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Book Review of The Overachievers by Alexandra Robbins

I originally wrote this review in one of my own blogs over a year ago.  I plan to write an upcoming blog or article about technology and cheating, so I wanted to preface that with this piece about a book I think every educator, parent, and high school student should read.

Robbins, Alexandra. The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids. New York: Hyperion, 2006.

In this book, the author returns to her own high school (Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland) to follow nine students dealing with the competitive pressures of making the transition from high school to college. All but one of the students are juniors or seniors; the one other is a freshman at Harvard. As students prepare to go off to college, prestige is the key in their selection process. Ivy Leagues are preferred. Students (and their parents) frequently compare themselves to one another based on course loads, SAT and AP scores, GPAs and grades, and choices of colleges they’re applying to. When the parents get involved, the competitive comparison reaches epidemic proportions. The author also assigns each student she studies a nickname that is based on how that student is perceived by others around him or her.

Each chapter of The Overachievers takes us chronologically through a school year, chronicling the progress of the students while also focusing on topics that could fill entire volumes themselves, and about which many studies have been done. Robbins located and found many specialists and experts to consult for each topic. She distills each controversy or element of this overachieverism culture into what directly affects kids in this vicious trap of comparison and measuring up. These issues have a great impact on our country’s education system and the effect its having on our nation’s youth. The end of the book documents her thorough research to back up her assertions.

Here’s a quick overview of what she covers in each chapter:

In chapter one, “Meet the Overachievers,” Robbins introduces the students she followed as well as the overachiever culture that has transformed high school’s sole purpose into getting students into the most prestigious colleges and universities rather than the school that would be the best fit for each individual student.

In chapter two, “Pressure,” she describes the impact of Asian culture and expectations on Asian American students, especially where education is concerned. She also talks about how the problem of overachieving is universal across our entire country, not just in affluent areas or at well-known high schools.

Chapter three, entitled “Finding a Place,” details the impact of stress on adolescent health. We meet the world of professional college counselors whom parents hire to get their students into the colleges of choice. The emphasis is on the prestige of the university, not on the needs of the student.

Chapter four, “Numbers,” outlines the importance placed on teaching to tests, including AP exams, and how NCLB (No Child Left Behind) is changing the face of American education. In an effort to get us competing on the world stage, we’re sacrificing true education and academic integrity for a prized score. Robbins describes the epidemic of cheating in our country, including information about a 2004 incident at Saratoga High School in the area where I live.

Chapter five is called “Competition,” and it shows how this trend begins as early as preschool and kindergarten. There are even consultants for the process of getting kids admitted to selective schools at this young age. This chapter also covers class rank and GPA and several controversies over the titles of valedictorian and salutatorian, as well as more about how common cheating is, partly so that students can achieve high GPAs and class ranks.

In chapter six, “Perceptions,” Robbins is invited to observe the inside world of kindergarten admissions at Trinity School in New York City. In addition, there is a discussion of youth athletics and both their cause of major health issues in children and the intense competition at unhealthy levels and how it affects kids and their families.

Chapter seven is called “Left Behind.” Here we continue our inside look at Trinity’s admissions process, and then the topic turns to sleep and the adolescent. High school students go through a profound change. Their internal clocks keep them wired until at least 11:00 at night, and their bodies and brains now require 9.25 hours of sleep per night. However, high school days start at 7:00 or earlier. Some research has been done on later start times for high schools, and despite findings that this is a great success, most schools and districts will not even consider changing their schedules.

In chapter eight, “Verdicts,” the high schoolers we’ve been following start hearing back from the colleges to which they’ve applied for early decision admission. In their community, they feel judged based on where they applied and where they’re getting accepted. Robbins looks into whether a university’s prestige even matters in a student’s future success. (She cites many examples of well-known and successful CEOs and other executives who attended “ordinary” schools.) She also delves into the magazine rankings of colleges and universities. It turns out that this practice is pretty bogus and the entire process is plagued by dishonesty on the part of the competing schools. Finally, real admissions officers from Stanford and other prestigious schools share how the admissions process works, and we learn that much of what high school students kill themselves to achieve actually has little or no bearing on their acceptance.

Have you heard of “helicopter parents”? Chapter nine, “Family Matters,” brings this phenomenon to light. Helicopter parents hover around their children and swoop in to handle any crisis, no matter how big or small, causing their kids to be unable to fend for themselves when they need to. A professor and former administrator from Georgia is quoted as referring to the cell phone as “the world’s longest umbilical cord.” Parents living vicariously through their students cause the kids to not even know who they are or what they want. Eventually, the children “crash and burn” (word choice mine) and feel as though they have no value, especially if they fail to become what their parents unrealistically expect (demand) of them.

