July 20–September 1: MEET 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 Icould 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 résumé, 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.
Audrey followed the throng of students trying to squeeze through the green double doors of the main entrance. Even though it wasn’t yet 70 degrees, the 96 percent humidity, typical for August in Bethesda, Maryland, left a heaviness in the air. The new principal, Dr. Goodwin, stood inside, amiably chatting with students who clustered in the halls, scanning the lists of alphabetical homeroom assignments posted on sheets of paper taped to the walls. Audrey was relieved to see that among the girls in jeans and capris, there were plenty with skirts much shorter than hers. She found her homeroom on a sheet posted next to the main office, not far from a framed Newsweek cover and a plaque commemorating Whitman as one of America’s best high schools.
Audrey took advantage of much of what Whitman had to offer. She was particularly devoted to the school’s award-winning newspaper, the Black & White, which arguably took more time and energy on a daily basis than any other extracurricular activity at Whitman. The student-run paper, with a staff of about 115, was printed about every two weeks as a sixteen-page issue along with The Spectator, an eight-page sports and arts supplement. The paper’s professionalism rivaled that of many college newspapers. The harder Audrey worked this year as a reporter, the better the editorial position she would get in May, when the seniors who ran the paper announced the following year’s appointments. She had her eye on the top three positions.
Audrey walked into her second-period Advanced Placement English class and stopped short, surprised to see the seats full of seniors. She looked again at her schedule. She was in the right room at the right period. “Audrey!” said a senior she knew, “you’re in the wrong room!”
Confused, Audrey returned to the hallway. She knew she had read her schedule correctly. If I go in again, they’re going to laugh at me because I’m a junior and I can’t find my classroom, she thought. Known for being assertive, she walked back into the room. “Excuse me,” she stammered to the teacher, her hands flapping as she tried to explain. “My name is Audrey. I’m a junior, and I think they—they put me in your class.” She tried to ignore the seniors, who were now laughing at her, and handed her schedule to the teacher.
“You’re right, they enrolled you in the wrong class,” the teacher said.
“What should I do?”
“Go down to guidance.”
Her face beet red, Audrey went downstairs to the guidance office, thinking that anything that could possibly go wrong with her schedule usually did, like on her first day in middle school, when the school didn’t even have her name down as an enrolled student. The line to speak to a guidance counselor was half an hour long. If Audrey had any work to do, she would have started on it right away, but she didn’t, which meant the waiting period was a major waste of time. Good grades were important to her, as they were to her parents.
By the time her counselor fixed her schedule, Audrey had missed the entire period. At lunch, Audrey slid into an empty seat at a table where friends were talking about junior Advanced Placement English, the class Audrey had missed. “We already have all this work!” they complained. Great, Audrey thought. It’s only the first day, and I’m already behind. That instant was when it hit her that she might never catch up.
AP FRANK, COLLEGE FRESHMAN | PERCEIVED AS: THE WORKHORSE
His hand tucked sheepishly in a pocket, AP Frank, he of Whitman lore, ducked through the main doors into the school building just after second lunch began. Immediately, he was surrounded. “AP Frank!” squealed a girl who launched herself into a bear hug that widened his shy grin into a full-on beam. He greeted his younger brother, a Whitman junior, as he continued down the hall to the lunchtime hot spots in search of Sam, a senior friend he had come back to visit.
On his way to the music hallway, where he thought he might find Sam, AP Frank was stopped repeatedly by students he didn’t know. “Hey, AP Frank, what are you doing here?” they asked.
“I’m bored, so I’m coming here to see some people,” he replied.
“What do you want to major in at college?” they pressed.
AP Frank shrugged and moved on.
A tall kid in an orange shirt stopped directly in front of him. AP Frank had never seen this person before.
“Legendary AP Frank! What are you doing here?” the kid asked.
AP Frank smiled uncertainly. “School hasn’t started yet, and I’m really bored.”
The kid nodded. “What’s your major going to be?”
“I don’t know.”
The kid smirked. “Come on, man, you really don’t know?”
“I don’t know, man.” AP Frank wouldn’t even be a college freshman for another ten days.
“You’re AP Frank,” the kid insisted. “You don’t want to be a doctor or a politician or something?”
AP Frank still found it strange that so many students at his old high school knew who he was, or thought they did—a far cry from when he first arrived as a timid sophomore transfer. He grew accustomed to his reputation as a lovable geek, though he was embarrassed when, at the graduation ceremony in June, then-principal Jerome Marco—himself a Whitman legend—praised him in front of everyone. What weighed on AP Frank most heavily were the expectations.
