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The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kidsby Alexandra Robbins
Synopses & Reviews
"You can't just be the smartest. You have to be the most athletic, you have to be able to have the most fun, you have to be the prettiest, the best dressed, the nicest, the most wanted. You have to constantly be out on the town partying, and then you have to get straight As. And most of all, you have to appear to be happy." — CJ, age seventeen
High school isn't what it used to be. With record numbers of students competing fiercely to get into college, schools are no longer primarily places of learning. They're dog-eat-dog battlegrounds in which kids must set aside interests and passions in order to strategize over how to game the system. In this increasingly stressful environment, kids aren't defined by their character or hunger for knowledge, but by often arbitrary scores and statistics.
In The Overachievers, journalist Alexandra Robbins delivers a poignant, funny, riveting narrative that explores how our high-stakes educational culture has spiraled out of control. During the year of her ten-year reunion, Robbins returns to her high school, where she follows students including CJ and others:
Robbins tackles hard-hitting issues such as the student and teacher cheating epidemic, over-testing, sports rage, the black market for study drugs, and a college admissions process so cutthroat that some students are driven to depression and suicide because of a B. Even the earliest years of schooling have become insanely competitive, as Robbins learned when she gained unprecedented access into the inner workings of a prestigious Manhattan kindergarten admissions office.
A compelling mix of fast-paced storytelling and engrossing investigative journalism, The Overachievers aims both to calm the admissions frenzy and to expose its escalating dangers.
"In this engrossing anthropological study of the cult of overachieving that is prevalent in many middle- and upper-class schools, Robbins (Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities) follows the lives of students from a Bethesda, Md., high school as they navigate the SAT and college application process. These students are obsessed with success, contending with illness, physical deterioration (senior Julie is losing hair over the pressure to get into Stanford), cheating (students sell a physics project to one another), obsessed parents ( Frank's mother manages his time to the point of abuse) and emotional breakdowns. What matters to them is that all-important acceptance to the right name-brand school. 'When teenagers inevitably look at themselves through the prism of our overachiever culture,' Robbins writes, 'they often come to the conclusion that no matter how much they achieve, it will never be enough.' The portraits of the teens are compelling and make for an easy read. Robbins provides a series of critiques of the system, including college rankings, parental pressure, the meaninglessness of standardized testing and the push for A.P. classes. She ends with a call to action, giving suggestions on how to alleviate teens' stress and panic at how far behind they feel." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"At a time when 'underperforming' seems to be the sorry watchword of American education, it's unsettling to come across a book bemoaning the plight of the overachievers. Forget the impoverished teenagers stuck in anarchic schools that would shame the worst Third World potentate; it's the kids with a shot at Harvard who've really got problems. They have too much homework in too many classes, extracurriculars... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) that require their leadership and parents who feel entitled to a sticker from a name-brand college on their car. And then there are SAT prep classes to attend, recruitment calls from Ivy League coaches to field and prom to dread. At least, that's how Alexandra Robbins reports it in her latest book, 'The Overachievers.' She spent three semesters in 2004 and 2005 at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, (Md.), her alma mater and one of the top public high schools in the country, to gather evidence for her sweeping indictment of the 'twisted values of an educational system gone wrong.' While Whitman hardly seems like an appropriate first stop on a tour of educational dysfunction (its average SAT scores are more than 200 points above the national average, and 95 percent of its students go on to college), Robbins found ample evidence that its top students are overwhelmed by all that they have to do. She follows eight students (four juniors, three seniors and one college freshman) who are all struggling to cope: Julie's hair is falling out; Ryland has panic attacks before physics tests; Audrey is so afraid of falling behind that she goes to school even when she's terribly sick. (Most of the names were changed.) And what's it all for? Admission to a top-ranked college. 'As Sam explained to me in only our second meeting,' writes Robbins, 'if he didn't get into a school whose prestige reflected his exhaustive work and the nights he spent studying until three A.M., he would feel he had "done a lot for naught," even if he fell in love with a non-elite school that was perfect for him.' Robbins' strength is in the particular, in spending hours and hours with her subjects, earning their trust and serving as the scribe to their anxieties. Her description of Julie's elation at beating her own best track time is thrilling, while Frank's frustrated rage at his mother's dictatorial control ('You want (to) spend time with friends?' she screams on one occasion. 