Thursday, August 10, 2006

Harvard or Bust (Review by Eugene Allen, the New York Times)

THE OVERACHIEVERS The Secret Lives of Driven Kids.
By Alexandra Robbins.
439 pp. Hyperion.

August 6, 2006

I was sick of college talk. Sick of reciting the names of the schools my 16-year-old has visited, which ones she liked best, and why. Sick of listening to other parents do the same. Sick of discussing the finer points of the new SAT, class rank and recommendation letters. Sick of the chatter about Opal Mehta, the fictitious Harvard applicant and heroine of a recent plagiarized novel. So sick of it all that I was considering a ban on extrafamilial college talk from now until spring, when my daughter will finally belong to someone’s class of 2011.

Then I read “The Overachievers,” which is almost nothing but college talk. Alexandra Robbins profiles eight students at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., in-depth over three semesters in 2004 and 2005; they talk about college. She pans wide to include overachievers across the country; they talk about college. She consults experts on college. She surveys the literature about college. She calls for new ways of thinking about college, preparing for college, and applying to college. I couldn’t get enough of it.

“The Overachievers” is part soap opera, part social treatise. Robbins identifies her main characters — four juniors, three seniors and one alum who’s a college freshman — by how they’re perceived at Whitman. Then she stands back and lets them prove otherwise. Julie, the Superstar, is so plagued by self-doubt that she worries she will be voted “Most Awkward” by her senior classmates. Sam, the Teacher’s Pet, runs out of time to find and interview a Muslim for an assignment in his Modern World class, so he makes one up and writes a fake transcript of their conversation. And A.P. Frank, who took a grueling all-Advanced Placement course load his junior and senior years of high school, wants nothing more than a decent social life when he gets to college. I was so hooked on their stories that I wanted to vote for my favorite contestant at the end of every chapter.

The book is less effective when Robbins leaves Whitman to gather supporting anecdotes from students in other parts of the country. After a while the kids at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., sound like the kids in Kentucky, who sound like the kids in Vermont, who sound like the kids in New Mexico. There’s also a detour into the cutthroat world of private schools in Manhattan that would have worked better as the seed for another book. Nice coup, sitting in on interviews and admission decisions at the Trinity School, but can we please get back to Bethesda?

When “The O.A.” is on location, it reads like very good young-adult fiction, thanks to its winning cast, its surprising plot twists — the Stealth Overachiever turns out to be the kid you’d least expect — and its pushy parents, including one truly disturbed mother. In one funny-sad scene, the Popular Girl, torn between Penn and Duke, stands at the post office with acceptance letters to each. She finally mails one, then decides she’s made a terrible mistake and begs the clerk to retrieve her letter. Twice. In another episode, it takes three hours of instant messaging for Julie, the Superstar (SAT verbal 760), and Derek, another senior (verbal 800), to establish that they like each other — but only as friends.

Robbins has a lot in common with her young subjects. A 1998 Yale graduate and the author of the 2004 best seller “Pledged,” about sororities, she graduated from Whitman a decade before she began researching this book, and she quietly admits that she, too, is an overachiever. Robbins is also a good writer, and she must be a good listener, because she more than delivers on the promise of “secret lives” in the subtitle. Her main characters confide in her about everything from cheating and test anxiety to underage drinking and self-mutilation. (Curiously, there’s no sex to speak of in “The Overachievers”; it must be the only area in which these kids don’t outperform their peers.) Robbins handles these private struggles with a minimum of fuss, offering economical, generally dispassionate digests on often disturbing topics.

Occasionally, however, she weighs in on education policies and parenting practices that she considers especially egregious, including the No Child Left Behind Act (because it favors test scores over teaching); grade inflation in high school and college (she’s surprised teachers and administrators often cave to student and parental pressure); and pre-professional sports for children as young as 8 (she worries about their mental and physical well-being). At the end of the book, Robbins offers sensible suggestions for reform: elementary schools should reinstate recess and high schools should drop class rank, she argues, while colleges should scrap the SAT and eliminate early decision. In Robbins’s utopia, where children and adolescents are free to learn at their own pace, without the burden of standardized tests, carefree Huck Finn would have a better shot at the Ivy League than overprepped Opal Mehta. Better still, Huck would choose a smaller, more nurturing school because he would know that name-brand schools aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, which is another of Robbins’s arguments.

A quibble: Overachievers or not, the kids in this book are way too well-spoken. Anyone who has tried to have a conversation with a teenager recently will doubt that this series of complete sentences, from an interview with a senior in California, was uttered by a member of the same species: “I was definitely very stressed, and I worked very hard. Long nights studying, job shadows, college classes, internships, SAT’s, sports, all at the same time as balancing a social life. This could be why students do things to such extremes. There is a sense of urgency and pressure.” Meanwhile, one after another, the Whitman students offer long, articulate confessions to a “friend” who seems not to be their contemporary and who surely must be Robbins herself. The device wears thin. And it’s disconcerting to learn, in the endnotes, that Robbins encouraged the Superstar to keep a journal “about moments she felt were significant to her high school experience.” Was the author already thinking ahead to how it would look in print? (The girl happens to write beautifully.)