Whitman students—many of whom wanted to be him, many of whose parents pushed them to emulate him—didn’t know AP Frank as well as they thought. Expectations from strangers probably wouldn’t have bothered him if they hadn’t suffocated his home life for as long as he could remember. By the time AP Frank and his brother Richard arrived at Whitman, the pressure had become routine. Each afternoon, as soon as the brothers got home from school, they were expected to sit at their desks in their adjacent bedrooms and study, backs to the hallway, doors open. From an office chair stationed in the hall, positioned precisely so that she could see every move the boys made, their mother peered at them over her newspaper. And she watched them. From 2:30 in the afternoon until they went to sleep, with only a quick break for a dinner of Hot Pockets, gyoza, kimchee, or a microwaved meal, and a half-hour time-out to watch either NBC or ABC News, she watched them.
If the brothers so much as looked up from their homework for more than a passing glance, she snapped at them to return to their studies. Even when they stood up to go to the bathroom or to grab a glass of orange juice from the kitchen, if they were out of range for longer than five or ten minutes, she reeled them back in. They could not chat on the phone; she screened their calls. They could not watch non-news television; she deemed it “junk.” They could not go out with friends; she did not approve of social activities. In Mrs. AP Frank’s household, which was small and cluttered—perhaps only twenty-four square inches of the dining room table were visible—there was no idle computer time, no athletics. Mrs. AP Frank was “against extracurriculars,” including sports, that “won’t get you into medicine or law.”
Sometimes during the school year, AP Frank would peek into the hallway to see that his mother had dozed off behind her newspaper. The moment her eyes closed, he scampered to the computer in her bedroom, where he would sign on to instant messenger and gab with friends. His brother would wait five more minutes to make sure their mother truly was out, then tiptoe either to the other computer in the hall or downstairs to watch TV. Inevitably, Mrs. AP Frank would wake up, see that her boys weren’t at their desks, and quietly, very quietly, sneak up behind them to catch them in the act of non-studying.
For years AP Frank thought he had some sort of sixth sense about her; although he couldn’t hear her, he would somehow know when she was approaching him in time to minimize the windows on the computer seconds before she appeared. “I’m just looking up something in the encyclopedia,” he would say. She would smack him on the head and tell him to get back to his room. The last time this had happened, soon before he finished his senior year, AP Frank realized he didn’t have that sixth sense after all. It turned out that light reflected off the periphery of his wire-rimmed glasses so that, just beneath his floppy black bangs, he could glimpse his mother’s shadow looming ever larger behind him.
Lately, when AP Frank was in the shower, letting the water run over him, lost in his thoughts until he forgot where he was, he would suddenly realize he was only days away from college, days away from moving out. He was ready to go. He would miss his friends, most of whom had already left for school, which was why he was visiting Whitman. But it seemed that wherever he went in Bethesda, he couldn’t escape the expectations.
Orange Shirt Kid’s interrogation echoed the arguments AP Frank was already having at home about his major. His mother demanded that he be certain, before he arrived on campus, that he was going to major in biology as a pre-med student or political science as a pre-law student. AP Frank wasn’t interested in either of those supposedly pre-programmed paths. Classes were still weeks away, and he would have advisers—real advisers—to help him choose. The other day he had mentioned to his mother that he might like to take an environmental science class.
“No,” she replied.
“But there’s this website that rated the environmental science professors really well. And the class isn’t too hard, so I could get an A,” he lobbied.
“Are you crazy?” she said in her thick Korean accent. Her tone was a mixture of indignation, anger, and disgust that filled AP Frank with loathing. She used it with her sons and her quiet Caucasian husband, whom she met on a military base in Korea, where AP Frank was born. “If major in biology, you take these classes freshman year”—she ticked off the usual suspects—“and these sophomore year.” She harped on AP Frank until he told her he would consider biology. But the idea of her assigning his college course load, as she had done throughout high school, mortified him. He couldn’t let her guilt him into fulfilling a path she had predetermined.
It could be argued, however, that her strategy had worked, and now AP Frank feared she would do the same to his younger brother. In AP Frank’s junior year, she signed him up for an eight-period day consisting only of Advanced Placement courses. The fact that he had no lunch because he was taking eight classes during Whitman’s seven-period day wasn’t rare among Whitman’s top students (he didn’t have a lunch period at Whitman until second semester senior year), but his Advanced Placement course load was. Senior year, his mother signed AP Frank up for seven classes plus a two-hour daily internship at the National Institutes of Health, which translated to a nine-period school day. AP Frank came home, studied until 2:00 A.M. or later, and then woke up for school at 6:30. He routinely fell asleep in class.
