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Academic pressure and the overachiever mentality

Academic intensity should not be something foreign to Oxford students. Indeed, I became acquainted with this idea before even coming to university – growing up in Singapore in a traditionally Asian household, the importance of academic excellence and achievement was constantly reinforced by schools, teachers, parents, and even politicians. I didn’t bat an eye when my friend slept for 3 hours every day in the weeks before A-levels to revise. All-nighters and skipping meals to study were the norm. In a system that prizes academic achievement above all else, it can be easy to forget that there is more to life than grades on a sheet of paper. Students, however, tend to forget this – which is why, on A-level results day in Singapore, certain schools have their balconies and higher floors cordoned off to students.  

We are often told that many years down the line, we would realise grades don’t matter, that life is more than tests and exams. To the young, naïve teenagers whose lives revolve around school, this can be hard to see. Exams inevitably consume our life ; they become the benchmark against which we assess our self-worth. Students with stellar scores are singled out and showered with praise from teachers and parents, and those who make it to prestigious universities are showed off as having ‘made it’. But what about those who don’t? When everyone strives to be exceptional, some inevitably end up becoming merely ‘mediocre’. This gives rise to the central problem surrounding academic pressure and the ‘overachiever’ mentality — that while we are fully aware of its harms, everyone still strives to ‘overachieve’, for fear of being left behind, of being ‘mediocre’. 

In China, such a phenomenon is termed ‘involution’, and refers simply to the feeling of being trapped in a never-ending rat race even when one knows it is meaningless. Recently, for example, media outlets in the UK reported on a girl studying 28 A-level subjects. Most UK students only do 3 or 4, so taking 28 subjects at once is highly unusual. Even so, the fact remains that someone out there is taking 28 subjects, and the fear of losing out would compel other students to follow suit, even if they know doing so is ultimately pointless. We subscribe to the ruthless study culture not out of genuine motivation to do well, but rather out of a deep-seated anxiety and fear of what would happen should we ‘lose out’. 

We cannot view academia in a non-competitive light. A-levels and university admissions are, after all, a zero-sum game – students compete for limited spots in university, with the first yardstick for admission being grades. However, academic pressure isn’t all bad, and standardised testing, while not without flaws, is still the best option in light of the lack of popular alternatives. 

A trend common across Asian societies is that competition during university admissions tests, be it the Gao Kao in China, the Suneung in South Korea, or the A-levels in Singapore, is unforgivingly ruthless. Nevertheless, I don’t think this should negate the intention of these standardised tests – to give everyone an equal shot at their own future. In China, for example, hundreds of thousands of students from rural villages sit the Gao Kao each year, because it is their only ticket to a university and (hopefully) a brighter future in a big city. Often, they carry the weight of the generations before them to finally break out of the poverty cycle. It is easy to espouse the idealistic notion of ‘do what you love’, but the harsh reality is that you can’t always do what you want or love. These students from rural areas cannot achieve their dreams unless they first have the grades to access such opportunities in the big cities. Grades, to some extent, give you the power of choice – they allow you to choose the kind of life you want to lead, instead of being forced to settle for something else because your grades couldn’t make the cut. In the wise words of Oprah Winfrey, you have to “do what you have to do until you can do what you want to do”. 

I believe that there is merit in pushing yourself to academic excellence – looking back, I don’t regret having pushed myself while taking my own A-levels, because it showed me the value of hard work, perseverance, and brought me here to Oxford, where I’ve met so many amazing people and seen things I couldn’t have seen in Singapore. I also believe that exams are not do or die, and there are times where academic pressure turns worrying or deadly. It can harm students’ mental health when they overwhelmingly associate academic achievement with their self-worth, or when sub-par exam results begin to feel like the end of the world. It can be hard to reconcile these two realities, but the key, I suppose, lies in striking a healthy balance. 

I don’t think it is a bad thing to be an ‘overachiever’ or ‘try hard’, or in testing your limits to see how far you can go. But I also believe that such a mentality can and should be applied to goals outside of academia, because while it can be easy to feel inadequate when you fall behind academically, we are not one-dimensional creatures who only know how to study and sit for exams. I’ve known people who are athletes competing in global tournaments, or musicians playing in sold-out theatres, or published poets and writers. You don’t have to be the best academically that you possibly can be. You only have to be the best that you can be. 

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