The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids

The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids

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by Alexandra Robbins

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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

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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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Editorial Reviews

According to Pledged author Alexandra Robbins, an unhealthy culture of overachievement is growing among American teenagers. In their quest for academic success, often sparked by parental pressure, students at middle- and upper-class schools compete feverishly for the elusive possibility of acceptance at prestige colleges. In this ever-intensifying race, children are the first casualties. Robbins's book The Overachievers documents the physical, psychological, and emotional price paid by children and parents willing to pay any price for the right acceptance letter.

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6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)
Age Range:
18 - 17 Years

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The Secret Lives of Driven Kids


Copyright © 2006 Alexandra Robbins
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-4013-0201-7

Chapter One

July 20-September 1


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 dressingstylishly. 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 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.


Excerpted from THE OVER ACHIEVERS by ALEXANDRA ROBBINS Copyright © 2006 by Alexandra Robbins. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Overachievers 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 39 reviews.
katie ward More than 1 year ago
this was a very thouhtful and thorough book. i related very much, being that i was applying to colleges in the midst of reading it. i really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it!
theish94 More than 1 year ago
This book has is very enjoyable. It contains many characters, each one with their own story to tell. Alexandra Robbins gives an interesting peek into the lives of the most driven, talented, and overworked students around the nation. I like how she puts in interesting facts on the subject of our educational system. I think it could have a wide audience because it's not only for students but also the parents, educators, and the people who support them.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was fantastic and too true. I think any student could relate to this book. It had the perfect blend of facts and the personal lives of the students Robbins interviwed. In places the facts are dry, but the kids lives are interesting and makes one forget they are reading a non-fiction piece. I read this for my AP English class and would highly reccomend it!
Charlotte_Isabella More than 1 year ago
"The Overachievers" is a great book. It reads like a novel and is never boring. Alexandra Robbins makes it interesting by having first hand accounts of Overachievism. She observes a total of five students and tells it like it is. She does not sugar coat the good, the bad, and the ugly. She explains why one observee loses her hair due to stress, and how one Overachiever's mom loses custody of one of her children because she never lets them have a life. It tells of the pathetic battle to maintain perfectionism and the competition to get into top ranked preschools even before the aforementioned child is born. This is a captivating tale of what one goes through to be perfect.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
As a diligent, hard-working high school student myself, I found The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids completely engaging. Straight-A students with numerous extracurriculars and high test scores are commonly stereotyped as untouchable, unrealistic, and plain nerdy. However, Alexandra Robbins¿ novel brings to life the routines, stresses and lifestyles of driven students. It showcases the goal-oriented society in which students across the country are sacrificing their teenage years just to get into a ¿good¿ school. Parents especially are overlooking the benefits many non-Ivy league schools have to offer. Despite statistics proving otherwise, people are still fixated on the fact that attending a recognized undergraduate school will guarantee lifetime success. Robbins approaches her novel very appropriately by telling the stories of several high school students of differing interests and ages. Personally, I identified most with Julie, a senior perceived as ¿the superstar.¿ Her life was completely swamped with cross-country and track practices as she tried to balance a rigorous AP schedule as well as volunteer work and honor societies. The thing that struck me so much about Julie, as well as the rest of the characters, was how astonishing her introduction was. I almost didn¿t want to continue reading, let alone apply to some of the schools she was considering, because there seemed to be no way to compare to such an applicant. But as I read further, I realized every last one of these students had flaws. They felt so much pressure to compete against their classmates that they were joining new clubs just to add to their college resume, whether or not they enjoyed the activity. The novel opened my eyes to many of the practices, including cheating, which many committed students feel pressured to execute. It is not that any of these overachievers are lazy they simply don¿t have enough time in the day to complete all of their work. The number of applications to the most selective colleges has skyrocketed over the last few years, and with the rising number of applicants comes rising expectations. Everyone thinks they need to take a million AP courses (well, only 16 in the case of ¿AP Frank¿), while still being the number-one varsity athlete, editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, and class valedictorian. However, by interviewing a few readers of college applicants, Robbins put to rest some of the rumors regarding how over-blown resumes are attractive to colleges. The only blemish in her statistics was how some responses only consisting of 25% of opinions were portrayed as an overwhelming majority. Though all of us applicants strive to look perfect on paper, the reality is that not everyone can be accepted into top-tier schools. However, happiness attained by every student by the end of the novel is proof that hard-working students can make any college their ¿perfect¿ fit. Very well-written with morals pertinent to any college applicant, I would highly recommend this novel to any stressed-out senior.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am disappointed..... while it explains my life, it does not assist me in moving to the next step....
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the best book of the admissions genre, and perhaps even of the high school genre. A quick read, engaging, pulls you in, leaves you feeling like you really care about these kids. A gem of a read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm a 21 year old college senior and I could NOT put this book down, it seemed like she was describing my life for the past 10 years exactly! I immediately sent a copy to my parents and after reading it they said they finally started to understand what I mean when I discuss the new pressures facing teens today. Well written and very engaging!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am currently reading this book and it is very well written. It describes teenage situations with reality and I'd recommend this book to everyone.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Wonderful, to put it simply!