Despite the physical and mental tolls of his mother’s whip, all of her efforts had landed AP Frank the ultimate perfectionist student’s holy grails. (As he saw it, he had “taken everything she threw” at him.) She demanded he earn a 4.0 unweighted GPA—straight As—throughout high school, despite the brutal class schedule. He complied. She ordered 800s on all of his SAT II subject tests. He delivered. She would not accept anything less than a perfect 1600 score on the SAT; when his 1570 horrified her, he retook the test and got the 1600. All of these stepping-stones, she told him, were necessary to get into the college of her choice. And he did. Early. If he had been left to manage his studies on his own, he wouldn’t have chosen to be the Perfect Student. He would have focused more on making friends and allowed himself to get a B once in a while.
Instead, he did everything she asked so that she would leave him alone, so that she would realize she didn’t need to control him because he was capable on his own. Only now, when he could see himself through the eyes of complete strangers who cornered him at Whitman, did he understand that by proving he could handle her demands, he managed to confirm for his mother that the way she raised him had worked. “I’m scared,” he told a friend. “I don’t want to be a stress freak for the rest of my life. I’m becoming someone I don’t think I can be. These expectations aren’t mine, and I don’t see why I should live up to them. I’m eventually going to have to break out.”
AP Frank longed to emerge from the shell of his mother’s influence, but it was so overbearing that it had become a part of his identity. It was the reason why two of his buddies had come up with his nickname in the spring of sophomore year, and the reason the nickname stuck. It was the reason that the principal, who thought the world of AP Frank, had him stand up in front of thousands during graduation. “This is such a smart class,” Dr. Marco said to the audience, “that we even have an Advanced Placement Presidential Scholar. [Mrs. AP Frank] wanted her son to take every AP class there was. She even wanted us to give him an AP PE,” he joked. And AP Frank was embarrassed, because of his mother, because of himself, and because of his achievement: A typical gung-ho overachiever would take perhaps seven AP classes and exams during his high school career. AP Frank took seventeen.
He would find out only later that the principal hadn’t been joking. At some point during the school year, his mother had indeed called up Dr. Marco, infuriated, demanding to know why there wasn’t an AP gym class so that AP Frank could have a perfect weighted GPA of 5.0.
This is not just a book about overachievers. It is not just a book about students like AP Frank, who grapples with parental pressure; Audrey, whose perfectionism overshadows her life; and Julie, who struggles with finding her place. Although all of the main characters begin the book at Whitman, this is not just a book about high school. This is a book about how a culture of overachieverism has changed the school experience so drastically in even the last ten years that it has startlingly altered what it means to be a student today.
I should know. I didn’t choose to follow students for three semesters at Walt Whitman High School because it is one of the best public schools in the United States or because it is located in Bethesda, which has been called “the smartest city” in the country. I selected Whitman because in the mid-1990s, in many ways I was these students, rushing through the same hallways, cramming anxiously for tests in the same classrooms, battling rivals on the same varsity fields. Walt Whitman, my alma mater, was where I became an overachiever, and during the year of my ten-year reunion, I went back to discover firsthand what had changed.
In present-day America, school for many students has become a competitive frenzy. The high school environment is no longer about a student’s pre-adult exploration with the goal of narrowing down likes and dislikes so that he or she ultimately can choose a college curriculum, vocational school, or career path that fits. Instead, it has become a hotbed for Machiavellian strategy in which students (and parents) pile on AP after AP, activity after activity, acclaim after acclaim, with the goal of tailoring high school résumés for what they often feel will be the defining moment of their lives: the college admissions process. Never mind if students don’t care about the prestige level of their post–high school tracks; never mind if college is not for them. Sometimes from as early as their toddler years, millions of students are raised to believe that there is nothing more important than success, and nothing that reflects that success more than admittance to a top-tier college.
Decades ago, college was a privilege. When I was in high school, to get into one of the “good” colleges, well-roundedness was enough. Today even perfect grades and SAT scores won’t necessarily guarantee entrance into “HYP” (Harvard-Yale-Princeton), the acronym that has become the ultimate overachiever crown. Our perfectionist society is fueled partly by the competition: While in 1975, only 50 percent of high school graduates nationwide went to college, 86 percent attend today. In the fall of 2005, a record 16.7 million students enrolled in college, 1.2 million more than only five years before. That figure is expected to increase another 2.1 million by 2013. But while the number of college applicants has increased, the number of available slots at prestigious universities has not, leading students to overwork themselves sick while attempting to squeeze into ever-narrowing funnels they vehemently hope will drop them onto the campus of their dreams.
