British Columbia·Pomp and Pressure

How B.C. high school students are feeling growing stress over post-secondary admission

B.C. high school students say the pressure around making choices and getting into post-secondary school has intensified.

Pressure from schools, families, peers are leading to anxiety and depression, students say

For high school students aiming for top-tier universities, grades need to be very high. (Shutterstock)

From excitement to anxiety, the first week of school provokes a range of feelings in kids of all ages. For B.C. high school students, it also brings plenty of stress.

Students say the pressure they feel around the transition to post-secondary is considerable —and high school counsellors and psychologists say it's become worse in recent years. 

"I feel like the pressure really ramped up as I got into my more senior years of high school," said Vancouver student Kai Leong. 

Leong, 18, said he's been thinking about getting into university since he was in Grade 7. The pressure intensified around Grade 10, when he started feeling a need to keep his grades up and take on more extracurricular activities. 

For students aiming for top-tier universities, grades need to be very high. At the University of British Columbia's Vancouver campus, for example, students entering directly from high school for the 2018-19 school year had a mean average of 91 per cent.

In addition, scholarship foundations consider extracurricular activities in their decisions — and now American universities, as well as some Canadian institutions, are starting to take them into consideration, as well. 

Leong, who's starting this week in the faculty of sciences at UBC, said it feels as though the bar for entry to university is constantly rising.

"You're hearing about all these great things that people are doing," he said. "People are doing more, and people are doing more...and then the schools are expecting more when people start doing more. So it just gets harder every year."

Kai Leong says it feels like the bar for university entry is constantly being raised. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Helena Murray-Hill, 18, graduated from high school in Victoria in June. The amount of work she and her classmates were expected to do to prepare for university was overwhelming, she said.

"It was just worrying about our future and constantly being told that we have to be doing so much if we ever want to succeed," she said. 

Murray-Hill said she saw her classmates sacrificing sleep for schoolwork. 

"I knew so many students that, in order to meet these requirements, were getting three, four, five hours of sleep instead of the recommended seven to eight. What was keeping their grades up was coffee," she said. 

'There's got to be a cultural shift'

Murray-Hill, who is starting in the faculty of arts this week at the University of Victoria, said many of her classmates struggled with anxiety and depression. The pressure, she said, comes from many different directions.

"It's coming from the universities, it's coming from the scholarship foundations, it's coming from the parents, it's coming from the government, it's coming from the teachers," she said. "And it's coming from your peers, who [you feel] are all succeeding when you're not. There's got to be a cultural shift."

Earlier this year, a college admissions scandal highlighted the intense competition for spots in top-tier universities in the United States. 

Almost 20 parents, including actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, have been charged in the U.S. over an alleged multimillion-dollar scheme to help their children into elite universities by cheating the admissions process.

Competition for university spots in Canada appears to be increasing, too.

Rummana Khan Hemani, registrar, vice-provost and associate vice-president at Simon Fraser University, said admissions have been competitive for quite some time, but she's seen the language around the subject change over the past five years.

"We've talked about being more competitive or using language like 'there's competitive entry' or 'limited seats.' That kind of language has really entered generally into the university narrative, not just at SFU but in Canada," she said.

Khan Hemani attributes the change to an increasing interest in post-secondary education. There have been more students entering university directly from high school in recent years, she said.

"That means a lot more students seeking places in universities or colleges, and, in some cases, competing for the same number of seats," she said.

This story is part of a series call Pomp and Pressure, which examines the stresses and choices high school students in B.C. are facing when it comes to post-secondary education. It airs Sept. 3-6 on CBC Radio One's The Early Edition and On The Coast, with features on CBC Vancouver News at 6 and