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The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids Hardcover – August 8, 2006

3.9 out of 5 stars 108 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this engrossing anthropological study of the cult of overachieving that is prevalent in many middle- and upper-class schools, Robbins (Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities) follows the lives of students from a Bethesda, Md., high school as they navigate the SAT and college application process. These students are obsessed with success, contending with illness, physical deterioration (senior Julie is losing hair over the pressure to get into Stanford), cheating (students sell a physics project to one another), obsessed parents ( Frank's mother manages his time to the point of abuse) and emotional breakdowns. What matters to them is that all-important acceptance to the right name-brand school. "When teenagers inevitably look at themselves through the prism of our overachiever culture," Robbins writes, "they often come to the conclusion that no matter how much they achieve, it will never be enough." The portraits of the teens are compelling and make for an easy read. Robbins provides a series of critiques of the system, including college rankings, parental pressure, the meaninglessness of standardized testing and the push for A.P. classes. She ends with a call to action, giving suggestions on how to alleviate teens' stress and panic at how far behind they feel. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Robbins, author of the revealing Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities (2004), investigates yet another troubling aspect of today's youth, the culture of high-school high achievers, a group to which she once belonged. To see if things had changed during the 10 years since she left high school, Robbins returned to her alma mater, one of the most competitive high schools in the country, to observe several students (juniors and seniors and one recent graduate, who was admitted to Harvard) as they balanced intense academic pressure, parental expectations, personal interests, social life, and their own drive to succeed. What she discovered is no surprise: the welfare of the individual has taken a backseat to academic success. Nor is her call for "massive change of both attitudes and educational policies" new. That said, it's difficult to ignore her perspectives on such issues as the influence of the SAT or the day-to-day struggles of the kids, who can't rest until they "outwit, outplay, and outlast" the competition. An addendum directed to parents, schools officials, counselors, and students sets benchmarks for activists who want things to change. Stephanie Zvirin
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Hachette Books; 1 edition (August 8, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1401302017
  • ISBN-13: 978-1401302016
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (108 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #575,506 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Let me give a personal perspective on The Overachiever "phenomenon." I am about to start a year off before college because of the extreme mental and physical toll high school took on me.

I took on too much throughout high school because my father pushed me. I interned at a biotech company, I headed three clubs at school, I took a full load of AP classes, and I missed lunch each day. I routinely stayed up all night, or slept 2 or 3 hours, to fit it all in and maintain my grades.

Red Bull was my life. Coke didn't do it anymore. Neither did coffee.

And then one day I passed out in the hallway at my house, and wound up in the hospital for two weeks with an irregular heartbeat from all the caffiene. I was so worn out, so out of shape, such a mess.

And you know what my father's first reaction was? "You're never going to get into Harvard if you're in this hospital and missing all this school!" I kicked him out of the room and cried. I thought I was dying and he was worried about Harvard.

The stories in this book are very real, and very helpful. I thought I was the only one who went through this. And the characters' stories give me hope. Thank you for writing this.
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Format: Hardcover
The author's writing style does an excellent job of bringing these young people to life, and it seems easier to feel sympathy for these youngsters than it was to empathize with the rather bitchy young adults she described in "Pledged".

But Walt Whitman is not only a school for highly achieving, stressed-out, Ivy League strivers. It is also a school for average kids, quiet kids, goths, drug users, dope sellers, artists, devoutly religious kids, and single-pointed nerds who are the farthest thing from the polished, well-rounded, resume kings and queens portrayed in this narrative. At least, it was when I attended the school and graduated nearly twenty years ago, and to a large extent, it probably still is today.

The average students are rarely featured in the narrative, except in terms of their relationships with the overachievers, but it would have been interesting had the author focused a little more on how an elite public school like Walt Whitman shapes the expectations of its average kids.

Many of these youngsters probably benefitted from exposure to high achievers, particularly since they may have shared at least a few AP classes with them (not every AP student is a classic overachiever). But many of the average youngsters also feel the same stress that overachievers experience, along with a greater sense of inadequacy when comparing their modest achievements and SAT scores against the gold standard established by Whitman's top twenty percent. Some of the these average kids may deliberately model their academic and social behavior to contrast with the norm established by the school's dominant elite as a way of establishing their own identities, but whether this helps or harms them in the long run is a topic the author didn't get around to addressing.
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Format: Hardcover
The Overachievers profiles nine students at one of the top public schools in the country. Most of the students are from wealthy families and do not need to worry about how they will pay for college. In fact, most of them are not actually worried about getting into college so much as getting into the Right College. You know, Harvard, Yale, Stanford. So why would I care about these kids? They have it made, and if they are stressing out about whether they are accepted into Princeton or have to settle for Duke, well boo hoo.

And yet I found I was very interested in what happened to these students. Alexandra Robbins (who attended this very high school and then Middlebury College and then graduate school at Yale) tells the stories from the students' perspectives. In between finding out what is motivating these teenagers, Robbins explores a host of relevant subjects: peer pressure, family pressure, No Child Left Behind, the SAT and AP exams, prescription drugs (especially Ritalin), teenage sleep patterns, college rankings, education in other countries, teen suicide rates, gap year, cheating, and more. Any of these subjects would make a compelling study on its own, but taken altogether, you begin to understand, and even sympathize with, these overprivileged students. Several of these subjects have already been excellently covered by books such as The Cheating Culture by David Callahan, My Freshman Year by Rebekah Nathan, and The Winner-Take-All Society by Robert Frank.

Obviously, The Overachievers isn't just about high school students. It's also about their parents, the schools, politics, and money. It turns out that what motivates these kids most is fear. Fear of failure, of disappointing their families and friends, of not getting a great job, of not making scads of money.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is written like a gossip column with some facts thrown in here and there to make it seem serious. I have lived with the situations in the book and I couldn't get any sense of the true seriousness of the effect on the kids since even a kid moving out to foster care was treated with the same style as someone rejected for the prom. Although the points at the end of the book are good ones, a better method could have been used to illustrate how it affects the kids.
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