But Robbins gets the big picture right. Yes, this is a terrible time to be applying to college. With too many talented students vying for too few spots at a handful of top schools, we shouldn’t be surprised that many are buckling under the pressure to be perfect. There are signs that the tide is turning, starting with colleges themselves. Fed up with the hegemony of the College Board and the predations of some private college counselors, more schools are making the submission of SAT scores optional, and adding application questions that invite students to talk about what they do for fun. From a Stanford admissions officer: “It’s that idea of packaging and coaching, students trying so hard to make themselves stand out — we’re not able to see how they really are. There are no life experiences that would get you into Stanford. It’s not what you’ve done; it’s how you’ve experienced whatever has happened to you.”

Some readers will undoubtedly mine “The Overachievers” for hints on how the Teacher’s Pet got into Middlebury early, or why a student with the ideal transcript was wait-listed at Yale. They will miss the point. These kids may have learned how to play the game, but as Robbins makes clear, it’s time to change the rules.

Eugenie Allen has contributed articles about family life to Time and The New York Times.


August 6, 2006
First Chapter

‘The Overachievers’



Julie, senior | perceived as: The Superstar

On the surface, Julie seemed to have it all. A straight-A student without exception since sixth grade, she took a rigorous high school curriculum that had included eight Advanced Placement classes thus far. Walt Whitman High School's most talented female distance runner since her freshman year, Julie had co-captained the varsity cross-country, indoor track, and outdoor track teams as a junior. School and local newspapers constantly heralded her athletic accomplishments. An aspiring triathlete, Julie was president and co-founder of the Hiking Vikings Club (named for Whitman's mascot), a yoga fanatic, a member of the Spanish Honors Society, and a big buddy to a child at a homeless shelter.

As a freshman and sophomore, Julie was one of three elected class officers and, as a junior, co-sports editor and co-student life editor of the yearbook before she quit. To top it off, she was a naturally pretty sixteen-year-old with a bright, mesmerizing smile, cascading dark blond ringlets, and a slender figure that she was known for dressing stylishly. Her friends constantly told her that boys had crushes on her, though she rarely picked up on those things. She was currently dating her first real boyfriend, a family friend headed to college in the fall. There were students at Whitman who revered her.

Julie had earned her summer vacation. Junior year had been stressful, both academically and socially. She took eight academic classes the first semester, skipping lunch to squeeze in an extra course. Socially, she began to question whether she belonged in her tight-knit clique of fourteen girls, a group other students knew as the River Falls crew, even though only a handful of the girls lived in that suburban Maryland neighborhood. Though Julie had known many of them since elementary
school, she didn't feel comfortable opening up to them. Even in that large group of girls, she still felt alone.

Throughout her junior year, Julie's hair gradually had begun to thin. In June her concerned mother took her to the doctor. After the blood tests returned normal results, the doctor informed her that thinning hair was "not unheard of among junior girls, as stress can cause hair loss." Julie told no one at school about her ordeal. She was able to bulldoze through junior year with the hope that, if she pushed herself for just a little while longer, she would have a good shot at getting into her dream school. She had wanted to go to Stanford ever since she fell in love with the campus during a middle school visit. It seemed natural to her to aim high.

One summer evening, Julie was buying a striped T-shirt at J. Crew when she heard a squeal. A Whitman student who had graduated in May was bounding toward her. The graduate didn't even bother with small talk before firing off college questions: "So where are you applying early?" Julie demurely dodged the question with a polite smile and a wave of her hand.

The graduate wasn't deterred. "Well, where are you applying to college?"

"I don't know," Julie said, keeping her mouth upturned.

"Where have you visited?"

"Some New England schools," Julie said, and changed the subject.
So this is what the year will be like, Julie thought. Endless questions and judgments based entirely on the name of a school. Julie hadn't decided where she would apply. She wondered if the pressure simply to know was going to be as intense as the pressure to get in.

Julie's parents had hired a private college counselor to help her work through these decisions. Julie was excited for her first serious meeting with the counselor, who worked mostly with students in a competitive Virginia school district. Julie had been waiting for years to reap the benefits of her years of diligence. At last she felt like she could speak openly about her college aspirations without fear of sounding cocky.

