The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids

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9781401302016: The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids
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The bestselling author of Pledged returns with a groundbreaking look at the pressure to achieve faced by America's teens

In Pledged, Alexandra Robbins followed four college girls to produce a riveting narrative that read like fiction. Now, in The Overachievers, Robbins uses the same captivating style to explore how our high-stakes educational culture has spiraled out of control. During the year of her ten-year reunion, Robbins goes back to her high school, where she follows heart-tuggingly likeable students including "AP" Frank, who grapples with horrifying parental pressure to succeed; Audrey, whose panicked perfectionism overshadows her life; Sam, who worries his years of overachieving will be wasted if he doesn't attend a name-brand college; Taylor, whose ambition threatens her popular girl status; and The Stealth Overachiever, a mystery junior who flies under the radar.

Robbins tackles teen issues such as intense stress, the student and teacher cheating epidemic, sports rage, parental guilt, the black market for study drugs, and a college admissions process so cutthroat that students are driven to suicide and depression because of a B.

With a compelling mix of fast-paced narrative and fascinating investigative journalism, The Overachievers aims both to calm the admissions frenzy and to expose its escalating dangers.

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About the Author:

Alexandra Robbins is a former staff member of The New Yorker and the author of two New York Times bestsellers. Her work has appeared in publications including The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Washington Post, USA Today, Cosmopolitan, Mademoiselle, Chicago Tribune, Self, Washington Monthly, Time Digital, Salon, Details, Shape, PC, Tennis Week, and the Journal of Popular Culture. She graduated summa cum laude in 1998 from Yale.

Review:

"A must-read . . . I found myself devouring 'The Overachievers' in two days, more eagerly than I might an actual novel . . . 'The Overachievers' is perfect for anyone agonizing his or her way through high school and beyond. Robbins brilliantly captures the thoughts and feelings of a generation pushed to excel while offering insight for turning this pervasive and potentially harmful drive into positive motivation." -- Intelligencer Journal

"Compelling and thorough." -- Chicago Tribune

"Compelling investigative journalism...The author concludes this eye-opener with suggestions for high schools, colleges, counselors, parents and students alike." -- Bookpage

"Hot Type: Alexandra Robbins grades the lives of the amped-up, perfection-obsessed kids known as The Overachievers" -- Vanity Fair

"I couldn't get enough of it. 'The Overachievers' is part soap opera, part social treatise . . . I was so hooked on their stories that I wanted to vote for my favorite contestant at the end of every chapter . . . It reads like very good . . . fiction, thanks to its winning cast, its surprising plot twists and its pushy parents . . .

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 subtitles . . . At the end of the book, Robbins offers sensible suggestions for reform . . . Robbins gets the big picture right." -- The New York Times Book Review. EDITORS' CHOICE

"Impossible to put down." -- People. CRITIC'S CHOICE, 4 out of 4 stars

"Quick and riveting." -- Entertainment Weekly

"Robbins deftly assimilated herself into the environment she sought to study. Few authors have written with such clarity and poignancy about the teen experience today. It's clear the students Robbins follows trusted her . . . Writers twice her age have plenty to learn from her exhaustive reportage and sharp insight . . . Robbins gets it all right. Our society would be smart to listen." -- The Post & Courier

"Robbins' study reads like 'The Amazing Race: The Ivy League Version.' Teenagers zip along so fast, hepped up on Red Bull and diet pills, trying to accomplish, the enjoyment from learning and doing entirely absent. 'The Overachievers' is highly addictive." -- Philadelphia Inquirer

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. -- New York Times Book Review, August 6, 2006

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Book Description Hyperion Books, United States, 2006. Hardback. Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book ***** Print on Demand *****. The bestselling author of Pledged returns with a groundbreaking look at the pressure to achieve faced by America s teens In Pledged, Alexandra Robbins followed four college girls to produce a riveting narrative that read like fiction. Now, in The Overachievers, Robbins uses the same captivating style to explore how our high-stakes educational culture has spiraled out of control. During the year of her ten-year reunion, Robbins goes back to her high school, where she follows heart-tuggingly likeable students including AP Frank, who grapples with horrifying parental pressure to succeed; Audrey, whose panicked perfectionism overshadows her life; Sam, who worries his years of overachieving will be wasted if he doesn t attend a name-brand college; Taylor, whose ambition threatens her popular girl status; and The Stealth Overachiever, a mystery junior who flies under the radar. Robbins tackles teen issues such as intense stress, the student and teacher cheating epidemic, sports rage, parental guilt, the black market for study drugs, and a college admissions process so cutthroat that students are driven to suicide and depression because of a B. With a compelling mix of fast-paced narrative and fascinating investigative journalism, The Overachievers aims both to calm the admissions frenzy and to expose its escalating dangers. Seller Inventory # APC9781401302016

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