As if panic at the ordeal of getting a child into a selective college weren’t bad enough, Americans these days also confront a din of alarmist diagnoses of rising admission insanity. The warnings now come even from tutors and test-preppers, as you will discover if you sample a new pop genre—“apps lit,” the Washington Monthly calls it—created by former facilitators of the application frenzy who have turned to fiction to tell all, in novels like Academy X and Glamorous Disasters. The satiric exposés of monstrous Manhattan parents who will stop at nothing for a spot at an Ivy have a moral that is not subtle: Poor “organization kids,” as David Brooks has labeled the baby boom generation’s well-buffed progeny, are in peril. Hence yet more anxiety, no longer just about a suitably prestigious school, but about whether today’s fast-track youths can emerge from the pressure cooker of the “College Process” with any sense of identity or genuine purpose left when they arrive on campus. Will they end up mere anxious, status-obsessed, soulless overachievers—a mirror image, indeed, of their machinating elders?
The fate of Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan—whose contribution to “apps lit,” encouraged by her college consultant, turned out to be plagiarized—seemed to clinch the case. But the unexpected answer suggested by The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids—so unexpected that the author, Alexandra Robbins, fails to recognize it herself—is that the apple may not always, or even often, fall so close to the worm-eaten tree after all.
Let’s start with Robbins. A self-acknowledged overachiever with an Ivy pedigree and a penchant for alarmist voyeurism (her prolific career includes The Quarterlife Crisis, Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities,and Secrets of the Tomb,about Skull and Bones), she has managed a feat of empathy in her latest work. What is distinctive about Robbins’ book isn’t her hand-wringing about a hypercompetitive process that shoves “lives, leisure, and learning … aside in favor of strategy and statistics,” or her predictable prescriptions for reform (ditch the SATs, class rankings, etc.). It is the way she gets inside the heads and lives of eight students at her alma mater, Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., where the SAT scores are way above average, and the power elite’s offspring vie to distinguish themselves. She does what most adults in the throes of ushering a kid toward college don’t or can’t do. She actually listens to students themselves, from the girl who is seen as the superstar to the guy who is pegged as a meathead. Even better—using some secret method that parents would pay a lot to learn—she gets them to bare their souls.
And they truly have souls—and reserves of resilience and moral compasses that work! So much of what gets written about child-rearing and the phenomenon of gifted children—I know, because I’ve done it—ineluctably turns into portraiture of pushy, parasitic parents and experts. The intent is rarely to undercut kids or to neglect to give them their due. Quite the contrary, the animating spirit is usually protective. Yet the effect is to depict children as the victims of parental narcissism, rather than as agents in their own right. Robbins escapes that trap. Adults mostly appear in her book as figures in the background (the accounts of them presumably based on their children’s reports). It’s the kids who occupy center stage. Sam, Pete, Ryland, Taylor, Audrey, C.J., Julie, and Frank are given the chance to be seen as they see themselves—as more than the images their parents have of them, and as more than the mere labels they often feel define them at school, too: “slacker,” “workhorse,” “teacher’s pet,” “popular girl.”
In fact, Robbins hangs out with her characters long and attentively enough that they end up subverting her own formulaically ominous narrative: She suggests that peer pressure, more than pushy parents, fuels an unhealthy perfectionism and a misguided reliance on external badges of merit. Whitman High School certainly isn’t relaxing, at least not for the kind of student who aims to be near the top. But it is an atmosphere in which ambitious emulation and mutual inspiration, not just competition, are plainly at work. Robbins is so busy denouncing the school’s confidence-eroding climate of high performance that she overlooks counter-evidence right in front of her nose: To judge by her own reporting, there are at least some influences at work helping motivated teenagers discover inner, and outer, resources they might never have explored if they had landed in a more laid-back institution.
From afar, these students could well fit the much-lamented profile of hurried, joyless children. They demand a daunting amount of themselves and don’t get nearly enough sleep, and they juggle a lot of courses and activities, on into summers, too. (Taylor had squeezed in two soccer camps every year since fifth grade and hired her own private coach while at an academic camp at Harvard.) They go to a school where it’s de rigueur for students (and parents) to pore over GPA and SAT scatter grams, plotting their chances of getting into different colleges. Yet viewed up close, these kids are thoughtful about the tensions they face, and it’s hard to imagine finding students more dedicated to the activities they pursue, or readier to work hard—and less inclined to spend their time doing stupid stuff like getting wasted every weekend, or swallowed up by social dramas, as their underachieving classmates do. That is not to say they are always on an even keel, by any means, or that they feel happy in their skins day in and day out. (If they did, wouldn’t that be truly alarming?) These students are struggling to figure out what really matters to them—what sort of thinking they like to do and what kinds of teachers they find interesting; what they do and don’t expect of friends; which activities have real significance to them and why.
Thanks to a college-admissions-crazed culture, they may have to struggle harder to answer such questions honestly—without an eye on the résumé—than teenagers once did. But the lives of the kids in Robbins’ book don’t line up with all the warnings about an overprogrammed generation. If Whitman is stuffed with super-calculating specimens warped by a mission to stand out as one of “the best,” Robbins somehow missed them—and she was looking. On the contrary, these students are clearly excited by the opportunities offered by their top-notch, well-equipped high school. Audrey and Ryland, utterly dedicated to the newspaper (where they don’t have top titles), slave away though their class work suffers—because they love the journalistic work and couldn’t live without it. Ryland wouldn’t dream of cutting back on the community service work he really cares about, either. Taylor brushes off her counselor’s advice that she drop down a level in calculus after she gets a C on a test. “She liked calculus and wanted to learn more about it, no matter how challenging it was. Quitting wasn’t for her.” Pete is a school cutup but an ardent debater (who carefully budgets his tournament travel expenses, since his parents can’t afford them). Sam and Julie and C.J., all top students at sea in their social lives, are mature enough to do the right emotional thing by each other—even as they’re busy with the bewildering task of figuring out what college might be a good “fit.”
Given their fraught environment, you could forgive these kids for betraying an underlying fragility as they face college verdicts, but they don’t. None of the seniors ends up with the options he or she started out thinking were essential—and none of them collapses, or connives against anyone else. They accommodate energetically and commiserate wryly, looking ahead together rather than bitterly licking their wounds. They’re models of maturity in the midst of what adults continually denounce as insanity. This is what I could call overachieving, and I say, let’s have more of it.