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College Prep Stress Fest
Jozina Campbell

As a sophomore in high school I was invited to join Gateway, a program for African-American and Hispanic students with an 85 average or above. I felt honored by the invitation, and it turned out that everyone in the program was friendly and open.

Before, I’d been surrounded by classmates who looked like they didn’t want to be in school. But Gateway students were motivated like I was, and I felt I was in the right place. I never imagined that being in an environment where school was taken seriously could prove to be a source of stress.

I’d heard that junior year is difficult, but I doubted it could be so bad. And in fact, it started out OK. Though I found classes like trigonometry and physics challenging, they were nothing I couldn’t handle. Right up until winter break, I had everything under control.

After the break, I was invited to join Shippy Scholars, a program within Gateway. Shippy Scholars is designed to introduce students with an average of 90 or above to information on “the better colleges,” financial aid, and scholarships. I was hesitant to take on another responsibility, but ended up agreeing because many of my Gateway peers were also joining the program and I thought, “Whatever they can do, I can do.”

What’s a Personal Statement?

Two days before the first group meeting of the Shippy Scholars, Mr. Shay, a college adviser for Gateway, sent an e-mail to Shippy students telling us to prepare a first draft of our personal statement for college applications. He mentioned that group meetings would take place after school at City College. By bus and train it would take me at least an hour to get there.

His e-mail made me tense. On one level, I had always intended to get a head start on my path to college and knew that this would have to begin during my junior year. But on another, I was not mentally prepared to start thinking about college applications. I found myself panicking.

“What about all the homework I need to do after school? How will I get to City College? What in the world is a personal statement?” So many questions ran through my head, along with one answer: Don’t do it! I was ready to give up on the Shippy program before I’d even started.

When I expressed my concerns to some of my friends in Gateway, they insisted it was a good opportunity and worth trying. My older sister—who has completed two years of college herself, and who I look to for advice and guidance—agreed, so I didn’t give up. I wrote a draft of my personal statement that same night, in preparation for the meeting.


My friends and I traveled together to City College. We took our seats in the first row of the lecture hall and began to listen to the familiar voice of Mr. Shay. At first he repeated stuff that we heard every day from our teachers and guidance counselors: Make sure you’re taking rigorous classes and studying for your SATs and ACTs.

Then he began discussing things that hadn’t occurred to me: how to stand out in our personal statements, how to apply for financial aid and scholarships, and how our college expenses might affect our parents financially. By the end of the year, we should have already taken the SAT, one SAT subject test, and the ACT.

He emphasized that the next SAT registration deadline was coming up; the fee was almost $50, and over $20 more if we missed the deadline. He also warned us about other expenses to come: extra fees if we expected to take each test more than once; senior dues the following year; college application fees.

I was sitting beside my best friend Danielle who, like me, looked nervous and worried. From past experience I knew my parents’ income bracket meant I wouldn’t get any fee waivers. How in the world would my parents pay for all of this on top of their other expenses?

I didn’t want to cry but I couldn’t help it. These demands were so much greater than I was used to. Not only was I worried about my parents financially, I also wondered how I would balance so many college concerns and schoolwork at the same time.

I blanked out and didn’t realize when the meeting was over. No one seemed to notice the tears that fell from my eyes as I handed in my personal statement. I felt alone in a really big room.

No Consolation

After the meeting, Danielle and I walked down the hill to the train station. The tears kept coming. Danielle said, “I know how you feel, but we will be all right.” I looked at her but remained quiet. To me it felt like a lie: Everything would not be OK.

No one could console me. That night, I went to my sister in tears and told her how overwhelmed I felt. She asked me, “Why are you worried about Mommy and Daddy? They will do anything for you if it pertains to school. You’re doing great in school.” But her words didn’t reach me.

My mother also gave advice, but it sounded like everything else I was hearing that day. She kept saying, “It will be all right” and “If it’s too stressful, don’t do it.” That didn’t help, because I didn’t want to give up any good opportunities.

