Review – The Overachievers

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.




Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities by Alexandra Robbin

Summary: Despite the provocative subtitle, most of the information gathered by the author as she went undercover as a sorority girl is nothing especially new. After all, everyone knows sororities can be exclusive, conformist, and superficial organizations. But Robbins’ account of life inside the sorority house still makes for fascinating reading. Following four sorority sisters through their first year in the house, a world of sex, drugs, eating disorders, and insecurity is revealed. One wonders, though, if these experiences are that different from the experiences of those students not affiliated with Greek societies. What is arguably different, though, is the extreme pressure brought to bear on these young women to repress their own natural instincts, desires, and inclinations in order to fit in with an amazingly shallow and often unworthy group of friends. Where the author really scores is in her analysis of why otherwise intelligent and sensitive women would sacrifice their independence, and often self-respect, for the sake of an artificially engineered secret society.

My thoughts:

This book definitely hooked me from the beginning. Robbins followed four girls, from two different sororities at two different campuses, through the course of an entire year – the girls’ first full year as sorority sisters in their prospective sororities. The idea of being in a sorority has never interested me personally – I just don’t connect with the idea of complete exclusivity, especially when you are required to live, eat, take classes, and party with only the girls who are your “sisters”. Add that to the fact that I’ve never exactly been the “cool” kid, and it’s pretty obvious why I wouldn’t feel like I’d belong in this type of group. Having said that, this first hand account of what really goes on in sororities was absolutely fascinating to me. The weird thing was, even with all the negative stuff (most of which I already knew or could have assumed anyway) Robbins “exposed”, I found myself sort of wishing I had thought about rushing when some of the better things about sororities were talked about in the book. Some of the girls were just so in love with their sisters and so close to all the girls in the house that it made me feel like it might be fun to have 150 girls who would do anything for me. But obviously, the things about sororities that make them so foreign and weird to me came to light and I quickly realized how ridiculous it would be for me to have even thought about that when I was in college.

Robbins did a really good job, in the last chapter, of being pretty fair-minded and non judgmental in her analysis of her year of observation. She made some really good points about the potential benefits of sororities to college women, but then spent the majority of her analysis on everything that sororities need to do to clean up the lifestyle and the idea of the organization as a whole. Overall it was a very interesting read, especially if you have had little to no exposure to sorority life like myself.