By Christina Pryor
The transition to high school for Samantha Hennessey ’08 was not an easy one. After attending an undemanding middle school, Hennessey enrolled in the private University High School in San Francisco, where she recalls initially looking at her homework assignments each night and crying. Her transition to college, though, was much smoother, she said, because the work expected of her at Yale was of the same amount and difficulty as it had been at UHS.
Hennessey had learned the requisite study and time management skills by the time she got to college, and her strong academic preparation allowed her to approach courses at Yale with confidence. While she did have to start in her psychology major at the introductory level, Hennessey was able to place into Advanced Spanish as a freshman.
“The nice thing about Yale is that you can challenge yourself,” she said. “I know a lot of people could just breeze through, but you can make yourself have a hard course load even coming from a really prestigious school.”
A New York Times article published two weeks ago argued that for “super-achievers” from the best public and private schools in the nation, the challenges of college can be a letdown as they realize they have already learned the material for introductory classes and developed essential time management skills by the time they arrive on campus. But some Yalies from top prep and public schools said that while they felt more than prepared for the workload here, they can have trouble adjusting to the abrupt change of pace that comes with a more relaxed college atmosphere.
Part of the adjustment for students hailing from prestigious high schools is the transition between an intense goal-oriented environment to a place where students must motivate themselves.
Catherine Lee ’07, who attended Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a public magnet school in Alexandria, Va., said Yale lacks the constant pressure to succeed that was present in her high school. As a result, she did not maintain her rigid work ethic.
“There was more pressure to get all A’s, whereas in college that’s not really expected because you don’t know what you’re going to be doing after you graduate,” Lee said. “Had I been trying to do as well, it would have been just as much work, but that was not the case.”
Margaret Gorlin ’09, who attended the Horace Mann School in New York City, said she has found humanities classes at Yale to be easier than those she took in high school, but that math and science classes are not as rigidly designed and are therefore more difficult. For example, she said it was a challenge to adjust to complicated weekly problem sets instead of a daily homework routine.
Dean of Freshman Affairs George Levesque said that even though some students may come to college after having completed years of rigorous work and hoop-jumping, there is no reason for them to be idle.
“The tendency can be to pursue a Yale education in the same way: ‘just tell me the hoops I need to jump through to graduate, or become a doctor, or do whatever,’” he said in an e-mail. “But we want freshmen to pause to think about their larger educational goals and how best to take advantage of their four years here.”
Alexandra Robbins ’98 recently wrote a book titled “The Overachievers” that focused on the experience of students at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., as they went through the college application process. She recommended that colleges eliminate early decision, stop requiring SAT scores, and prioritize mental health so that super-achievers do not burn out.
History Department chair Paul Freedman said it makes sense that stand-out high school students are exhausted by the time they get to college because of the stressful load of activities, classes and college applications they have endured for four years.
“Many people quite naturally burn out,” he said. “The question is, ‘Was your day harder in high school?’”
Many students who did not receive such an intensive high school education had a much different experience when they arrived on Old Campus.
Although Taylor James ’09 was not the first student from his high school to attend Yale, he was the only one in his class to get into an Ivy League university, and one of approximately 20 students to attend college out of state. James said that half of his peers did not do their homework in high school.
“Coming to Yale I felt qualified to be in class, but at the same time I knew from the beginning I wasn’t prepared and my work habits weren’t there,” he said. “It’s taken me over a year to learn what to do. I’m still conscious [of it], but now I feel comfortable.”
Gorlin, in contrast, said she felt calmer about the prospect of Yale’s academic pressure because she knew many students from her school who had matriculated in the years before her. Top private schools such as Horace Mann and University High School, as well as elite public schools such as Stuyvesant High School in New York City, typically send multiple students in the same year.
“I knew when I was applying that this was the place for me,” Gorlin said. “While the first kids from a school to get into Yale might have anxiety, I knew this is where I belonged, and I knew I could do the work.”