Still, I nodded in agreement because I didn’t want to begin crying again. I managed to keep the tears away for the rest of the evening, but when I thought about the meeting earlier, I felt hopeless.

image by Freddy Bruce

Step by Step

Everyone who knows me knows that I always have a smile on my face, but the next day at school was a little different. I kept hearing “What’s wrong?” but I barely answered. I was dazed in most of my classes, totally disconnected from what was going on.

At the end of the fourth class of the day my friend Alex came to my desk and asked the infamous question again: “What’s wrong?” I figured that it wouldn’t hurt to tell her what I was going through. So I shared what happened at the meeting the day before, how I had broken down, and all I’d been feeling since.

I expected her to tell me, “It will be all right,” just as everyone else had. Instead, she gave me a needed hug and asked, “Can I share something with you?”

“Go ahead,” I said.

Keeping her hand around my shoulder, she went on. “My mom told me this story about a painter. He had a vision of this really beautiful painting he wanted to create, but it was big. He knew it would take a lot of time. He became very stressed and thought, ‘How in the world am I going to finish this?’

“The question bothered him until he said, ‘You know what? I will take it one day at a time.’ And that’s what he did. In the end he painted exactly what he wanted and it was beautiful. What I’m saying is that you shouldn’t think about everything you have to do all at once, because then you’re going to keep feeling overwhelmed.”

By then I had stopped crying. Her story was simple, but it meant so much to me at that moment. I was learning the same lesson as the painter in a different situation; we both wanted to get through the big challenge all at once, and that’s not how it works.

Alex’s words helped me realize what I needed to change. I had to focus on breaking everything down into steps to make it through this challenge.

Worry Less, Plan More

As the weeks went on, I avoided over-thinking the work I had to do by planning out my time. Listing everything I had to do and when to do it, I signed up for my ACT and SAT. When I had any spare time, I prepared for these tests, worked on my personal statement, and most of all, tried to relax.

I was still working hard: writing for my school newspaper, holding a position in student government, and doing the best I could in all my classes. But as I learned to avoid thinking about everything at once, I found that I could plan things so that I completed daily tasks and still had time to research college information.

As the year went on, my peers in the Shippy program began to show signs of stress themselves. Many looked like they had missed a lot of sleep or just wanted the day over with. No one had that happy, first-day-of-school look anymore.

I began to realize that it wasn’t just me—what we were facing was stressful. When any of my friends told me they were feeling anxious, I would tell them that I went through the same thing, and that the only way to get through it is to slow down.

More Than a Number

I had another setback in March, when I got my report card and found my overall average had dropped from a 93 to an 89. I broke down once more as I wondered what all my hard work had accomplished.

But my guidance counselor encouraged me: “Jozina, do you know how much you’re balancing while maintaining this average?” he asked. “I’m proud to see you’re still striving and working hard. Why are you letting a number define you? You’re more than a number. Are you going to let this stop you?”

I shared his advice with the other kids in my program, too. For the rest of the spring, I focused on ending my junior year strong, making sure that I did my work each day. Right up into June, I was getting homework and projects from my teachers. Instead of stressing I kept at it, taking each task as it came and appreciating myself for balancing a lot of demands.

Ready for the Challenge

I went into my junior year with a lot of expectations. I didn’t want to disappoint my family, who work so hard for me. I wanted to prove to others that I was smart and that I could take a challenge. At the same time, I was trying to do whatever my adviser and counselor asked of me. This caused a lot of pressure from both outside and within, and it’s not surprising that those pressures eventually took their toll.

But what I went through was valuable. I learned not to attempt all my tasks at once, because there are limits to what I can take on. I learned to breathe, slow down, and plan ahead.

As senior year starts, I face a few hectic months. This is the time when I will be applying to colleges—the time when everything I was working hard for and worrying about becomes real. I will keep the lessons I learned in mind and breathe calmly through everything I have to do.

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