Are Columbia students the most stressed in the Ivy League?

Are Columbia students the most stressed in the Ivy League?

Academic requirements, social pressure fuel campus stress culture

Published on April 14, 2016

Sitting in the Lerner Piano Lounge on Wednesday, Catie Connolly, CC ’18, noticed that although the lounge was nearly full, few people seemed to be using the space to relax. The majority of students sat alone, immersed in books or laptop screens.

It’s a lounge, but everyone’s doing work,” Connolly said. “It feels like you’re being annoying if you’re just here to hang out with your friends.”

Columbia’s rigorous academics and large Core Curriculum are part of the reason Connolly transferred here last fall. And while Connolly does not regret her decision, she has noticed that stress—almost nonexistent at her prior school—seems to dominate the Columbia student experience by comparison.

Students have singled out stress as an issue at Columbia with increasing frequency, leading many to speculate whether Columbia is inherently more stressful than its peers. A comparison with peer institutions shows that the combination of Columbia’s Core and graduation requirements, lack of social outlets for students, and competitive student community contribute to an environment that is significantly more stressful.

Recent data indicates alarming reports of stress on campus. In response to the University Senate’s 2015 Quality of Life Survey, published in February, Columbia students reported feeling “worried, tense, or anxious” for an average of 9.32 days per month, and undergraduates said they did not get enough sleep on an average of 14.18 nights per month.

(Graphic by Helen Lu)

Administrators, students, and mental health-focused groups on campus have all said that stress prevents students from getting the most out of their education and their undergraduate experiences overall. Many have identified feasible solutions that both administrators and students agree should be implemented as soon as possible to reduce stress.

“It should be one of the core responsibilities of the administration to just in general monitor the state of student health … and ensure that this environment is one in which students can learn most effectively,” Mental Health Task Force member and University Senator Ramis Wadood, CC ’16, said. “And in order for students to learn effectively, they have to maintain manageable amounts of stress.”

An expectation to overextend

The number of courses required to graduate from Columbia is among the highest in the Ivy League. With a 124 and 128 minimum credit requirement for graduating from Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, respectively, Columbia College students must take an average of four-and-a-half classes per semester and SEAS students must take five.

In contrast, most students at Yale University and Harvard University take an average of four courses per semester. Students at Brown University never need to take more than four courses per semester—and can take three courses for two semesters—to graduate.

“I don’t really know that many people taking five classes, but I know the ones that do really do have a lot of work,” Audrey Wilson, a first-year at Brown, said. “That’s definitely a major time commitment and significantly more stressful than having four courses.”

Columbia’s unique Core Curriculum makes an increased course load the only option for students if they choose to explore multiple disciplines in their first years—but even without considering Core requirements, which accounts for a third of required courses, students feel pressure from their peers to take even more classes than necessary, and a “vast majority” of Columbia students graduate with more credits than required, according to Dean of Columbia College James Valentini.

“Just structurally, with the Core and major requirements, you have to take at least four to five classes, and most people do more,” Jane Choi, CC ’19, said. “It sort of feels like we have to.”

Students added that this pressure is exacerbated by conversations in which students constantly compare the amount of work they take on.

“It’s not just the volume of work that you have but the pressure of other people around you. People talk about all the stuff they have to do and how much they’re doing and everything they have to get done,” Jen Coates, CC ’18, said. “Even though a lot of the time you feel like it’s exaggerated, you still hear it and feel like you have to keep up with that.”

As a result of continued student concerns surrounding courseload, discussion has centered on whether the minimum number of credits required to graduate should be lowered.

According to Valentini, each hour of class is expected to correspond with a minimum of two hours of work outside of class, due to requirements of New York state law. However, Valentini said that work done outside of class, rather than time spent in class, puts the most pressure on students.

“I’m not sure it’s actually the number of credits. You have to translate the number of credits into an amount of work,” Valentini said. “That’s the way to address it: What is the appropriate amount of work that you should be spending on academic stuff outside of class time?”

However, Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science Mary Boyce acknowledged that a high credit requirement can cause increased stress. As a result, she has worked with the Committee on Instruction, which is responsible for approving academic policy changes, to lower requirements for SEAS majors, including biomedical engineering, in order to reduce stress for students.

