College Try

High School and the high cost of high achievement.

Alexandra Robbins, author of “The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids.”

“Back when I was in school I had to…” [fill in the blank with your choice of unenviable hardship]. Sorry, but adults can’t use that line anymore, because the demands of school are more grueling and stressful than ever before. That’s the lesson of “The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids” (Hyperion), in which author Alexandra Robbins chronicles the exploits of a diverse group of high school students—all of them under intense pressure to meet arbitrary numerical goals (SAT, GPA, class rank) and earn admission to a name-brand college or university. As Robbins’ book demonstrates, the succeed at all costs mentality that now pervades our secondary school system takes its toll on parents and students alike. 

Failure interviewed Robbins to get the lowdown on the state of education and to explain how a B is now equated with failure.

In “The Overachievers” the students you follow are from your alma mater, Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland. How have things changed since you graduated in 1994?

At Whitman and high schools across the country things have become a lot more intense. School is now a dog-eat-dog battleground rather than a place where students can learn to develop their identities and figure out what they want to do later in life. School is not about a love of learning anymore. It’s now a competitive sport. 

How did we get from Jeff Spicoli [Sean Penn, Fast Times at Ridgemont High] to Tracy Flick [Reese Witherspoon, Election]?

[Laughs]. It’s a mix of a number of things. One is the sheer increase in numbers. In only five years the number of students enrolling in college has increased by 1.2 million. That increases the competition—especially for selective universities and colleges—which haven’t increased the number of spots available. Students start hyperventilating because they think they have to get into a top-tier college to succeed in life, and because the numbers at the traditionally top-tier colleges haven’t changed, it’s trickling down to what in the past were less selective colleges, which can now afford to be selective because there are so many students vying for acceptance. 

How much stock are students and parents putting into college rankings? 

Way too much. I’ve heard from students who say they will only apply to the top 25 schools on those lists, not realizing that the categories the magazines use to rank schools have no bearing on the undergraduate experience. For example, one factor is how much professors are paid. Well, professors are often paid according to how much research they do, and if professors are spending time doing research then they are not spending a lot of time with students. Another factor is the rate of alumni giving. That doesn’t work either, because often that has to do with how well a school’s football team did that year. Plus, the colleges cheat on that data too. According to the Washington Monthly, there is one west coast college that reclassifies alumni who haven’t donated in five years as “dead.”

Where do parents and kids get the idea that getting into a so-called top-tier school automatically equates with a better life? 

It’s partly the media, partly society’s emphasis on prestige. It’s a narrow definition of success based on scores and prestige and financial gain. Also, for many families it’s an idea that carries over from past eras when the traditionally top-ranked schools really were better schools than public universities. People don’t realize that the other universities have caught up and in many cases surpassed the traditionally elite colleges. It’s definitely a myth that you need to get into one of the “top” schools in order to get ahead in life.

Who benefits most from this notion that you have to get into a “top” school in order to be successful? The schools do because it’s a continuing cycle where the more selective they can be and the more students they reject the more they move up in the college rankings. Moving up in the rankings leads to even more students applying because they want to apply to a school they think is top-ranked. And the cycle keeps going. It leaves the elite colleges elite and the rest somewhat neglected. 

Who do you think is hurt most by this notion?

Students. Students lose their childhood because for many families the rush toward college acceptance begins before a child turns ten, if not when the child is conceived. I’ve heard of two-year-old’s with résumés. In many cases you find kids who are more apprentice adults than actual kids because they are being groomed to get into a certain type of college. 

And parents are also negatively affected by this, not only because they too are hyperventilating over these issues, but because this culture has changed what many parents think it means to be a parent. Experts have called it “parent as product development” or “parenting as a competitive sport.”

What are some of the other consequences of this overachieving culture? 

Three of the eight students I followed had suicidal thoughts at some point. Some of them were depressed. Often the consequences include a damaged parent-child relationship. I also spoke to a lot of twenty-something’s to see what happened after they left school. Many of these overachievers crashed or broke down because they were so worried about continuing to overachieve after college. 

