So, what are you going to do after you graduate?” As a junior in college majoring in the liberal arts, this question plagues me on a weekly basis. By this point in my college career, I have a few standard responses. The hopeful: “I’m going to make cultural change.” The indignant: “I’m going to do whatever I want!” The truthful: “I don’t really know yet.”
But while I’ve figured out how to respond to the question, many of my peers and I still feel pressure from the sentiment behind it—that our liberal arts degrees don’t lead us to any specific jobs and so we could leave college unemployed, homeless, and without any clear direction. As a way to avoid the Impending Doom, I’ve noticed that some of us consistently over-commit ourselves. We’re leaders of campus organizations who have year-round internships. We volunteer while making money in work-study jobs or by babysitting two families at once. We take five or six classes a semester because we need enough credits to fulfill our double or triple majors. I exaggerate not. You may not see us too often because we don’t stay in one place for long, but we do exist. And we’re really freaking stressed out.
Is it because we live in fast-paced, anxiety-inducing New York City? Is it the pressure we feel to be successful after going to an Ivy League school? Are we just a small group individuals who like being over-productive, who have a lot of interests, or who thrive in stressful situations? While these may all be factors, I also think there’s another force at play: the Curse of the Good College Girl.*
The Good College Girl does well in her classes, is involved in her campus community, has at least one job or internship, dresses smartly and stays in shape, and, of course, has a fulfilling and super fun social life. While none of these are unhealthy or harmful qualities, altogether this is a pretty high standard. Unfortunately, just like the original Curse of the Good Girl, it’s an impossible standard to live up to 24/7.
As a graduate and former employee of GLI, I am aware that the Curse of the Good College Girl is a too-high standard that sets me up for a cycle of anxiety and disappointment. But recognizing it is different from internalizing it, and the fear that I could fail can still be all-consuming. Right now, failing equates to not finding a job. While I know logically that it’s not entirely in my control, I still do anything I can to try to make sure that that situation won’t happen.
I’m beginning to realize that this race to be successful isn’t going to end when I leave college. I’ll always feel social pressure, whether to get the next more well-paying or more satisfying job or to get married and to have a family. Unfortunately, by sometimes letting these social pressures run my life, I give myself a lot of extra anxiety.
Though I would love to pledge here and now to stop caving to Good College Girl pressure, I’m not going to do that. Realistically, I don’t think I’m going to stop committing to a lot of activities. I like being engaged in my campus community and in the outside world, I like the classes I’m taking, and I do think it’s important to plan for my future. And, honestly, it would be too difficult to break these deeply ingrained habits all at once.
A friend recently suggested that being a Real Girl isn’t something one decides to do and then does effortlessly, in one fell swoop. It’s a complicated and difficult process that is the result of a collection of small, daily decisions. With that in mind, I do pledge to monitor my stress levels and to practice self-care as frequently as possible. I also plan to drop a class if I feel like I’ve taken on too much this semester. In these small ways, I want to start being a Real College Girl, one who is honest about her goals, her fears, her successes, and her limitations.
*Note: Male college students may overachieve as well, but I am going to keep this discussion gendered in order to demonstrate the connections between the social pressures that demand perfection from girls in high school and the social pressures that demand perfection from female college students.