“We did see faculty embrace doing this, and that’s, believe it or not, a tough thing to do because you have to redo curriculum,” Boyce said.

Many CC and SEAS students argued in response that taking five courses is inherently stressful, regardless of the distribution of workload.

“I think that’s a really disrespectful thing to say—‘Oh, it’s not about the amount of classes that you take,’” Cindy Liu, CC ’18, said. “If we want to major in something, there are certain classes you must take to fulfill that major. You have no way of getting around that.”

Valentini said at a Columbia College Student Council meeting in November that he would initiate discussions with faculty to evaluate how to ensure the workload across classes would be consistent. However, he did not provide updates on the outcome of those discussions this month.

In addition to these proposed discussions, Valentini said he weighed proposals from student councils to limit the amount of credits that students can take. But he decided that he would not implement these limits because he views coursework—rather than number of courses—as the determining factor for academic stress.

(Graphic by Donna Askari)

While Valentini does not support such limits, it was announced in December that Columbia College lecture courses with a required discussion section will be offered for four credits rather than three beginning this fall in order to comply with state requirements, which will lessen the number of courses students must take in order to graduate.

The COI is currently working with departments to determine which courses are eligible for this change. It has yet to be announced when the complete list of affected classes will be released.

An additional cause of high course loads is the Core Curriculum, which comprises one third of required courses. But despite discussion surrounding the restrictive nature of the core, students interviewed rarely listed the Core among stressors, and Interim Dean of Advising Andrew Plaa said that he doesn’t believe the Core is overly restrictive.

“I actually don’t see the Core as being that much of a challenge for a lot of students,” Plaa said. “When they deliberately don’t take the Core classes, leave it to their senior year, then it becomes a challenge.”

Plaa said fewer students would take on an excessive course load if they were to seek advice on the subject from their advising dean.

“Our first emphasis in our very first conversation is that it’s fine to start off with four [courses], that you should keep your focus on what is manageable and don’t try to push the envelope at the beginning,” Plaa said.

Valentini added that it is the college’s responsibility to ensure that students are knowledgeable of the necessary requirements to graduate so that they have an accurate assessment of how many courses they need to take.

“Fundamentally, I think one of the things all of us in the college ought to be doing is helping you be mindful about your choices and again asking, ‘Why am I choosing to do this?’” Valentini said.

Columbia’s academic requirements are not entirely unique—within the Ivy League, Yale and the University of Pennsylvania require the same number of courses for graduation. However, students say these intense academic pressures, combined with Columbia’s location in New York, a lack of social events on campus, and pressure to achieve among the student body make Columbia’s brand of stress unique within the Ivy League.

“No one hires a transcript”

Many students also said that career preparation is a prevalent source of stress at Columbia, especially as many believe that factors like their major, GPA, and concentrations weigh heavily in the job application process. But while administrators said this belief was based on misinformation, a method of better informing students has not been outlined.

Students also reported that Columbia’s location in New York significantly adds to career-related stress.

“The fact that we’re in New York puts all this pressure on us to find internships because we know there are so many available,” Daphne Chou, CC ’18, said. “Even freshmen feel like they need to get internships.”

Brooke Reese, a first-year at Yale, said students are not expected to find intense internships during their freshman year or the summer after. She also added that the school’s location in New Haven, Connecticut. does not provide the same pressure for students to take on internships during the semester.

“It’s great because you’re not in New York, so you don’t feel like you have to [have an internship],” Reese said. “You have the option, you have the opportunity, especially as you get older, but not everyone’s doing it.”

Dean of the Center for Career Education Kavita Sharma said she agrees that the University’s position in New York City compels more students to apply to internships.

“We are here in New York; we have a great diversity of industries at our fingertips. The fact that we also at CCE do an awful lot of outreach to employers bring them into our LionSHARE system, I think, pays dividends to students,” she said.

Sharma added that, over the past 10 years at Columbia, she has seen an increase in the number of students applying for internships and that students apply during their first year in greater proportions now than ever before.