Normally not one to saunter, Julie glided into Vera von Helsinger's office, relaxed and self-assured. She crossed her long, tanned legs and politely folded her hands in her lap. After mundane small talk with Julie and her mother, Vera asked for Julie's statistics and activities. Julie listed them proudly: a 4.0 unweighted GPA, a combined score of 1410 out of 1600 on the SAT, good SAT II scores, a 5 on the Advanced Placement Chemistry and English Language exams, and a 4 on the Government exam. When Julie told her college counselor about her extracurricular load, triathleticism, and interest in science, Vera proclaimed her "mildly interesting."

Julie handed Vera a list she had taken the initiative to compile from Outside magazine's annual ranking of top forty schools based on their outdoor opportunities. Julie's list began with Stanford, Dartmouth, Williams, Middlebury, the University of Virginia, UC Santa Cruz, and the University of Miami. Vera asked, "Is there anyone else at Whitman who has the same personality as you?"

"No," Julie said in her typically breathy voice. "I consider myself an individual."

"Well, Taylor is kind of a do-er," Julie's mother pointed out.

Julie nodded. "Taylor is an athlete who wants to apply early to Stanford," she said. Julie's friend Taylor also was active in school and a good student, especially in math and science. "I guess you can also say Derek." Rumor was that Julie's friend Derek, widely considered Whitman's resident genius, scored his perfect 1600 on the SAT without studying until the night before the test. He had mentioned that Stanford might be his first choice.

Vera said she considered herself a "brutally honest" person, but Julie was nonetheless taken aback when the counselor told her not to bother applying early to Stanford because she was unlikely to get in. Applying early to that kind of a reach school, Vera said, was not a strategic move to make in the game of college applications.

Julie was crushed. She hadn't been dreaming of the California campus for so many years only to be told that even sending in an application was a waste of time. Applying early to a school she wasn't in love with didn't make sense to her. "What ... what would it take for me to get into Stanford?" she stammered.

"You would have to have lived in Mongolia for two years or have been in a civil war," Vera replied.

Julie looked at her mother and rolled her eyes. I've done everything within my power that I can do, Julie thought. It's not my fault I live a normal life! Vera caught the glance. It was so difficult to get into college these days, she told Julie, that if she didn't have her lineup of interesting extracurriculars, the best school she could consider was George Washington University. I don't have a chance at my dream school when I've done everything right, Julie thought, feeling helpless. If Taylor and Derek got into Stanford and she didn't apply because of a counselor's strategy, she would be angry, because she was just as qualified.

After the meeting, Julie channeled her frustration into a journal entry:

The mix of schools on my list must have been bewildering to Vera because she asked how much prestige mattered to me. Evaluating the importance of prestige reminded me of shopping. Some people only like clothes once they find out they are designer-Seven jeans, Juicy Couture shirts, North Face fleeces-but I get much more satisfaction out of getting the same look (or, in my humble opinion, a better look) from no-name brands. The label matters to a lot of people, but not to me. Unfortunately, I don't feel the same way about college. I wish I could have said that it doesn't matter and that I know I can be successful anywhere, but I grew up in Potomac and go to Whitman, so obviously prestige is important to me. As an example, Vera asked me to choose between UC Santa Cruz and Cornell. I deliberated for quite a while, trying to will myself to say Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is beautiful on the outside, but I hear Cornell is, too. Also, I always hear about the people who commit suicide at Cornell, while everyone is supposedly happy and totally chill at Santa Cruz. However, Cornell is in the Ivy League, which would make it attractive to many people. "They both have their pros and cons," I said diplomatically. Vera is also really into the whole early-decision craze. I can't see myself applying to any school early except Stanford, because how do I know that school is perfect for me? I love all those New England schools except for one thing: the cold. I don't even know that Stanford is perfect, but there is something about that location that screams perfection. But it's all a game of odds. I could settle to apply early somewhere else and then be rejected. Or, I could "waste" my early decision on Stanford when I could have gotten into Williams early (especially since I have been in contact with the coach). It is a lot to think about. After shaking Vera's hand, I walked out of the office. I felt like I was leaving something behind, but then realized it was only my confidence that she had stolen from me.

Julie had no idea what her college counselor really thought of her. But I did.

I was not supposed to be a part of this story. As a journalist, I view my role as that of an observer, not a participant. As a storyteller, I like the novelesque quality of scenes in which readers forget that a reporter buffers them from the "characters." For the rest of this book, my perspective will be absent from the students' stories. In this case, however, it's important to share how I got in the way.

When Julie and her mother invited me to accompany them on their second official visit to the college counselor, I readily agreed. I was interested to see whether Julie would stand by her personal preferences or decide the "expert" knew best. We agreed that Julie's mother would tell the college counselor I would join them. The day before the meeting, I learned that Vera wanted to speak with me.

The college counselor informed me that she had a "near-perfect record" of getting her students into elite universities. Julie, she said, was far behind the rest of her clients in the application process. "All my other students are almost done. Julie hasn't even started her essays," she said. (Julie, who was itching to write her essays, had told me that Vera instructed her not to start them.) Then Vera hit me with something unexpected. She said, "She's not a great student. She's not going to get into a top college." And if I, as a reporter, happened to follow one of her clients who didn't end up getting into such a school, Vera told me, her reputation would be "slammed."

