The Magazine

Harvard or Bust

They'll get in their 'reach school' even if it kills them.

May 7, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 32 • By STEFAN BECK
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This expectation meets a stubborn obstacle: the students themselves. Tellingly, Robbins never wonders how much of the fault lies with them for worrying about trifles. If the teenager is naturally rebellious, why is he weeping in the guidance office? Why not tune in, turn on, and flunk out? It seems that a transformation has occurred in the way children approach the idea of life: They are hell-bent on impressing everyone but themselves. Friends and family are secondary to the nuts and bolts of schooling.

AP Frank posts to his weblog: "Number of time my friends--who are my family--have saved me, rescued me, brought me back from the horror and terror of being alone: 1461." The honest reader is jarred by how loosely the term "friends" is used by a boy who is scarcely allowed out of his house. He fares better at Harvard, even managing to kiss a girl, but still one feels that he has missed out on some of the most important years of his life.

If The Overachievers elicits cruel judgments, it is only because the reader sees how much better it could have been for these kids. Some, like AP Frank, do end up rebelling against their parents or teachers, but an obvious question lingers: What took so long? It shouldn't require health problems, meltdowns, and misery to let one in on the big secret that there's more to life than good grades or admittance to the best college. But it does--because it is a secret.

For much of our adolescent population, life is easy, so there are few ways outside of the school system to gain any sense of validation or self-worth. But everyone wants to feel important, to stake a place in the world. Is it any wonder that young people seize upon that last, ever-narrowing, measure of success--academic distinction?

The trouble with the term "overachiever," though, is that it implies achievement, and there is little of it to be seen in Robbins's account. We are to take it on faith that her subjects' accomplishments are impressive. When the students speak for themselves, the jig is up. High scores and padded resumes can't disguise the boundless banality, sentimentality, and self-pity of which these Ivy-bound wunderkinder are capable.

AP Frank, with apologies to Jack Handey: "I have realized that with every beginning comes an end, that in hatching, the chick destroys the egg." Sam, the future Supreme Court justice: "He could write [his college essay] about witnessing the decision of Lawrence v. Texas . . . where he had watched citizens in the public arena sitting quietly, tears of joy streaming down their faces. . . . Sam considered writing his essay as if he were gay."

Robbins misses the very point that her stellar reporting conveys, which is that these students are at once superficial thinkers and cunning operators. They want glory; when they act against their parents' wishes, it's because they want it on their own terms. They're best at presenting themselves as overachievers, not at doing worthwhile things, least of all at seriously pondering themselves or the world around them.

"Top" students are rarely great at one pursuit. They must be passionate about many things--not only archery and American history, but also the Sousaphone and Meals on Wheels. They love the concept of accomplishment, but it is unlikely that they would care so much without others to observe their ascent. Their humility--"I wish everyone would stop asking about my perfect SAT score, acceptance to Princeton, etc."--rings false.

Robbins hasn't fallen for it; she's orchestrated it. She is, by her own oblique admission, a recovering overachiever, and too close to the problem to see it clearly. Her recommendations for schools, colleges, counselors, and parents might make life more pleasant for overachievers, but that's not enough. Schools can limit the APs a student is permitted to take, but in the student who takes the maximum, you'll still find that hunger for one-upsmanship.

The Overachievers is a lie that tells the truth. Its anecdotes and figures are engineered to throw the best light on students like Alexandra Robbins. These students exist, whether or not in great numbers, and their attitudes are putting obscene pressure on kids who'd rather enjoy learning. Even the student who knows he can't pull it off receives a confusing, deleterious message from the accolades heaped on what is really a special class of showoff. If this seems alarmist or cynical, look no further than the words that conclude the book: