Under Pressure (cont. from Roar Magazine)


Four top ranking students from the class of 2022 share how they survived the academic pressure put onto them by family, friends, teachers, and themselves.

“A diamond is a chunk of coal that did well under pressure.” That is how the saying goes, and that is how the end of high school goes for the thousands of students who graduate each year. After 12 years of stress and perseverance, students who started their educational journeys are finally reaping the benefits of hard work. The pressure that builds upon students as they get closer to that graduate age has no doubt of turning them into bright, shining diamonds that flourish for years later. But the process before the end product is not always pretty. With pressure comes pain, and the opportunity to learn how to handle pain. 

As a whole, the class of 2022 is no stranger to a challenge, and as they prepare to graduate, some of its strongest constituents reflect on the progress they have made in high school. Each has their own individual interests and hobbies while also proving to be incredibly academically successful. All in the top 20 of their class, seniors Charles Poulin, Maggie Lum, Hannah Ryan, and Tami Altarace share what they have learned about the academic pressure introduced to them in high school. 

Poulin shares that he loves to explore the cities near where he lives, along with trying new foods and reading at night. Lum plays the guitar on her own just for fun. Ryan loves to make people laugh just as much as she enjoys learning about new things. This is all to say that these students who appear to have maybe the most academic pressure, still have personal experiences that they cherish. These experiences also help balance a demanding school schedule. 

The academic pressure related to high school students starts manifesting itself as early as middle school, but the true challenge is found in high school, when students suddenly have challenging classes to tend to in all subjects. Although it can feel like everyone is watching how you perform in high school, oftentimes the pressure is coming from inside. 

For Lum, the pressure she feels “has always been self-imposed” and began her sophomore year. “When I realized that I was capable of doing really well, I started pushing myself,” said Lum. Lum shared that the force she put on herself to get good grades was a shared experience between her peers as well. Lum added, “Most of my friends get good grades too, so I never really felt too much of a divide between us. I think we all put pressure on ourselves, but it showed in different ways.” 

Outside forces can still impose, however, with figures like parents and teachers encouraging young students to do well. “I’ve always been taught by my parents to work hard in my academics, but I was also self motivated to achieve good grades throughout high school,” Altarace said.

Ryan felt pressure not only from herself, but also from the smart crowd she surrounds herself with. “A lot of my peers are incredibly smart, and I’ve always wanted to push myself to learn more and challenge myself academically, so it was a mix of my own academic interests and maintaining a certain level of academic achievement like those around me.”

Goals are an excellent way to motivate yourself to perform well. By setting goals, these students made sure that they felt like they had something they were working towards- making all the pressure worth it in the end.

“I just wanted to have the ‘resume’ that would give me a chance of getting accepted to any school that I wanted to go to down the line,” says Poulin. Poulin immersed himself in activities like clubs, such as National English Honor Society, and the school’s band program as well. 

Although college application due dates were approaching, Ryan dug up a new found goal for herself. “… as senior year started drawing closer I sort of honed in on a goal for a particular college which was NYU. I’ve wanted to study archeology my whole life, and so I’ve been pushing myself to meet the academic level needed to go to a really good school for archeology, and one of the best ones is NYU, but that was more of a recent goal,” said Ryan.

The downside of the pressure that these academically gifted students face is that, just like for all students, the workload can become overwhelming. And somehow all four students agreed on what point they felt most overwhelmed during high school. Junior year, more specifically, junior year when it was completely virtual.

School was online and I was taking two college level science classes at once, so I definitely had that feeling that I was gonna be in over my head,” said Lum. Poulin shared a similar experience, saying “t felt like I was doing a lot more work than I really was, since I wasn’t ever in the building, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to keep it up until AP exams.”