Brutally honest, indeed. It was hard to believe we were discussing the same girl: straight-A, Advanced Placement student, three-sport varsity captain, triathlete, excellent writer, a girl with a passion for science ... At first I assured Vera that she could be anonymous in this book, with no identifying details disclosed. "Oh, anonymity isn't the issue. I wouldn't mind my name in there. It's publicity," she said. She told me she would love to be interviewed, she could introduce me to people, she had so much to say. "I can be helpful in other ways!" she said eagerly. I was perplexed. The conversation ended unresolved.

The next morning Vera left a message on my voice mail: "Julie and I have decided to postpone our meeting."

Now that the afternoon was free, I called Julie to see if she wanted to get lunch instead. While on the phone, I asked her why she and Vera had postponed the meeting. "Oh, wow," she breathed in an even more halting voice than usual. "Um ... Well, Vera told my father that she wouldn't work with me if I worked with you."

I was mortified. Julie's family had barely gotten to know me, and already my presence in their lives, which was supposed to be as a sideline spectator, was an obstacle in the very process through which I hoped to follow Julie. I called Vera to tell her that I wouldn't attend her meetings, I wouldn't mention anything about her if she kept Julie on as a client, and it wasn't worth dropping Julie because of me. But I was too late. Vera had delivered her ultimatum. She maintained that if a reporter shadowed one of the few clients she had who she believed wouldn't be accepted into an elite school, then Vera's record would be ruined. It was either Vera or me.

I backed off. For days I waited on pins and needles for the situation to be settled one way or the other. Then one afternoon I got a call from Julie. "This is going to make a great college essay!" she said. "My college counselor fired me!"

Audrey, junior | perceived as: The Perfectionist

Audrey's alarm rang at 6:10 A.M., but she didn't awaken until 6:40. For the first time since she could remember, she didn't get up early on the first day of school. In prior years, she had beaten her alarm, excited to get the year started, her outfit chosen well in advance. But this year, junior year, would be different. She could feel it already. She had spent much of the previous night rereading her assigned summer books. She had finished the reading days ago, even annotating every page of the optional book, but didn't realize until the night before school started that she was also supposed to define vocabulary words from the literature. Until 2:30 A.M. Audrey pored through the hundreds of pages of all four books again in order to get the assignment done perfectly.

Audrey could pinpoint the beginning of her perfectionism to the moment. At age six, she was in a two-year combination class for first- and second-graders. Midway through the year, Audrey's teacher persuaded her parents to make her officially a second-grader instead of a first-grader. That year Audrey had a homework assignment to decorate a rock as an animal. Other kids spent forty-five minutes on the project and were satisfied. Audrey spent all day gluing pipe cleaners and googly eyes to the rock, hysterically crying when she couldn't get the pink construction-paper nose exactly as she wanted, desperately trying to prove herself worthy of second grade by producing the perfect rock puppy.

Now, in high school, when Audrey's teachers assigned reading, she wouldn't just read; she would type several pages of single-spaced notes about the material. When studying for exams, she would then rewrite, in neat longhand, every word of her typed notes. She couldn't help it. Audrey couldn't do work that was merely good enough. It had to be the best.

Worried she would be late for carpool, Audrey grabbed a denim skirt out of her closet, fretting briefly about its length-Whitman's dress code mandated that it fall below her fingertips. She yanked on a polo and a cotton long-sleeved sweater over her wavy golden hair, because the school's air-conditioning made her small frame shiver. She wolfed down some of the eggs her Puerto Rican father had cooked for her, hefted her bulging backpack, and bolted out the door.

The carpool driver must have noticed that the juniors in his car were particularly unhappy to be returning to school. "How do you feel about waking up early?" he asked. Audrey laughed from the backseat, her braces gleaming. Audrey and C.J., her best friend until recently, had spent the summer lifeguarding the first shift at the neighborhood pool, so they were used to waking up early. But Audrey privately wondered why she had so much trouble getting out of bed that morning. For the first time on a school day, she didn't even have time to finish her breakfast. She wondered if her already shifting schedule was an ominous sign. She had heard rumors about how junior year, the most important year for a college rÈsumÈ could wallop even the most accomplished student.

The car pulled into the school driveway with minutes to spare before first period began at 7:25. Before Walt Whitman High School was renovated in 1992, it had been a nondescript building except for its gym, a magnificent enclosed dome. When the new building was erected, the beloved dome was torn down. Now the school's green-trimmed brick facade resembled a Nordstrom department store. . . .

Link to "the first chapter" in the New York Times

from the publisher

The book info on

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