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Last year, Penn was ranked the 10th most stressful college in America. 

Credit: Julio Sosa

Penn is home to a range of students, from 18-year-old freshmen who have never lived away from their parents to College of Liberal and Professional Studies students in their 30s, many of whom have jobs and families. While students may differ in age and background, they all struggle with academic stress and have found various solutions for managing it. The Daily Pennsylvanian discussed the challenges of Penn’s elite academic culture with four Penn students from various schools and departments.

College junior Sophia Tareen: self-exploration, not competition

College junior Sophia Tareen, vice president of the MedX Program, believes the pre-professional culture at Penn has many possible downsides.

Tareen, who has noticed the competitiveness among many Penn students, believes the culture has many possible downsides.

She is the vice president of the MedX Program, a pre-health organization of about 50 students with backgrounds in engineering, nursing and pre-med. While serving on the MedX policy committee during her freshman year, she learned that many pre-med students felt frustrated with their C-average grades in their classes.

She got involved in the “Pre-Med Culture Project,” which sent out an online survey to students that received around 200 responses. Over 80 percent of respondents described feeling overwhelmed with stress because of Penn’s highly competitive environment. The organization went on to have a panel discussion that included pre-med health advisors, professors and medical students.

“That offered the opportunity for pre-med underclassmen to gain the knowledge they needed in order to not feel so unsure of themselves, to know that they are in the right place and doing the right thing,” Tareen said. “I think that the knowledge and insurance relieved some of the mental stress that comes with being an underclassmen.”

College is a time of self-exploration, she said, but because Penn is a pre-professional school, it doesn’t always allow for that exploration.

“A lot of times at Penn, if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re made to feel inferior, which is not how I think college should be,” Tareen added. “College is a time when you’re young and still trying to figure out what you’re doing.”

She encourages students to take control of their own mental health by allowing themselves to be vulnerable, opening up to others during hard times and carving their own paths of success.

“Really make sure that you have your own definition of success,” Tareen added. “Penn has a very limited criteria of what is successful.”

LPS sophomore Shannon McMahon: awareness of students’ diverse priorities

Shannon McMahon is an LPS student balancing her career and academia.

McMahon explained her struggle as a non-traditional student to balance work and school. A transfer student from Harcum College with an associate degree in veterinary technology, McMahon has a tight schedule: She takes one course per semester, works about 50 hours per week as a veterinarian nurse and about 10 hours as an administrative assistant at Harcum College — not mention she has a fiancé.

“They’re all very important to me, and I don’t know which one to give up on,” McMahon said.

She admits that at the end of her days she feels mentally exhausted both from her job as a nurse and from the constant pressure of school in having to keep up with her assignments’ deadlines.

“I have to-do lists that you wouldn’t believe,” she added. She does some of her class reading during her bus rides and completes some of her school work on the job whenever possible.

McMahon hopes professors will be more flexible with deadlines to accommodate students with busy work schedules.

“I have to be realistic — school is a very high priority for me,” McMahon added. “However, my career that I already have is a much higher priority, and that’s just reality.”

She advised students not to register for more classes than they can handle and take a break when needed.

“The best thing to do when you are truly at that point of mental exhaustion is to put the assignment down,” McMahon said. “You’re not going to get anything out of it by just continuing to work in exhaustion.”

Ph.D. student Sameer Deshpande: keep things in perspective

PHD student Sameer Deshpande in his office.

Sameer Deshpande, a third-year Ph.D. student in the Wharton School studying statistics, has come to see both the value of being around hardworking peers and renowned faculty and the drawbacks of trying to maintain a high standard of excellence.

“I think there is definitely stress,” Deshpande noted. “First, it doesn’t seem like a big deal at all, but it can be very easy to develop unhealthy habits and unhealthy perspectives when your life starts to be governed by what you’re working on. You sort of lose sight of some of the bigger things.”

Deshpande said being aware of this situation allows students to become proactive in knowing when to back away from their studies.

“It’s okay to take a weekend off, it’s okay not to work all day, you don’t have to study for this test four times,” he said.

He added that today, when he sees certain students overwork themselves, he tells them that in the grand scheme of things their extra work is going to make little difference.

“I sort of got that perspective later on as I was moving on through the program,” Deshpande explained.

MBA student Ming Khor: more than just academics

Second-year Wharton MBA student Ming Khor believes the Penn culture could stand to benefit from less competition. 

Ming Khor, a second-year MBA student at Wharton said his program is flexible. He explained that his program not only includes academics, but also networking and socializing, and more emphasis is put on finding a job rather than acquiring high grades.

“The academics are manageable,” Khor said. “They are what you make of them.”

During his first three semesters, Khor focused his energy on academics, while today he is more engaged with other aspects of the program such as sports clubs.

The school has a grade nondisclosure policy that allows students to withhold their GPA from potential employers — a policy that relieves some of the academic pressure on students.

“The caliber of students here is really quite high,” Khor explained. “So I don’t come here and have to feel like I have to compete with a bunch of smart people for a number.”

Regardless of the policy, he pointed out that internal stress lingers among students because of the competitive nature of their environment and students’ desire to fit in. Also, because finding a job is the main focus of his program, some students are not as invested in their studies as they should be. As a result, there is continuous tension among some students and the professors. Khor added that in general Penn could improve its campus culture.

“Penn students can take steps to build a community that is less competitive and more encouraging,” he said.

Photos by Staff Photographer Morgan Rees.
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