Many students believe that their choice of major will have a direct impact on career options post-graduation, which is often untrue, according to CCE administrators. Lexie Brackenridge, CC ’16 and a financial economics major who will work at Goldman Sachs after graduation, said that while she has a genuine interest in the field, she has noticed that many of her peers believe that they must major in economics in order to get a job in finance.

“I think that there’s a lot of pressure here to go on a very certain path,” Brackenridge said. “To be an econ major, and then to work at an investment bank your sophomore year, and then have to work at a better investment bank your junior year, and then get a return offer and work there after graduation.”

Economics was the most popular major among the CC class of 2015—of the 1,134 degrees awarded last year, 165 were in economics.

Sharma and other administrators said that much of the stress surrounding career preparation is based on students’ incorrect perceptions.

“The fact that you’re at Columbia is why they’re even looking at you in the first place,” Sharma said. “It’s never the major on its own.”

Valentini agreed, stating that employers consider applicants’ interest and holistic preparation for a field more than the courses a student took in college.

“No one hires a transcript. … It’s not about majoring in something because that will get you a particular job. This is incorrect.” Valentini said. “It doesn’t matter what your major is. It doesn’t matter.”

Similarly, Brackenridge said she knows people in investment banking who have majored in a variety of subjects. She also said that as long as students can justify their path, a major “doesn’t really play a role” in securing a job in finance.

Administrators also noted that they see students add double majors or extra concentrations because they think that it will increase their chances of getting a job.

“They think, ‘Okay, I’m never gonna get a job as an English major, let me add something else,’” Plaa said. “Employers are not really looking at that.”

Henry Scott, a sophomore at Harvard, said that most Harvard students do not choose a major based on how it will affect their post-graduation career prospects.

“I think people, at least here, realize that you can major in whatever you want to, and if you do want to just sell your soul and go make money, that’s probably an option for you,” Scott said.

Similarly, administrators said that students often overestimate the importance of factors like GPA and quantity of prior internships in the hiring process, causing undue stress.

“Some employers don’t put GPA as a criteria, and others will put it but will often say … it doesn’t factor in,” Associate Dean of CCE Niamh O’Brien said. “And I think sometimes we see students thinking of internships as the only way to gain experience, so we have conversations about what other ways could you explore a field you’re interested in, because we offer multiple ways to do it beyond internships.”

While administrators agree that students’ tendency to pad their résumés and transcripts is caused by a lack of information, the method of correcting this misconception is less clear. Sharma said more students should schedule appointments with CCE advisers, and Valentini said he thinks alumni should provide students with career advice.

“Having alumni engaged with you, we think, is a good thing, which is why we’re driving toward having every student have a mentor,” Valentini said.

While 350 alumni have signed up to mentor students through the Core to Commencement initiative, it is unclear how Columbia College plans to ensure the majority of students are informed about career planning.

A culture of competition

Students said social pressure on campus encourages stress, adding that stress is often treated as a competition between students.

“We have to compete against one another to see who’s more busy, and we sort of romanticize having so much on our plate in a way that I think is unhealthy,” CCSC Vice President of Policy Vivek Ramakrishnan, CC ’16, said. “Standard elevator conversation turns to all the shit you have to do before the next day.”

Counseling and Psychological Services clinicians said that although competition itself is not unhealthy, comparing oneself to others is a common cause of stress and anxiety disorders.

“As soon as you set up that equation, it makes you feel worse about yourself,” CPS Psychologist Shirley Matthews said.

Reese said that this type of competition does not appear to be as prevalent at Yale.

“There’s a feeling that we’re all in this together, and we’re trying to keep each other from losing it,” Reese said.

Wilson said that students are more “laid-back” at Brown and that stress does not come up very frequently in conversation.

“Everyone here still really wants to do well, but it’s more of a competition within themselves … which leads to less talk about how stressed you are,” Wilson said.

The social pressure at Columbia sets a standard for overachievement while devaluing relaxation and fun, according to students.

“I feel like people lay out four to five [courses per semester] as the average, and because they want to surpass that, they take five or six,” Choi said. “Because everyone’s like, ‘I have to take six to be better than everyone who takes four or five.’”

In addition to the high expectations among students, some also said they feel looked down upon when they do take a break.

