success at school define academic achievement. 

Success is defined by the student.

“We need to allow each student to identify what success means to them instead of the external world defining it as class rank, college acceptances, and GPA,” Elkin said.