Smart Teens and the Challenge of College

[This post is excerpted from Why Smart Teens Hurt. To learn more, please take a look!]

Do smart teens experience college as a joyful place of growth and meaning? Or as something darker than that and different from that?

We expect a smart teen to head right off to college, maybe with a gap for a bit of exploration and travel but with not much of a gap. College is supposed to come next, directly after high school. And what if you have no idea what college is for, if no subject particularly interests you, if your “dark night of the soul” is consuming you, and if you really need something other than college? No matter. College is meant to come next and almost certainly will come next.

Potentially, then, this makes nineteen one of the most dangerous years of your life. And the statistics bear this out. The freshman year of college is a tremendously difficult year for teens. For many, there is the weight gain associated with plentiful dorm food, social eating, and the freedom to eat too much, leading to a typical fifteen-pound freshman weight gain. There are the powerful stressors of dorm life, of difficult or boring classes, of forced closeness, and of the loss of family and friends. And for a smart teen especially, there is the darkness, nowadays labeled “depression,” that comes with going through the motions in what feels like an alien and alienating environment.

This darkness is largely a product of the following. You are nineteen, full of life, maybe boiling over with desires, and at the same time you find yourself demoralized by the reality of college life, which is just not what it was supposed to be. It was supposed to be “something special,” that thing you were looking forward to all through high school. Now you see that it is “just this,” studying, tests, confusion, pressures, food, sex, drugs, a forced enthusiasm for “the home team,” something at root shockingly and painfully meaningless.

College, it turns out, is inhibited life. There is a powerful felt unreality to what is indeed an unreal, artificial situation: sitting around for four years “studying.” In those four years, you could build a business, build a castle, discover a world, write a novel, connect the dots of the universe. And here you sit, studying for a test that could not feel more meaningless.

For one undergraduate, say a chemistry major, these college years, even if meaningless, are at least made comprehensible by the fact that they are necessary steps in a career path. For another undergraduate, say a dance major, it is much less clear why she is there, given that she might be actually dancing in a real company rather than spending these prime years “preparing.”

There are obvious “stressor” differences between, say, an undergraduate in physics, an undergraduate in software engineering, an undergraduate in political science who is already heading to law school, and an undergraduate in English who is heading for poetry. The stress on the physics major may be primarily the hardness of the math she encounters, the stress on the engineering major may be primarily that he could already be starting his start-up rather than wasting time in class, and so on. Each undergraduate find herself squarely in her own bubble of stress.

There are also personality differences. The sort of person who gravitates toward one major is not the same sort of person who gravitates toward another major. A piano major is not the same sort of person as a business major and a painting major is not the same sort of person as a biology pre-med major. They may all be smart but they are not the same people. And still each one of them is likely to be encountering the same “dark night of the soul,” that particular despair so common to the college years.

It goes without saying that a given smart teen may have an excellent college experience and that another smart teen may have at worst a neutral experience. But many smart teens will suffer, founder and crash. Between ten percent and fifteen percent of college freshmen report thinking of committing suicide and suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, after accidents. For each one of these ten or fifteen percent, how many more are despairing in their own way?


For Parents

You may hear from your smart teen who is away at college that “everything is fine.” That is almost certainly not even close to the truth. She may be in the middle of coming out sexually and embroiled in her first tempestuous love affair, she may be frantically mulling over which major to choose, she may be hating her eating habits, her roommates, the dark winter, and her classes, she may be completely at sea. And still she is likely to say, “Everything is fine.” Walk with her, be with her, be quiet with her, and see for yourself. She may be brewing enormous, life-changing decisions right at this moment. Be present for her and give her the chance to begin a conversation.


For Teens

It is too small an answer to the problem I’m describing to say to you that you should watch your nutrition, make sure you get enough sleep, moderate your alcohol and drug consumption, use the counseling services that your college provides, and so on. These and the other excellent suggestions a counselor might make are not to be scorned. But they can’t touch the beating heart of the problem.

At bottom is a challenge connected to the very fabric of what it is like for you to be nineteen, smart, confused, dark, roiling, and trapped in a dorm room with others just as troubled as you. I beg you to commit to meeting that challenge by surviving your college years. Here is the big news: there is a good life coming, one that will feel completely different from the one you are currently experiencing.

[This post is excerpted from Why Smart Teens Hurt. To learn more, please take a look!]


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