This is a book about pressure—about how the pressure on students, parents, teachers, and graduates has whirled out of control and will continue to do so exponentially unless there is a massive change of attitudes and educational policies. The intensifying pressures to succeed and the drive of the overachiever culture have consequences that reach far beyond the damaged psyches of teenage college applicants, though that effect alone should be enough for us to take notice. Overachiever culture affects not only overachievers and the college application process, but also the U.S. education system as a whole, non-overachieving students, the booming college counseling and test-prep industries, the tendency to cheat and use cutthroat tactics to get ahead, the way parents raise children, and campus drug culture. It contributes directly to young adults’ paralyzing fear of failure. It has diminished leisure time for all ages. It is believed to be a major factor in the 114 percent spike in suicide rates among fifteen-to-nineteen-year-olds between 1980 and 2002.
There were other reasons I wanted to base my research at Whitman. First, I knew that the administrators cared about the problems I would outline, and worked hard to combat them. Alan Goodwin, the man who stepped in as principal the summer I began this project, instantly became a popular figure in the school community. Like his predecessor, Jerome Marco, Goodwin is a congenial, compassionate principal with whom students are friendly and comfortable. At almost all of the school events I attended as a reporter, from athletic games to musicals to Welcome to Whitman Night, Goodwin was also there to support his school.
I want to make clear that Whitman is not this book’s target; it is simply the setting. Indeed, while the school is excellent, it is not extreme. Whitman is not the most decorated or the most difficult high school in the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. For the purposes of this book, Whitman could be any competitive school, public or private, almost anywhere in the country. I chose to follow students from a single school in order to observe how different people acted in the same environment.
Whitman is not an underprivileged school, and some of the students I followed were fortunate enough to choose among colleges without regard for tuition costs. I hope that readers don’t trivialize what often become gut-wrenching dilemmas for students. By no means is the panic over appearing successful and navigating the admissions process limited to families near the top of the socioeconomic chain. To make sure the views in this book represented as broad a range of students as possible, I contacted hundreds of other teens at high schools in many regions of the country, including group interviews in states as varied as Kentucky, Vermont, New Mexico, Washington State, North Carolina, Illinois, and Texas. I visited with educators in Hawaii and young people in China. Although I did not have room to quote all of those individuals, several of them appear in this book, and their perspectives informed the points in these pages.
By the end of The Overachievers, you will have become well acquainted with Julie, Audrey, and AP Frank. You’ll also meet Taylor, a “hottie” whose academics conflict with her social status; Sam, who worries that his years of overachieving will be wasted if they go unrecognized; Pete, who is determined not to get caught up in the frenzy; C.J., who feels second-tier compared to Whitman’s overachievers; the Stealth Overachiever, a mystery junior who flies under the radar; and Ryland, for whom college pressure becomes his downfall. (Some but not all of the students asked for a pseudonym; one student requested that two identifying characteristics be changed.1 All conversations for which I was not present are written as relayed to me; Mrs. AP Frank’s broken English, for example, is as her sons conveyed.)
You’ll notice that at the beginning of their sections, I distinguish the students not only by their name and grade but also by the way they were perceived, rightly or not, by certain circles at Whitman. I did this because a good deal of the high school experience can stem from the brief label that peers thrust upon one another, whether it’s the Jock, the Brain, or the Pothead. Students often struggle with how their identities match up to those labels, even when the label has no factual basis. The way other students—and, subsequently, adults—see them can blur the borders of how they see themselves.
That’s one of the issues at the core of overachieverism: how overachievers are seen by others (or how they believe others see them, judge them, and make assumptions about them) and how they perceive themselves. This is a book about students’ struggles with comparisons, with the way aspects of their lives are magnified, overanalyzed, and refashioned in desperate steps to measure up to the competition. It is a book about how lives, leisure, and learning are shoved aside in favor of strategy and statistics, obscuring what should be a developmental experience beneath the frenzy of “getting in.”
Overachiever culture is disturbing not because it exists but because it has become a way of life. Nationwide, the relentless pursuit of perceived perfectionism has spiraled into a perpetual cycle of increasing intensity and narrowing ideals. When teenagers inevitably look at themselves through the prism of our overachiever culture, they often come to the conclusion that no matter how much they achieve, it will never be enough. And the pressure steadily mounts.