'You are a social whore!') is heartbreaking. The agonizing over romances gone awry and test scores that don't measure up reads truer than any yearbook ever could. But Robbins, whose previous books investigated sorority life and the Yale secret society Skull and Bones, stumbles when she widens her lens to what she says is a nationwide crisis of 'overachieverism,' in which high school has become 'a competitive frenzy ... a hotbed for Machiavellian strategy.' While that is undoubtedly true for a subset of students from a subset of high schools gunning for a subset of very exclusive colleges, most students graduate blissfully unscathed. (Teachers and parents in schools across the land, not to mention Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and her No Child Left Behind acolytes, beg for such a plague of competitive frenzy.) Indeed, according to the Department of Education, the vast majority of students attend colleges that accept more than half of those applying — and don't particularly care what club an applicant presided over as a high school sophomore. In a clumsy attempt to document the universality of this overachievement crisis, Robbins subjects readers to blasts of facts on sleep deprivation, suicide, eating disorders, cheating, college admissions and Asian educational systems. She interviews students from New Mexico to Nebraska to the famously competitive New Trier High School outside Chicago. But throughout it all, she skates past how issues of wealth and privilege (and their opposites) play into her thesis. That becomes most obvious when she takes a lengthy and puzzling detour through the admissions process at elite Manhattan preschools. Yes, it's bizarre that the schools observe toddlers at play to decide which ones will make the cut, but she never makes the case that what goes on in these rarefied schools is relevant to anyone but the very rich. And yet she has prescriptions for everyone: Colleges should dump the SAT and boycott U.S. News' college rankings (I once served as deputy editor for education at U.S. News but did not work on the rankings, thankfully); high schools should stop ranking students, limit the number of Advanced Placement classes students can take and allow them to get healthy amounts of sleep by delaying start times; parents should 'get a life,' and students should 'accept that admissions aren't personal.' But in an age of rampant grade inflation, college admissions officers use class rankings and standardized test scores to determine whether there's a brain behind all those A-filled report cards. And few students really need to cut back on AP classes. The average qualified high schooler takes just one a year. 'The Overachievers' hardly inspires hand-wringing about the state of American education. In fact, this reader came away thinking that even these stressed kids would be all right. Not all of them got into Ivy League schools, and not all of them will have the world-changing careers that they imagine for themselves. (But really, who does?) Even the unhappy ones — Ryland and Frank with their cruel mothers, Audrey with her crippling perfectionism — had slowly begun to feel their way toward saner ground by the end of the school year. These kids — these bright, hardworking, overachieving kids, these kids who should make every parent and teacher glow with pride — will be just fine. Rachel Hartigan Shea is a contributing editor of The Washington Post Book World." Reviewed by Rachel Hartigan Shea, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"I couldn't get enough of it....
"An overwritten account of the overachiever culture that is stressing out teenagers....Some worthwhile research here, buried under an off-putting amount of teenage trivia." Kirkus Reviews
"[I]t's difficult to ignore [Robbins'] perspectives on such issues as the influence of the SAT or the day-to-day struggles of the kids, who can't rest until they 'outwit, outplay, and outlast' the competition." Booklist
"Compelling investigative journalism....The author concludes this eye-opener with suggestions for high schools, colleges, counselors, parents and students alike." BookPage
Book News Annotation:
Noting that overachieving has increased in recent years, Robbins tells the stories of nine overachievers over the course of a year and a half--both juniors and seniors in high school and freshmen in college who went to her high school in Bethesda, Maryland. Topics addressed within the narratives include the trend towards private college counseling, the college application process, Ritalin abuse, pressure, perceptions by peers, test scores, and the decrease in leisure time. In the final chapter, she makes recommendations to schools, colleges, counselors, parents, and students for helping to change the culture of overachieving. Robbins is an author of other books relating to college, and has written for Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and other publications. There is no index. Annotation ©2006 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
The bestselling author of Pledged returns with a groundbreaking look at the pressure to achieve faced by America's teens.
The bestselling author of Pledged returns with a groundbreaking look at the pressure to achieve faced by America's teens
In Pledged, Alexandra Robbins followed four college girls to produce a riveting narrative that read like fiction. Now, in The Overachievers, Robbins uses the same captivating style to explore how our highstakes educational culture has spiraled out of control. During the year of her ten-year reunion, Robbins goes back to her high school, where she follows heart-tuggingly likeable students including "AP" Frank, who grapples with horrifying parental pressure to succeed; Audrey, whose panicked perfectionism overshadows her life; Sam, who worries his years of overachieving will be wasted if he doesnt attend a name-brand college; Taylor, whose ambition threatens her popular girl status; and The Stealth Overachiever, a mystery junior who flies under the radar.
Robbins tackles teen issues such as intense stress, the student and teacher cheating epidemic, sports rage, parental guilt, the black market for study drugs, and a college admissions process so cutthroat that students are driven to suicide and depression because of a B.
With a compelling mix of fast-paced narrative and fascinating investigative journalism, The Overachievers aims both to calm the admissions frenzy and to expose its escalating dangers.
About the Author
Alexandra Robbins, the author of two New York Times bestsellers and a former New Yorker staff member, has written for publications such as Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Washington Post. Her five books also include Secrets of the Tomb, which investigated the secret society Skull and Bones.
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