Altarace, however, had a different experience with her junior year. She credited it to be her most stressful point of high school, due to the stress of balancing a year of online school with hybrid classes at the Academies of Loudoun focusing on biomedical technology. “Although things were online, I was still doing hybrid classes at the Academies. We began the year with half of my class alternating days to go in-person, but switched to fully online halfway through the year, and then finally went hybrid with my full class going in on all b-days. The constant switching from hybrid/online in the height of the pandemic was very stressful and it was hard to fully focus on my coursework when school felt so chaotic,” said Altarace. 

Overwhelming as it can be, these experiences also taught these students a lot about themselves. Mostly what they truly enjoyed learning about, and possibly what they wanted to study later on. Ryan is passionate about the field of archeology, but she also wants to “focus on Classics in my career so continuing to take the class related to what I want to do with my life,” says Ryan, and her favorite class in high school was Latin IV. Altarace plans on majoring in biology, and her favorite class she’s taken in high school is DE Biology, “I really enjoy learning everything about molecular biology and the diversity of life, which makes the class fun. Ms. Whitlow is also a great teacher and I’m glad I get to learn from her,” said Altarace. 

Poulin is undecided on his major, although he has his eye on something pre-med related, but his favorite classes that he took were the AP Calculus courses. 

There is usually one thing on high schoolers minds when they are wondering how much pressure they should put on themselves, college. All four years of high school can sometimes feel like a competition regarding who has the most well-rounded application. For students who possibly felt the most pressure, how did it feel when it was finally time for them to complete their applications for college? 

I felt pretty good about my college apps. The one thing that worried me a little is that I didn’t take as much calculus as I could have. Since I’m applying to engineering schools, they’re pretty competitive and like to see that you’ve taken difficult math courses,” says Lum. 

“After completing my first few applications and revising a few things, I felt more confident towards the end of the process. I think I procrastinated a lot when applying for college, but I’m overall pretty happy with how everything turned out.” Alatarace applied to colleges in the top 5% of her class, with various awards regarding her volleyball career to supplement her application as well.

Poulin shares how some skills he learned in high school helped him complete his college application in the strongest way.Starting college apps was daunting at first because I wasn’t too familiar with the type of essay writing they ask for. Looking back, I do think I was prepared by my English classes to write those essays. Research about college that I did over the summer also prepared me,” says Poulin. Poulin had the near impossible accomplishment of scoring a 5 on every single AP exam he took, fitting in 9 AP classes total.

Ryan felt that there was an area where students should receive more guidance when applying for college. “…the actual process of using things like Common App and Naviance can get confusing and I think that we should be taught how to use them more rather than waiting for the PGP meetings. I didn’t really feel like I had less advantages in any areas,” said Ryan.

Good grades and impressive college applications is not everything that these students pride themselves on. A key piece of doing well under pressure is knowing your boundaries, limits, and what keeps you fulfilled.

“I’m very proud of being a student-athlete all throughout middle school and high school. It can be very difficult at times to juggle your academic, social, and athletic life but I was able to find a rhythm and manage my time wisely while achieving my personal goals along the way. Volleyball has been a constant in my life and I’ve gained lifelong friendships that I’m very thankful for as well,” says Altarace. 

My proudest achievement has been learning to trust myself,” says Lum. She added, “I used to be shy and quick to downplay myself, but over these four years I’ve become a more confident person. And honestly, it’s made life a lot easier”

Ryan explained how just getting through the difficulty of the last four years has made her proud. My resilience has really made me the proudest throughout high school. I’ve been through a lot of rough patches over the past four years and making it through while still being academically successful and managing my life has made me really proud of myself. I think that that has been my greatest accomplishment in general so far,” says Ryan. Although Ryan’s proudest academic achievement was being accepted into the Governor’s School program for Latin, an impressive residential program during the summer for students who excel in foreign language programs. 

Perhaps the last years of childhood bring the most strain on students, preparing them for the challenges that lie ahead. Even the students who perform the best feel some pressure put on them, although they also emphasize finding a balance between school and self-care. Success can be found in all types of students, these ones hope to inspire those who have not felt the inevitable pressure yet, and show them how this pressure can be used to flourish and excel.