By Sarah Qiu
There are twenty-four hours in a day. Ask yourself this: how many of your twenty-four hours are taken up by school and extracurriculars? And how many, therefore, are left for you to enjoy? For the average student at Williamsville East High School, the vast majority of the day is occupied by activity after activity.
Starting with an eight-hour school day, the student is loaded with hard classes for seven or eight periods out of the possible nine. Advanced Placement, or AP, classes have become increasingly popular at East. Rather than taking courses that align with the regular high school curriculum, many students now pay hundreds of dollars each year to take college-level classes. Why do they spend all this time and money? The simple answer is to increase their chances of getting into a top college. These days, there are extremely high resumé expectations to be accepted into colleges. As a result, students often forfeit their free time for the chance to take another class or be involved in another club. Whether the club is as big as national organizations, like FBLA, or as small as a logic puzzle club started by the local student, they feel an urging pressure to join. After all, it would boost their resumé. On top of the stress to maintain good grades in school and perform well on standardized tests, many students are also involved in playing instruments and sports. These extracurriculars require practice, which takes up even more time. All of these aforementioned activities make for a packed schedule. Students today are so occupied with academics and extracurriculars that they rarely have any free time. But what is the result of this lack of free time? Evidence from published studies and personal experience indicate that it is not good.
To start off, the stress of high school has been proven to have a negative effect on students’ physical health. A national study conducted by Lewis and Clark College found that students who are overloaded with homework experience higher levels of health problems. By surveying and assessing over 4,000 students about their academic habits, their research indicates that chronic stress can actually induce negative physical reactions such as sweating, headaches, exhaustion, stomach problems, weight gain, and sleeping difficulties. A student at Williamsville East concurred with this finding. She testified, “Because of school, I don’t have time to eat. I get dizzy really easily and have a very weak body. On a bad day, I get four hours of sleep.” As a sophomore, she is already taking five AP classes and is involved in UB math, an advanced math program that runs for two hours after school on three out of the five weekdays. On top of that, she plays tennis and violin and is part of the Science Olympiad club. With all of these activities, she rarely has downtime on any given day. To complete all of her academic and extracurricular responsibilities, she resorts to sacrificing essential health responsibilities like eating and sleeping. Skipping meals and getting less than eight hours of sleep is almost a norm for the average student at Williamsville East. This is obviously not ideal for any person, but it is especially detrimental to teenagers whose bodies and minds are still growing.
Contrary to belief, constantly having something to do actually decreases productivity in the long run. Overworking causes tiredness and can therefore result in a phenomenon known as “burnout”. A prime example of burnout in my personal experience occurred during the two AP exam weeks last May. After studying and preparing for hours after school every day, my brain was unable to think and process clearly. Following the multiple four-hour exams, I could not focus on other subjects throughout the rest of the days. Ultimately, I had no motivation to complete any of my other responsibilities by the end of the two weeks. Arthur Morgan School, an academic institution in the US that pushes for the incorporation of free time within the school day, notes, “Free time actually promotes growth. By providing space for play and open experimentation, the students end up internalizing their education and be more conscious in their actions. If they just moved from one class to the next, so much of this knowledge would be lost as they became overwhelmed by information overload,” (Maldonado). The lack of free time lowers students’ abilities to concentrate and absorb information. It results in counterproductive tasks that take longer to complete than they should. Furthermore, students experiencing burnout are less likely to care about their learning.
While it is somewhat true that building up resumés now may increase the chance of being accepted into a top college, it does not follow that that should be the only goal for a high school student. Even with advanced academics and involvement in extracurriculars, there is no guarantee that a student’s life will be successful in the future. Additionally, this lack of free time takes away from current opportunities for the student to live their life. It hinders the ability of teens to make social connections and develop relationships. The logic is perfectly clear; more extracurriculars means less free time, which in turn means fewer chances of interacting with other people. “I really only hang out with my friends when there is a holiday or a break off from school. I see them once or twice a month,” said another student attending Williamsville East. It is hard to maintain strong and lifelong friendships when you have such limited time to see them face-to-face. It is just as I am taking the time to write this commentary for my AP English Language and Composition class instead of spending the snow day off from school with family and friends. Like the average East student, I prioritize getting a good grade in one class over my free time and ability to relax. It is important for teenagers to experience a healthy dose of human interaction so that they can learn and apply these social skills throughout the rest of their lives and careers.
There should be more concern surrounding adolescents’ lack of free time and the adverse effects it could have. Is there a way we can fix this problem? The answer is not black and white. It is a cultural issue that requires a systematic solution. However, we can first start by taking action in our own lives. We can increase our amount of free time by scheduling at least one free period in a school day. This way, we are guaranteed a time set aside to eat lunch. Eventually, we must address this issue as a community by decreasing the emphasis on college and resumés.