Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
As a rising sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania’s College of Arts and Sciences, I’ve grown accustomed to what I’ve experienced as the school’s cutthroat competition and pre-professional climate. In many cases, I’ve watched friends and peers prioritize academic performance over their mental well-being in order to “prove” that they earned their admission. A chunk of the student body, including me, focuses so much on future professional opportunities that we do so at the expense of our other academic obligations, and fail to live at all in the present.
Before I set foot on Penn’s campus, people warned me about the relentless competition. Although there were exaggerations — for example, the myths I heard of students ripping pages out of library textbooks during finals to stop their classmates from being able to study proved untrue — their warnings weren’t entirely far off.
My peers invariably push to do more, better. People are always trying to secure impressive internships, and involve themselves in tons of extracurriculars to strengthen their resumés and LinkedIn profiles. They’re also pushing themselves to take more classes, enroll in more leadership programs, and be more social. In my experience, Penn tour guides aren’t lying when they joke that my school is a “work hard, play hard” environment. And that takes on a whole new meaning when On-Campus Recruitment (OCR) arrives on campus.
At Penn, OCR is a process by which a group of companies come to campus to recruit top talented students for sophomore or junior year internships, which typically lead to a full-time job after graduation.
Although I haven’t personally taken part in OCR, because many of the hiring companies aren’t in the journalism or entertainment industries (which I hope to enter one day), I’ve watched friends struggle to balance the demands of the process. Between preparing for interviews, updating their resumés, obtaining leadership roles in their extracurriculars, maintaining a social life, and performing well academically, OCR participants can easily approach burnout.
“Our school is hard enough what with balancing your academic and social lives. Throwing recruiting into that mix really takes a toll — you have to make sacrifices in order not to burn out,” says Sophie Isaacs, 19, from Las Vegas, N.V., a rising junior at Penn’s Wharton School of Business.
OCR has both major benefits and drawbacks. “We’re lucky enough to go to a school that the top firms want to hire talent from,” Sophie explains. But she says the pressure from OCR gave her no other option but to focus all her time and energy on the process — ignoring her personal needs and social life. It can be especially stressful for underclassmen like me, since only a handful of students can obtain sophomore internships through OCR. Before even getting halfway through with college, many Penn students are already expending extraordinary amounts of energy and stress on their professional futures.
I feel strongly that after a long week of work on classes and extracurriculars, it’s important that students be mindful of their own needs. They should be able to reward themselves and take time for self-care. But for those students participating in OCR, they often have to memorize lots of technical information for upcoming interviews in their free time, and as a result, they have very little time to take care of themselves. This imbalance, over time, can lead to feelings of anxiety and stress.
“Recruiting is a good thing because it motivates people, but it also adds an unnecessary level of stress and competitiveness. Everyone is applying to the same jobs, which makes people start to get weird and secretive,” Eliana Margherio, 20, a rising junior in Wharton from Bloomfield Hills, M.I., adds.
Although I am so grateful that Penn cares so much about the success and career paths of its students, the environment that results from such a vibrant — and at times intense — recruiting process can, in my experience, become overwhelming.
Programs like OCR train students to focus most acutely on mapping out what their next professional step is, and that can keep students from using these four years to enjoy their time in college.
Many times, it’s even difficult for me to validate why I am an English major in the first place, when those around me are doing everything in their power to secure internships in finance and consulting. It makes me sad to think that my English classes aren’t universally thought of by my classmates as being as rigorous as the Economics classes they take.
“People at Penn often assume that if you aren’t doing consulting or investment banking, then you aren’t as smart as everyone else, or as motivated,” Eliana agrees. These stereotypes definitely also contribute to the pressure I feel. I know that opting for a career path that doesn’t subject me to the stressors of OCR is a positive thing for my personal well-being, but I can’t help but still get anxious, wondering if I should be majoring in something like Economics to emphasize more that I truly “belong” at Penn. As a result, I become focused more on the idea of what I should be doing, rather than what I want to be doing.
To stop this stress, I need to change how I think about my major. Fighting off my imposter syndrome is first. I know that I should take pride in my English classes, and feel good about opting out of OCR, because those courses provide meaning to my intellectual life, and make me feel fulfilled. That should be enough.
I believe we should be focused first on our intellectual development in college, not on our professional futures. And, in turn, we should be applauding majors that promote a student’s genuine happiness, fulfillment, positive mental health, well-being, and academic rigor — no matter what those look like for each individual student. Because how can we be expected to set out and make an actual difference if we can’t even stave off burnout during these four instrumental years of growth?
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More on Mental Health on Campus:
What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need
If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help
The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis