College Freshman Are Stepping on Campus Already Burnt Out

Teens are reaching colleges already burned out.
Teens are arriving to college campuses burned out. (Jasminko Ibrakovic/Shutterstock)

Jump on into the “way back when” time machine with me for a sec.

Back when you were a senior in high school, all your hard classes (and your best girlfriend’s four-inch bangs) were both in your rearview mirror, and most school day afternoons were spent working your part time job – slinging burgers and mixing shakes at the local fast food restaurant. You maybe played a sport or three (because you could, and they weren’t full of elite athletes), and weekends were spent hanging out at the movie theatre with your friends. (They were not spent facilitating service projects, rehearsing ten hours for a school musical, studying for one of your five AP classes, or traveling three states over to play volleyball for 15 hours straight on a Saturday.)

Can you remember those carefree, do nothing days? I sure can. Those types of senior years were just what the education doctor ordered. Days where we could recharge our academic and social batteries, and learn how to fill our days (unprompted or directed) with a good balance of recreation and work.  And because we were lucky enough to have this chance to enjoy our late adolescence,  it turns out it was exactly what we needed before our introduction into the rigors of college coursework.

We had the great fortune of starting college rested and ready for the challenge. 

As you’ve probably come to realize – only because of witnessing it with your own teenager, high school years not only fly by, but they to do so because they’re filled and over-scheduled to the MAX. The weeks, days, and even the hours are all rigidly designated for some form of academic, athletic, or extracurricular pursuit, and any notion of free and/or recreational time for teens these days is almost ludicrous. (And when they do have it, they sleep.) 

Our kids spend high school running a kind of “sprinting” marathon, which by its nature, is not only completely insurmountable, it’s also quite dangerous. But it’s all for the great goal of getting into a great college, so what could possibly be wrong with pushing, striving, over striving, and pushing some more all in the name of being college ready? Well, it turns out it’s making college freshman not very ready at all.  And by not ready, I mean they’re stepping on campus already suffering from exhaustion, academic burnout and educational fatigue – literally before their first lecture hall. 

In my college days, burnout wasn’t even a real thing until around the spring of your junior year, and aside from typical mid-semester malaise and final exam stress and anxiety, the majority of us happily mustered through college’s hardships and obstacles. Perhaps we’d inadvertently honed some resilience skills working the drive thru in high school, and had learned the benefits of “do-nothing” re-charge time – a skill that would eventually serve us well in college. 

That is nary the case today, where college mental health centers are continuing to report seeing sharp rises in student visits, among them plenty of freshman who are arriving weary and battle tested, and completely under (or perhaps over?) prepared for the next four years.  They’re not only burnt out academically from the four year AP mountain they just climbed,  they’re burnt out mentally, unable to turn their brains and bodies “off,” and incapable of filling long stretches of time without being instructed of what exactly to fill it with. 

Katie Santamaria, a sophomore at Columbia University and Thrive Global Campus Editor-at- Large, wrote recently of her concerns about her own burnout (and that of her campus peers), and what she believes is the root cause. She wrote,

I was conditioned to believe that every second of my life should be optimized, because that’s the way my life had always been.  Burning out shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. Since high school (and even middle school), I was overexerting myself for the sake of succeeding. But what does it mean to succeed, and how can success truly be achieved if I lack the mental capacity, energy, and happiness to go after my goals? Soon enough, I realized that this mindset of constantly working towards my goals was not only unrealistic but also detrimental to my success. Instead, I slowly learned how to integrate wellness into my lifestyle, prioritizing my own health just as much as academic success.

Somewhere between grades 9-12 we’ve neglected to teach (or even allow) our teenagers to experience a healthy combination of recreational wellness and academic school work. We’ve mistakenly put more pressure on one, to the great detriment of the other. Sure, we’re manufacturing kids in a high school factory who are graduating with 7.5 GPAs and very distinguished (albeit bloated) resumes, but what good are these young people when by age 18, they have nothing left in the mental and emotional tank for their next phase of education?

When you’re entering college – a hugely important transitional, impressionable, and personal growth journey part of life, and you’ve already got the surrender towel hanging out of your backpack, how are you in the right frame of mind to even start that kind of journey? You’re not. 

If all these shocking numbers of college freshmen on the mental brink don’t soon begin to produce changes (or in my opinion, demand them) in the high school and college admissions landscape, things are only going to escalate. The high burnout levels will ultimately reduce college graduation rates, because our young people just don’t possess the stamina required to keep up with what’s being asked of them. And the problem with low college graduation rates? It hits colleges smack in their bottom line. Maybe, just maybe, when they feel the effects of that, we’ll start to see some changes. 

About Melissa Fenton

Melissa Fenton is a freelance writer and adjunct librarian at Pasco-Hernando State College. Find her writing all over the internet, but her work mostly on the dinner table. Find her on Facebook 
and on twitter at @melissarunsaway

Read more posts by Melissa

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