Reviews

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

Mary McCoy

At the end of a year spent interviewing students, parents, college counselors, and other education professionals, Robbins concludes that in the effort to create high-achieving teens, we've created basket cases.


The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids

Publisher: Hyperion
Length: 439
Price: $24.95
Author: Alexandra Robbins
US publication date: 2006-08
UK publication date: 2006-08
Amazon

While the term "helicopter parents" has been in usage for over 10 years, 2006 is the year it finally made the big time. In recent months, it seems that nearly every major news outlet has weighed in on the phenomenon of hovering parents so obsessed with ensuring a child's success that they micromanage every aspect of his or her life. A recent Washington Post article included telling remarks from college administrators around the United States about their experiences with incoming students who lack coping skills and are ill-equipped to face the independence that comes with their impending adulthood.

In Alexandra Robbins latest book The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids, over-involved parents are only one part of the problem. Today, Robbins argues, teens are overscheduled and overworked. They rely on overblown standardized test scores and class rankings to guarantee their admission to over-ranked colleges and universities. And as a result, they become so over-competitive and over-stressed that high school becomes something akin to the television show Survivor. At the end of a year spent interviewing students, parents, college counselors, and other education professionals, Robbins concludes that in the effort to create high-achieving teens, we've created basket cases.

Of course, the primary site Robbins uses for her study is hardly a typical example of American high schools. Bethesda, Maryland's Walt Whitman High School is one of the highest-achieving public schools in the United States, where many students go on to Ivy League schools. The year that Robbins studied the school, its students' mean SAT score was 1256. It is also significant to note that Whitman is also Robbins' alma mater, the place where she became a self-described "overachiever." In many ways, Robbins isn't so different from the scarily accomplished students she studies. A 1998 Yale graduate, Robbins has published four books, including 2004's bestselling and compulsively readable Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities. Still, she argues, even since her high school days, things have changed.

In Robbins' account, we spend an academic year with several Whitman students and one Whitman alum in his first year at Harvard. Robbins begins the segments of each students' story with their name, as well as a label that describes how they are perceived at school. During her time with the teens, Robbins explores the pressures these students face at home, from their peers, and from their academic and extracurricular workloads. What we encounter is a group of young adults with a very good idea of how they appear on paper, and how they stack up to their classmates, but with little sense of their own identities.

Julie, 'the Superstar,' is plagued by self-doubt and indecision about her college choices and is so stressed out that she loses noticeable amounts of her hair. Similarly, Audrey, 'the Perfectionist,' is perpetually tense and nervous, obsessing over school projects that most students regard as busywork and spreading herself thin in her extracurricular activities. At one point, Audrey's SAT study regimen gets so out of hand that her father takes away her vocabulary flashcards.

While in most cases, the Whitman students are their own worst critics, a few of the students interviewed by Robbins have overachievism thrust upon them at home. One student's mother repeatedly berates him, saying, "You're not going to get into any school ... you'll end up being a waiter for the rest of your life." Worse, however, is the plight of AP Frank, nicknamed for his daunting high school course load. AP Frank's mother choreographs a miserable existence for her children involving supervised homework, and no time for extracurricular activities, friends, or even leisure. As the book unfolds, it is revealed that her overbearing behavior sometimes becomes abusive, as in one incident where she breaks AP Frank's thumb during an argument about his homework.

Surprisingly, AP Frank's story is one of the book's most hopeful. The socially inexperienced freshman enters Harvard fearing that "before I know it, I'll be in med school, pushing myself to be a doctor when I don't want to be one." He also worries that after being caged so long in his mother's house, he'll go crazy once he gets to college. Neither of these things happen, however. Frank learns to make the adjustment to freedom and the beginnings of adulthood with maturity and self-possession, and even musters the courage to rebel against his mother's plans for his future.

Also refreshing is Robbins' account of "The Stealth Overachiever." While this student's classmates grub for grades and drive themselves crazy in the quest for the perfect high school transcript, Stealth is more interested in being a person than a series of statistics or a list of activities. Although often overlooked or underestimated by classmates and teachers, the Stealth Overachiever's accomplishments pay off and offer a striking counterpoint to the often unhealthy attitudes of other Whitman students.

Even the most cursory of examinations will reveal that the phenomenon of stressed-out teenagers, crushed under the pressure of unrealistic expectations and unchecked ambition, is not so widespread as Robbins would have us believe. The Whitman students take for granted the kinds of advantages and opportunities that many young adults do without -- relatively stable home lives, a stimulating and challenging academic environment, and access to home computers, private tutors, college counselors, and SAT study classes. When thousands of teens have never even considered the possibility of taking an AP class, much less applying to college, it must be admitted that this is primarily a problem facing children of privilege.

This does not mean, however, that their plight is unsympathetic. In addition to studying the microcosm of Whitman, Robbins also explores these issues more broadly, tackling everything from the rise of cheating, prescription drug abuse, and suicide rates among teens to problems created by the No Child Left Behind legislation. While the book casts a wide net, Robbins does a good job balancing big issues with individual narratives, and in showing their connections to one another. Moreover, while these students may be children of privilege, they don't have the sense of entitlement that characterizes poor little rich girls and boys. When students like those profiled in The Overachievers don't even feel entitled to happiness or sleep, Robbins' claim that high school isn't what it used to be seems fair.


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