Chapter ten, “Breaks,” exposes the practice of “grade grubbing,” where students refuse to accept less than an A and will pester and cajole teachers point by point to get their grades raised on tests, projects, and report cards. It’s no surprise that this is rampant among students when schools cheat in their own ratings process by discouraging certain students from taking the SAT or by falsifying data about how their students have performed.

In chapter eleven, “Superlative,” we hear how students perceive one another, often mistakenly, and how in high school many students sacrifice exploring interests and having fun for trying to make their classes and activities fill out a perfect resume for impressing college admissions officers. Some students are actually pushed by their parents (like one young man who took 17 AP courses during high school), but others are driven by an unhealthy perfectionism within themselves.

Chapter twelve, “The Space Between,” is an eye opener. It discusses drinking, drug use, and sex among high school students.

Chapter thirteen is called “Tested.” It covers the SAT, why and how it was changed, and whether the revised version is any better at rating or evaluating students and their ability to succeed in college. We also learn about the new SAT and its essay component, which some college completely ignore. Some college and universities are eliminating their requirement for SAT or ACT scores in an effort to minimize their importance and the stress that surrounds them.

I found chapter fourteen, “Keeping Up,” a bit disturbing. It focuses on ADD and two commonly prescribed ADD medications: Ritalin and Adderall. Apparently, many non-ADD students are using other people’s prescriptions to get a competitive edge at school, especially during testing periods or finals. Even more shocking is that some parents actually push for their non-ADD children to be diagnosed so that they can get them drugs. They will shop around for a doctor and go through visit after visit until they find someone willing to prescribe. In the lives of the students, as SAT scores come out, one of the kids we’re following describes the different kinds of “score weasels” at her school – kids who spend all their time comparing and trying to find out each other’s scores. Another student reacts angrily when her mother talks to other parents about the student’s score report. This “Age of Comparison” phenomenon extends to students’ choices of schools where they apply – they are constantly asked where they’ve applied, where they’ve been accepted, and they feel as though they’re being judged.

In chapter fifteen, “Young ‘Adults’,” we see how this intense drive to succeed begins with parents of babies and toddlers, even some whose babies are still in the womb. Intense educational efforts are being made to give the youngest children an early start at becoming geniuses (and some of these in utero efforts are even being considered potentially harmful to the developing fetus). We then lament overscheduled kids and the demise of recess, despite its proven effect of impriving student wellness and achievement. We learn about the rise in suicide among children (not just high school students) due to stress. The concept of taking a “gap year” is discussed as a way to give kids a break.

Chapter sixteen, “Changes,” sees some of the student stories brought to a resolution as they seek to change certain aspects of their lives. We discover first hand the inability of overachievers to function as adults capable of making their own decisions and allowing themselves to seek happiness over “success.”

Chapter seventeen, “Back to School,” continues winding down the student stories as each individual moves on to the next year of schooling. There is a review of overachiever culture and the author suggests how we can begin to remedy the situation. So I close my review with a quote from the author, and a skeletal list of her suggestions (which she describes in more detail in the book).

“Let me be clear: This is not a call for mediocrity. It is a call for perspective. What good is a nation with the highest test scores in the world if many of its youngest citizens are so miserable they kill themselves?”

What Schools Can Do:
• Delay High School Start Times
• Drop Class Rank
• Deemphasize Testing
• Provide Less-Competitive Alternatives
• Assign – and Enforce – Coordinated Departmental Project and Test Days
• Increase Awareness
• Limit APs
• Reinstitute Recess

What Colleges Can Do:
• Boycott the Rankings
• Scrap the SAT
• Eliminate Early Decision
• Prioritize Mental Health
• Send a Message (by changing applications to reflect what the school is truly looking for)

What Counselors Can Do: Focus on the Student, Not on the Schools

What Parents Can Do:
• Limit Young Children’s Activities
• Get a Life
• Schedule Family Time
• Place Character Above Performance

What Students and Parents Can Do:
• Stop the Guilt
• Adjust the Superstar Mentality
• Carve an Individual Path
• Ignore the Peanut Gallery
• Accept That Name Does Not Reflect Ability

What Students Can Do:
• Pare Down Activities
• Take a Year Off
• Try an “Unrewarding” Activity
• Reclaim Summer
• Accept That Admissions Aren’t Personal
• Take Charge

My opinion: if you are a parent or if you work in the field of education (or if you ever plan to do either), you MUST read this book. The sooner the better.

 

Diane Main is a Google Certified teacher who teaches technology integration in San Jose, California.

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