TAYLOR, SENIOR | PERCEIVED AS: THE POPULAR GIRL
Taylor expertly covered the windows of her good friend’s house with trash bags so that outsiders couldn’t see in. She laid down a tarp on the main floor and secured the sides with electrical tape. Her friend’s parents, who were upstairs, had agreed to let their daughter host a party with alcohol as long as she kept the crowd small.
Less than an hour later, nearly two dozen students were crammed into the main level of the house, many of them drinking beer or doing shots of vodka from water bottles. Taylor was on her third game of beer pong when one of the boys in the room heard a knock, opened the front door with a beer in his hand, closed it abruptly, and said, “Oh, shit, sorry you guys. There are cops here.”
The partygoers looked up to see red and blue flashes pulsating faintly through the trash bags. Chaos ensued as the students scattered. One boy opened the back door, hoping to make a run for it. He quickly shut it, yelling, “There are cops there, too!” The mass of students hurtled upstairs. An adrenaline rush shot through Taylor as she scrambled. She and a few others who were familiar with the house sprinted to the second-floor bathroom, where a window faced the side yard. They opened it, hoping to jump, but the glass didn’t tilt all the way. They heard a door open downstairs. An authoritative voice boomed, “Everyone come down here! Sit down! Be quiet!” Police officers stormed through the house.
Taylor slinked to an upstairs living room, where she squeezed into a narrow space between the chimney and the wall. She heard an officer say to the hostess’s mother, “Find all the kids.” The officer searching through the upstairs level pulled students out from their hiding places, one by one, and sent them downstairs. As he walked by the chimney, brandishing his flashlight, Taylor held her breath. When the light dimmed, she exhaled. She could hear the policemen downstairs asking, “Is everybody here?” Taylor shifted her feet nervously, wondering if they would find her. Again an officer walked by the chimney. Taylor could see his flashlight beam shining on the brick wall in front of her before it disappeared.
The students present that night were, like Taylor, considered many of Whitman’s popular seniors. Even the Nastys had put their stamp of approval on the party; more than half of them were present and accounted for. It was in vogue among Whitman girls to name their circles of friends. The juniors had various named cliques—the Bitches & Hos, the Dolls, the Eight—while the seniors were dominated by one group of thirteen attractive students: the Nasty Girls, or the Nastys. The Nastys often wore skimpy clothes and struck sexy poses in their Webshots (photos posted on the Web). The ringleader was the senior class president. Some seniors dismissed the Nastys’ “popular group” designation as self-proclaimed, calling them social climbers who competed to get the good-looking guys to go to their parties. Other students idolized them.
The Nastys respected Taylor, probably because she had been voted sophomore homecoming princess and, as a junior, had gone to prom with the chiseled winner of the Senior Superlative “Senior Sex Symbol.” Taylor’s group, though nameless, was also popular—perhaps more so than the Nastys—but classmates had no inkling that Taylor wasn’t sure she belonged with the popular crowd. At another party, one of the Nastys’ favorite boys had turned to Taylor and asked out of the blue, “Have you retaken the SAT yet?”
“No, not till October,” she said.
“What did you get?” The rest of the room quieted.
Taylor wasn’t thrilled to be asked in front of everyone. “If I say, you can’t get mad at me for retaking them.” When he nodded, she said, “I got a 1490.” The others in the room murmured words of surprise. They knew Taylor only as a popular babe, as one of them.
“But you’re just studying verbal again, right?” he asked.
“Yeah, that’s the only thing I care about,” Taylor replied, sheepish.
“Wait, what about math?” another guy asked.
Taylor lowered her voice. “I got an 800.” The silence in the room felt awkward.
Taylor didn’t actively hide her intelligence from her popular friends, but when she was around them, she tried not to “act smart,” as she put it. The popular students treated her differently whenever her academics came up. Taylor believed they didn’t like her as much as they would otherwise, because she made an effort to hang out with smart kids, too. She sometimes sensed the popular students’ resentment, not necessarily because she was intelligent but because she was motivated. She had been student government treasurer, oversaw the annual Mr. Whitman pageant (a student-run show that raised thousands of dollars for the Muscular Dystrophy Association), and had founded an annual book drive for underprivileged elementary school children.
Taylor’s popular friends seemed more interested in parties and hookups (teenspeak for making out). But as her friends paired and broke up in a kaleidoscopic tango, Taylor stayed unattached and didn’t care much about it. She didn’t have time. With the exception of a hookup here and there, Taylor was focused on college applications, classes, and sports. Between Whitman’s soccer team, which few people expected to do well this season, and her club lacrosse team, Taylor practiced or played in games seven days a week. On varsity game days, she often couldn’t start her homework until eleven P.M.