“People are taking pride in being busy in things that they don’t even want to be busy in,” Liu said. “There’s a stigma that if you’re just sitting there and just taking time for yourself … you must be doing something wrong.”

No room for fun

Students also said Columbia lacks adequate social outlets to counteract stress. Space restrictions that arise from Columbia’s location in New York prevent students from having centralized social spaces, and administrators said they have difficulty organizing well-attended events other than Bacchanal.

Social interaction and recreation are both crucial in order to preserve a student’s mental health in an otherwise-stressful environment, according to CPS clinicians.

“Encouraging students to have fun is an important part of what we do,” Matthews, who leads a CPS support group to help students deal with stress, said. “I tell them when I meet them that they have to come up with a list of ten things that bring them joy.”

Students interviewed said the absence of campus-wide social events makes it difficult to destress. While Bacchanal provides one stress-free day that engages the entire campus, they feel recent administrative restrictions—commonly dubbed the “war on fun”—have targeted alcohol consumption at the event without providing alternative opportunities for students to de-stress.

“I think there are people here who are in decision-making positions who don’t really get it, as far as understanding that this is a stressful place and we need outlets to try to channel that,” Ramakrishnan said. “There’s conversations to be had about how we approach on-campus alcohol. I don’t think, in my view, we’re…as lenient as we should be.”

“How people drink too much and get CAVA-ed is a result of how stressed they are. They feel like they need to obliterate themselves to forget about it,” Student Wellness Project co-chair Julia Saenz, CC ’16, said.

“At other schools, people tailgate all day for football games and here, people barely make it to homecoming,” Coates said. “Everybody here is busy, and I don’t think there’s a lot of willingness to hang out and de-stress.”

While planning and scheduling more campus-wide events may seem like a simple solution, Dean of Undergraduate Student Life Cristen Kromm said student attendance at such events pales in comparison to Bacchanal.

“We can have ideas for fun events but if students don’t buy into them, offering something that nobody shows up for isn’t great at all,” Kromm said. “When students tell me that the only fun day of the year on campus is Bacchanal, that makes me sad for them and their college experience.”

Engaging students is further complicated by Columbia’s location in New York City, which students said detracts from a unified campus community.

“Being in the city allows people to branch out more, and they’re less likely to stay on campus,” Anisha Datta, CC ’18, said.

In addition to a lack of fun events, students said spaces on campus intended for recreation are sparse. However, as graduate programs move to the Manhattanville campus in the coming years, making more spaces available on the Morningside campus, students have voiced the need for more recreational spaces—and possibly even a new student union—for undergraduates.

“You go to colleges around the country, even other Ivy League schools, and you see a genuine student center where students don’t just go to study,” Wadood said. “Lerner Hall frankly doesn’t serve that purpose. … It’s become a student services building instead of a student center.”

By contrast, Scott said he benefitted from the built-in social outlet provided by Harvard’s residential housing system, through which students spend their final three years in the same house.

“It’s a nice little microcosm,” Scott said. “It is a reduced little Harvard community.”

Additionally, some student council members want to ensure that renovations on currently existing buildings, such as those planned for Café East and Café 212 in Lerner this summer, will prioritize recreational space.

“If [Café 212] ends up resembling a library, people are going to end up going into that space with a particular mindset—and that mindset is that they should be studying,” Engineering Student Council Vice President of Policy-elect Sidney Perkins, SEAS ’17, said. “If we put something disruptive in that space, like a foosball table or an air hockey table or a pool table, people will feel like they do not have permission to study.”

SEAS administrators are currently adding couches to the Seeley W. Mudd Building, according to Boyce, which she said is part of a larger effort to stake out small social spaces within academic buildings.

We’re trying to do things in that kind of sense to provide more community spaces, and I think that those also have a side effect, if you will—that it lowers stress level,” Boyce said.

Beyond the pursuit of social spaces and increased campus-wide programming, students and administrators agreed that building a community that emphasizes social ties over workload would require a combined effort.

“I want you to get more out of being here. Maybe you don’t see the difference between fun and happiness, but it should be fun,” Valentini said. “We can’t fix it for you, but we can work on it together.”

news@columbiaspectator.com | @ColumbiaSpec