The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids  by Alexandra Robbins

From the jacket flap –

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 are defined not 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:

  • Julie, a track and academic star who is terrified she’s making the wrong choices,
  • “AP” Frank, who grapples with horrifying parental pressures to succeed,
  • Taylor, a soccer and lacrosse captain whose ambition threatens her popular-girl status,
  • Sam, who worries his years of overachieving will be wasted if he doesn’t attend a name-brand college,
  • Audrey, who struggles with perfectionism, and
  • The Stealth Overachiever, a mystery junior who flies under the radar.

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.

My thoughts –

There is a LOT of truth to the issues presented in a book, and honestly, I’m glad someone decided to write about this stuff.  I experienced much of these issues myself while in high school; I did not go to an elite private school like the kids in this book, but I did go to a pretty tough public high school in a nice neighborhood where many students went on to really great, Ivy-type colleges.  I can’t say that I bought into the pressure nearly as much as most of these kids did, but I knew many students that did.  I also knew many of those students felt intense pressure from themselves, and also from their parents, to be perfect and successful in every single class and activity they did.  Robbins did some really great research for this book, she told the story in an almost novel-like way, and she really got to the heart of what most of these kids were going through.  All while exposing something that I believe will really cripple students once they get out into the “real world” and realize that perfection simply doesn’t exist.

So overall, an excellent book, and one I definitely think every parent should read.  No matter how old your kids are, either they’ll go to high school one day, or they’ve already been there, and either way, this book helps to understand a little bit better the kinds of pressures teens face on a daily basis.

The one problem I do have with this book is there’s virtually no discussion of class whatsoever.  There’s a good reason I didn’t get as crazy about grades and activities and getting into the perfect college in high school as some of my peers did:  I simply could not afford to.  I had to work 30+ hours a week in HS just to pay for everyday expenses, and I knew from day one that I was going to be paying for my college education myself, which meant a state school for sure, no matter what my grades and SAT scores said about me.  Furthermore, I wasn’t able to prep for the rat race in the years leading up to HS like other kids; no gymnastics classes, violin lessons, soccer practice, or math tutors for me – there simply wasn’t any money for extra stuff like that.  A key point that Robbins missed is what an incredible disadvantage there is for kids with lower socioeconomic status.  If the kids in this book, who had every advantage in the world, were terrified of not getting into the right college, and spent half their lives worrying and competing their brains out, where does that leave the kids like me, who simply do not have the time or money to compete in this way?  This is a critical discussion that I think would really have improved Robbins’ arguments, and I’m disappointed that she missed it.

Even so, I enjoyed the book, and highly recommend it, especially for those of you with children.

8 stars.