The police officer returned, this time peering around the corner of the chimney and shining his flashlight in Taylor’s face. She grinned. “Hi!” she said.
“I found another one!” the officer called. He turned to Taylor and smirked. “What is this, a hiding party?”
“Um, no!” Taylor answered, and half skulked, half strutted downstairs, proud to have hidden for that long. When she reached the sitting room, her friends snickered. “Nice try, Taylor,” one said.
“Is that everyone?” asked an officer. The group nodded, although one of the Nastys still hadn’t been found. “Is anybody over eighteen?” They shook their heads.
“My parents don’t know,” a student moaned. “I’m going to be in so much trouble.” A Nasty was petrified about the prospect of adding another citation to her collection. “Oh my God, ohmyGod, ohmyGodohmyGod,” she kept repeating.
The officers asked the group to divide so that those who had consumed alcohol were on one side of the room and those who hadn’t were on the other. The officers administered a Breathalyzer test to each self-proclaimed non-drinker. When one of them blew a .01, the officers ushered her to the drinking side of the room. The students who blew a zero were told they could go home. About half a dozen left.
Taylor sat on the drinking side, where most of the students were on their cell phones. Two girls were freaking out in the background. “We’re not going to get into college!” one shrieked.
Taylor called her mother, who didn’t know she drank. “Mom, you’re going to be a little unhappy with me. I’m at a party that got busted. I think you need to come here and pick me up.”
“I’m glad you called,” her mother replied.
The police officers approached the drinkers. “Everyone spit out your gum,” one said. Taylor watched as the officers tested the first two students, who blew low numbers that were nonetheless enough to get them cited. Taylor tried to conjure up any facts she could remember from her science classes. She believed she had drunk enough that she would test high unless she could somehow trick the Breathalyzer. The alcohol is mostly in my digestive system by now, she thought. There might be some residue in my mouth, but if I can breathe from my nasal passage, the air won’t come from my mouth or my diaphragm.
The officer who found Taylor behind the chimney held out the Breathalyzer, a small black box with a digital readout and a clear tube. Fuck, Taylor thought. She exhaled only the air in her throat, careful not to bring up any from her diaphragm. She blew a zero. “You can just stand over there,” the officer said, gesturing to the non-drinking side of the room. “You’re not going to get in any trouble.”
Taylor stood next to a Nasty, who muttered, “How’d you do that?” Taylor tried to explain through whispers and gestures when she thought the police weren’t watching. An officer standing on the drinking side glared at her sharply and walked over to her. At five-nine, Taylor could look him in the eye. “I saw you telling your friend how to get out of it,” the officer said, scowling. “You didn’t give me a sample the first time. You need to blow again.” He inserted a new tube in the Breathalyzer and held it out to her.
“You have to blow again, haha,” laughed one of her friends. Taylor concentrated on her breathing. She tried to block off her windpipe with her tongue, breathing only through her nasal passage. She blew a zero.
“You had a method. Do it again,” the officer said.
As Taylor took her third test, she realized she wasn’t getting enough air. Feeling faint, she was leaning over precariously when the test ended, again resulting in a zero. The officer looked disgusted. “You know I could cite you just for being here,” he sneered. He told her to leave.
Outside, Taylor hopped into her mother’s car. “Mom, we can leave! I blew a zero, let’s go!” She wasn’t lying, she reasoned; she just wasn’t telling her mother that she had blown a zero despite having played three games of beer pong in an hour.
SAM, SENIOR | PERCEIVED AS: THE TEACHER’S PET
At two A.M., Sam couldn’t believe he was still doing homework. On the second day of school, he had already studied seven hours at home, significantly more than the five and a half hours he spent in his academic classes. Clearly, there was something wrong with this picture.
Although summer had unofficially ended two days ago, it seemed to Sam as if it had been months. On his bedroom desk, next to his computer, Sam’s last souvenir of the season taunted him: a rock he found on his last day at the beach in Martha’s Vineyard. On it someone had scrawled a saying, reminding him of what he assumed was his close friend Julie’s philosophy, an attitude Sam hoped to emulate. Sam’s hardest working friend, Julie meant more to him than she realized. “Life just is,” read the ink on the rock. “Go with it. Grow with it. Live and let live.” Yeah, well, easy for the rock to say. The rock wasn’t stuck with seven hours of homework.
Sam had spent the summer chasing that philosophy—the idea that he could live free from worry, letting the usual daily stresses slip from his mind like the tide slid off the rock. In June and July, he taught English to teenagers in China, one of the most rewarding experiences of his life. He raised $2,500 from family friends by writing a journal for them about his trip, and he donated the money to various Chinese schools, charity projects, and a Chinese boy who needed surgery.
