Surviving a student body of high achievers

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Makenzie Jamias
(Makenzie Jamias)

BYU students struggle to maintain their confidence in BYU’s competitive community, facing challenges that high school never presented. But students who adjust expectations and take advantage of helpful resources diffuse the stress and disappointment of no longer being the top of the class.

Freshman Corinne Jones and her roommates quickly arrived at the topic of ACT scores as they became acquainted at the beginning of their first semester.

“My roommate told me, ‘I did horrible on the ACT. I am never telling anyone my score.’ I replied, ‘Oh really? I did pretty good, I got a 27.’ Keep in mind, I was really proud of my score,” Jones said. “She then replied, ‘Oh, I got a 29.’ And that first week of school set the standard for the rest of my year.”

Nearly half of the 12,921 applicants to BYU in 2013 were denied admission. This number, coupled with a 2013 freshman class average of 3.82 GPA and 28.5 ACT, shows just how competitive BYU is.

Travis Blackwelder of the BYU Admissions Office said his team looks for well-rounded students who can contribute more than an obsession with high grades.

“We’re as much inclined to look at a strong recommendation from a seminary teacher, a bishop’s recommendation and some compelling essays,” he said. “There are learning experiences that are going to happen outside the classroom — in a family home evening group, in a ward, at a ball game, in the apartment — as valuable as what’s going to happen in the classroom.”

Students may struggle to base their identity on more than academic achievement. Former BYU president Cecil O. Samuelson addressed this issue in a Sept. 2013 devotional.

“You are now at a very serious university, surrounded by extremely capable classmates and a faculty that has unquestionably high expectations for your performance,” President Samuelson said. “We are not in favor of slothfulness or laziness, but we also hope to help you guard against the all-too-common problem of perfectionism or being unrealistically hard on yourselves.”

Professor Renata Forste, of BYU’s Department of Sociology, teaches mostly freshmen classes and worries about students who struggle to accept the difficulty of college. “Sometimes I think they’ve been told they’re wonderful their whole life, and then they get here and find out that they’re not the only wonderful person in the world, and it’s a bit of a shock for them,” Forste said.

Forste pointed out that in high school many BYU students were one of a few at the top of their class, accustomed to competing with fewer students who weren’t as committed to school.

“You’re not competing with the people at the bottom anymore; that bottom’s gone. You’re only competing with students at the top,” Forste said.

Many BYU students will receive their first B or even A- while in college, which may lead to disappointment or even depression. But Forste said it’s helpful in the end because it won’t ruin students’ lives and it puts things in perspective. Forste said she has seen depression, eating disorders and other kinds of health issues when her students haven’t coped well with the pressures of school.

BYU’s Counseling and Psychological Services offers free professional help for students who find themselves suffering from unhealthy stress levels.

Professors purposefully make classes challenging, but they’re also anxious to help students succeed, said Dana Pike, associate dean of Religious Education. He said even religion classes should be intellectually challenging to the point that students have to work hard to get an A but not so challenging that students are failing regularly.

Pike said if students will get to know their professors they will find the help they need to do well in class. “The first day of class I always say, ‘If you are not catching on to things or you feel like you’re struggling or not getting it, come see me,'” Pike said.

Students can also get involved in Freshman Mentoring, a program aimed at making a smooth transition from high school to college.

Upper-class students serve as mentors and help first-year students connect with resources like the BYU writing center, the American Heritage review room and faculty members.

“Mentors are there … to try and notice when a student is starting to feel some of that discouragement coming from being a big fish in a small pond to a little fish in a big pond, and feeling kind of anonymous and maybe wondering, ‘Do I have what it takes to hack it here?'” said Bryce Bunting, associate director of Freshman Mentoring.

Bunting said 80 percent of freshmen meet with their assigned mentor at least once in their first semester, usually after their first American Heritage test.

Jones attended only one Freshman Mentoring meeting. She said she benefits more from study groups and fellow classmates. “I have girls on my floor that are helping with anatomy, and they’re the reason why I’m doing as well as I am,” she said.

Jones’ high school class in Morgan, Utah, had about 200 students. She said it didn’t take much to stand out before college. “Academics have never really been a struggle for me before, but it’s something that I have to work at now,” she said.

Jones’ high school friend and roommate, Mackenzie Cannon, had similar thoughts coming to BYU.

“It was just kind of weird coming here and realizing, ‘Oh, I’m really not the smartest; there are a lot of smart people here,'” Cannon said. “It kind of does hurt your pride a little bit.”

Sean Fischer, a senior from Hollister, California, and the former vice president of communications for the BYU Student Association, has struggled while at BYU but said he has adjusted his expectations so he can stay confident in his abilities.

“I feel really inadequate the vast majority of the time. It really negatively impacted my BYU experience when I first got here,” Fischer said. “I felt like I didn’t belong and that I needed to transfer to another school.”

Fischer encourages students to get involved in BYUSA, departments’ student associations, clubs on campus, the community and internships, all of which brought him confidence and a sense of belonging.

“What changed is that I chose to get involved in campus life and meet people who are really motivated and who were willing to invest in me as a person,” Fischer said.

Fischer has decided not to link his worth to his grades or his achievements, gaining peace of mind amidst a competitive student body. And Jones, though a freshman, already has the same vision.

“I’ve tried to focus more on becoming a better person and learning from it than tying my identity to getting a 4.0,” Jones said.

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