Basically, overachiever culture affects the top level of students in that it pushes them more than they should be pushed. It affects lower level students in that schools are pressured to favor the top students at the expense of the lesser students. There is no middle ground or “average” any more. So a lot of kids slip through the cracks that might not have slipped through the cracks in previous decades. 

Do school age children fear failure?

Oh definitely. And failure for many school age children equals a B. I heard from some students for whom A- was a failure. 

But isn’t success or failure relative, when one person's failure is another's success and vice-versa?

That's the problem. It is taken to an extreme with, for example, class rank. Approximately 81 percent of schools in the U.S. still use class rank. So one person’s success really is another person’s failure because in order get to the top you have to step over your classmates. Some people say that competition is healthy and that’s the way it is in the real world, but no, not quite. People aren’t compared to each other statistic by statistic. And it’s gotten to the point where the competition is too unhealthy for students, many of whom are choosing their classes based not on how interested they are in the subject but rather on how a class will boost their GPA. 

How much of a problem is grade inflation?

It’s a problem. There is no longer a gentleman’s C. Professors are now talking about the gentleman’s B. But the issue that shocked me is not that students were trying to get A’s but that when students asked their teachers to bump up their A-minus to an A or their B-plus to an A- teachers were caving in, especially to the top students. I spoke to high school teachers who were specifically told by administrators that they had to give the top students better grades than they deserved. The high schools need these kids to get into Ivy League colleges because it looks better for them. So this atmosphere is putting a lot of pressure on teachers as well. 

What about the new SAT? How do you see it impacting the education environment? 

One of the goals of the new SAT is to force schools to teach to the test. But this is a private company that is trying to dictate—through the SAT and through AP [Advanced Placement]—the curriculum of this country. I have a problem with that. 

Personally, I think the SAT should be scrapped and more and more colleges are no longer requiring it. It does not predict freshman year grades, it does not predict college graduation rates, and it certainly does not predict how accomplished someone will be later in life. There is no value to it. 

Can you explain why so many students are using prescriptions—so-called academic steroids? 

Attention Deficit Disorder [ADD] drugs are what are called universal enhancers, which means they will help anyone focus, regardless of whether they have ADD or not. Students are seeing their friends—who may legitimately need these prescriptions—being helped by these drugs. They say, “The drugs aren't going to hurt me, they might as well help me,” and they want to do everything they can to get better scores. So there is a huge black market—in colleges and high schools—for these pills among non-ADD students who want to dope for tests like athletes dope for sporting events.

Can you explain the term “helicopter parent”?

A helicopter parent is a parent who hovers over a child and swoops in whenever there is a problem to solve that problem for the child. They are always hovering over the student’s shoulder. Lately I have been hearing the term “kamikaze parent" and also “lawnmower parent,” which refers to a parent who will mow down anything to make the path easier for their child. 

How do you think the colleges and universities feel about this trend towards overachieving? 

I’ve heard from some admissions officers who are glad “The Overachievers” was written, because sometimes they get as fed up with the myths as families do. 

Is this a good time to be applying for college? 

It’s a competitive time to be applying for college. If you keep everything in perspective, there are 2,500 four-year colleges in the United States, most of which are going to bend over backwards to accept any good student. So as long as you choose schools that aren't rejecting more than 90 percent of their applicants it doesn’t have to be that stressful a process. Too many people focus on the same 10 to 20 schools year after year. These are schools that in many cases are over-hyped and over-estimated. 

Is there anything that can be done to change the competitive environment in education? 

There are a whole bunch of suggestions in “The Overachievers.” Most importantly students and parents need to know that the admissions process is not personal, whether we are talking about private school admissions or college admissions. An admissions letter doesn’t reflect anything about a student’s character. Sometimes the difference between an acceptance letter and a rejection letter is just the fact that the school orchestra needs a French horn player. 

Also, it’s important not to get caught up in the comparison game where parents talk about their children or kids talk to other kids about their grades, scores, or their college applications. Nobody comes out looking good and nobody feels good after that. I advise parents and students to make a pact with each other not to talk about any of those things outside of the family, with the possible exception of a guidance/college counselor. Too many students are fine with their grades and their scores and their college application list until they start talking to other people. Then suddenly they feel inadequate for some reason.

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