In August he spent several days relaxing at the beach with his parents and younger brother. He enjoyed spending time with his family and he thoroughly respected his parents. His father was a professor at Georgetown, and his mother recently had left a powerful legal career in order to devote time to her sons. Sam was proud of both parents and grateful for the support and opportunities they provided. In eighth grade, after a field trip to the Supreme Court during the Bush v. Gore hearings that had piqued Sam’s interest, his father had encouraged him to write the marshal. “Do you have internships?” Sam wrote. “Would you like an eighth-grader?” The Supreme Court of the United States agreed to take Sam on for a few weeks, an unpaid job to which Sam returned, awestruck, every summer.
Sam knew, too, that his parents presented him with privileges and connections that other students didn’t have. His parents had friends who could put in good words for him at several schools, including Harvard and Yale. Sam’s Whitman guidance counselor had told him that Georgetown admitted qualified children of faculty most generously. But while it was humbling to have a great university practically as a safety school, Sam had learned in China that sometimes you could learn more about yourself and others if you went farther from home. Besides, his parents had raised him not to take the easy way out but to work hard and aim high. His mother often told him, “Do your best, because the only one you’re doing it for is you.”
Tired of gazing at the computer, Sam glanced around his bedroom. There was the keyboard that he wouldn’t have time to play often, despite his commitment to his twelfth year of weekly piano lessons. Among various sports trophies was one for Student Congress—as captain, he would spend autumn preparing younger teammates for tournaments, as well as putting in hours of practice on his own. Slung over the doorknob of the closet was his Whitman tennis sweatshirt, a frustrating reminder of the stress fracture in his elbow that would have him rehabbing until the spring season. The varsity letter and pins on his bulletin board were now dwarfed by senior-year logistics: his SAT course schedule, a reminder of the transcript request deadline, a list of college application deadlines, and a letter recognizing his accomplishments as a top Maryland student.
Sam believed that at other high schools, or in other areas of the country, he would have been set. With his voluminous list of unusual and time-consuming extracurriculars—his position as co–news director of the Black & White took up more hours than would a part-time job—his parents’ connections, high GPA, AP classes, writing talent, unique summer activities, and evident gusto for learning, he knew he would be an attractive applicant to most college campuses. But Sam didn’t go to other high schools. Sam went to Whitman.
A few days before school started, he had explained to a rising junior how strenuous her year would be, particularly with college pressure hanging over her head. “It’s a crazy little game, and anything you can do to get an advantage might help,” he told her. (She had responded, “That’s what my father said!”) Well, game on. The pressure to get into college—no, the pressure to get into a top college—was what made Sam dread school. It didn’t have to be this way, he thought. Classes could be interesting, and he usually didn’t mind a reasonable amount of work. But the competitive mentality could be oppressive.
Many of his classmates were obsessed with college rankings (which Sam referred to as the “U.S. News & Bogus Report” but still took note of) and focused almost exclusively on elite schools. By Sam’s count, between forty and sixty Whitman students had been accepted to Ivy League schools the previous year. There was a pattern of perception. A friend with a perfect SAT score was rejected from Stanford and went to Rice. Rice, Sam knew, was a top-tier school, but because at Whitman it didn’t have other universities’ prestige factor, students assumed the only reason she didn’t go Ivy was that she was offered a free ride (she wasn’t). On another occasion, Sam mentioned the University of Chicago to a junior who replied, “That’s not an Ivy. Isn’t it a safety school?”
One of Sam’s favorite potential colleges was Middlebury. While he knew he shouldn’t let other people’s opinions sway him, he couldn’t help it. Students were already gabbing about the rankings, which, if they hadn’t read about in the usual magazines, they had seen in the colleges’ slick marketing literature. If he were smart, Sam thought, he would apply to Middlebury early, probably get in, and be done with it. Yet Stanford was his dream school. If he could boost his SAT scores just fifty more points, he would be within range. And how could he overlook his family’s connections at Harvard and Yale?
As much as Sam knew he should ignore the rankings and follow his gut, it bothered him that the college admissions process seemed like such a crapshoot. He could work extremely hard throughout high school, find a college he loved, and get in, while other students who didn’t work as hard, who didn’t regularly stay awake studying until three in the morning like Sam was tonight, might get into more prestigious schools. Then, in other people’s eyes, those students would be perceived as more academically inclined than Sam, while in his eyes, as superficial as he knew it was, all of his hard work would have been for nothing.
“Live and let live,” the rock said. Sam typed an email to a friend. “School beats other options, but the disturbing mentality that surrounds school is destructive to our conscience. School takes over. Everyone is searching for that summer feeling again; the ability to live without worry. But everything not related to school right now seems so small and unimportant. School does not let a kid live. School has its bright moments, its entertainment, and its long-lasting value, but the overbearing competitiveness and work combine to create one of the most stressful environments I can imagine.” Sam turned the rock over and went back to work.
PETE, JUNIOR | PERCEIVED AS: THE MEATHEAD
Pete looked forward to his early-morning journalism class, but not because of the journalism. By that time, the junior was already wide awake, thanks to a first-period weight-lifting class. Thus he was in fine form to banter with one of the most amusing guys in school: Cliff, a shaggy 255-pound senior offensive lineman who made no secret of his apathy toward classes. Cliff wasn’t at school to learn. He was there to play football, hang out with friends, and meet girls.
A skinny kid approached the table where Pete and Cliff sat. “Hey, Cliff, where’s my hug?” the kid said.
Cliff ambled over to him, engulfed him in a warm hug, clapped him on the back, and said, “Hey, I missed you, man.”
As the skinny kid, smiling, walked across the room, an onlooker asked Cliff “Do you do a lot of hugging?”
“Oh, yeah,” Cliff said. “I like hugs, long walks in the park, romantic dinners...”
Pete cracked up. He knew Cliff from the football team; Pete, a stocky lineman, had played both ways on junior varsity for two years but was taking this year off rather than moving up to varsity. He admired how Cliff could simply not care about classes. Cliff’s outlook on Whitman, in his own words, was “I try to do as little work as possible and have as much fun as I can. That’s the way to do high school.” Cliff never seemed to let anything get to him. His nonchalance could have been related to his plans not to apply to college as a senior because he was in a talented band that had the potential for success. Cliff was not unintelligent, but in Pete’s opinion, if you hung around him for long enough, he made you want to be blissfully ignorant.
Pete was doing his best to adopt a similar attitude. It repulsed him to watch the overachievers in his classes grub for grades and stress out about getting into colleges with impressive names. Ever since an incident in the spring of his freshman year, he had promised himself that he wouldn’t panic about his grades like his classmates did. A straight-A student back then, he once left finishing a research paper until the night before it was due. By two A.M. he was exhausted, but the paper wasn’t close to complete.
Pete had gone upstairs to his kitchen and rummaged around for something with a high dose of caffeine. Far back in one of the cabinets, he came upon a stash of diet pills. He read the ingredients: Each pill contained hundreds of milligrams of caffeine. He took two. Back in the basement computer room, he detected butterflies in his stomach, which felt full. Suddenly, he was awake and could concentrate. Less distracted than usual, Pete plowed ahead, working steadily on the paper until he finished at 6:30. He raced to his bus stop in time for the 6:40 pickup and popped two pills on the ride to get him through the morning. At lunch he took two more pills to last the afternoon.
At football practice after school that day, Pete began running laps with the rest of the team. Midway through the first lap, he started to feel dizzy. He kept running and was one of the first players to finish the lap. Then he crashed. He felt like a sledgehammer was hitting his chest, and he couldn’t catch his breath. His knees buckled, but he righted himself. He tried to get going on the second lap, then noticed that all of his teammates were far ahead of him. His heart raced. His usually pale skin drained of color, his already heavy-lidded eyes glazed.
“Pete! Why are you on your knees?” barked the senior captain supervising the practice.
“I pulled an all-nighter and took diet pills to stay awake,” Pete said.
“That was stupid,” the senior said. “Go get a drink.” Pete walked to the gym, took a long drink of water, sat down, and waited for his head to stop spinning. He concluded that taking the pills was one of the dumbest things he had ever done, and there had been some doozies. Then and there, Pete decided he would never again let himself care about classes or grades to the point where he would feel the need to consume strange substances to stay awake.
Eighteen months later, Pete had stuck to that promise, determined to enjoy high school as a healthy developmental experience without worrying about college consequences. At Whitman, where the students considered smart were often the same ones who constantly talked about their grades, Pete was more comfortable talking about his Ds than his As. He preferred to do high school the way Cliff did it. He preferred to appear carefree.
Just before the bell rang, Pete and Cliff fell into a conversation about a topic not exactly related to their journalism studies.
“I like goats! Goats have fur!” Cliff said.
“Goats don’t have fur,” someone else interjected.
“Yes, they do,” Cliff insisted. “How do you think they make cotton?”
Pete laughed at him. “That’s sheep, idiot!”