The Overachievers

The Secret Lives of Driven Kids


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 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.


Chapter 1 July 20–September 1 MEET THE OVERACHIEVERS


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 dressing stylishly. 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'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.

Audrey followed the throng of students trying to squeeze through the green double doors of the main entrance. Even though it wasn't yet 70 degrees, the 96 percent humidity, typical for August in Bethesda, Maryland, left a heaviness in the air. The new principal, Dr. Goodwin, stood inside, amiably chatting with students who clustered in the halls, scanning the lists of alphabetical homeroom assignments posted on sheets of paper taped to the walls. Audrey was relieved to see that among the girls in jeans and capris, there were plenty with skirts much shorter than hers. She found her homeroom on a sheet posted next to the main office, not far from a framed Newsweek cover and a plaque commemorating Whitman as one of America's best high schools.

Audrey took advantage of much of what Whitman had to offer. She was particularly devoted to the school's award-winning newspaper, the Black & White, which arguably took more time and energy on a daily basis than any other extracurricular activity at Whitman. The student-run paper, with a staff of about 115, was printed about every two weeks as a sixteen-page issue along with The Spectator, an eight-page sports and arts supplement. The paper's professionalism rivaled that of many college newspapers. The harder Audrey worked this year as a reporter, the better the editorial position she would get in May, when the seniors who ran the paper announced the following year's appointments. She had her eye on the top three positions.

Audrey walked into her second-period Advanced Placement English class and stopped short, surprised to see the seats full of seniors. She looked again at her schedule. She was in the right room at the right period. "Audrey!" said a senior she knew, "you're in the wrong room!"

Confused, Audrey returned to the hallway. She knew she had read her schedule correctly. If I go in again, they're going to laugh at me because I'm a junior and I can't find my classroom, she thought. Known for being assertive, she walked back into the room. "Excuse me," she stammered to the teacher, her hands flapping as she tried to explain. "My name is Audrey. I'm a junior, and I think they—they put me in your class." She tried to ignore the seniors, who were now laughing at her, and handed her schedule to the teacher.

"You're right, they enrolled you in the wrong class," the teacher said.

"What should I do?"

"Go down to guidance."

Her face beet red, Audrey went downstairs to the guidance office, thinking that anything that could possibly go wrong with her schedule usually did, like on her first day in middle school, when the school didn't even have her name down as an enrolled student. The line to speak to a guidance counselor was half an hour long. If Audrey had any work to do, she would have started on it right away, but she didn't, which meant the waiting period was a major waste of time. Good grades were important to her, as they were to her parents.

By the time her counselor fixed her schedule, Audrey had missed the entire period. At lunch, Audrey slid into an empty seat at a table where friends were talking about junior Advanced Placement English, the class Audrey had missed. "We already have all this work!" they complained. Great, Audrey thought. It's only the first day, and I'm already behind. That instant was when it hit her that she might never catch up.


His hand tucked sheepishly in a pocket, AP Frank, he of Whitman lore, ducked through the main doors into the school building just after second lunch began. Immediately, he was surrounded. "AP Frank!" squealed a girl who launched herself into a bear hug that widened his shy grin into a full-on beam. He greeted his younger brother, a Whitman junior, as he continued down the hall to the lunchtime hot spots in search of Sam, a senior friend he had come back to visit.

On his way to the music hallway, where he thought he might find Sam, AP Frank was stopped repeatedly by students he didn't know. "Hey, AP Frank, what are you doing here?" they asked.

"I'm bored, so I'm coming here to see some people," he replied.

"What do you want to major in at college?" they pressed.

AP Frank shrugged and moved on.

A tall kid in an orange shirt stopped directly in front of him. AP Frank had never seen this person before.

"Legendary AP Frank! What are you doing here?" the kid asked.

AP Frank smiled uncertainly. "School hasn't started yet, and I'm really bored."

The kid nodded. "What's your major going to be?"

"I don't know."

The kid smirked. "Come on, man, you really don't know?"

"I don't know, man." AP Frank wouldn't even be a college freshman for another ten days.

"You're AP Frank," the kid insisted. "You don't want to be a doctor or a politician or something?"

AP Frank still found it strange that so many students at his old high school knew who he was, or thought they did—a far cry from when he first arrived as a timid sophomore transfer. He grew accustomed to his reputation as a lovable geek, though he was embarrassed when, at the graduation ceremony in June, then-principal Jerome Marco—himself a Whitman legend—praised him in front of everyone. What weighed on AP Frank most heavily were the expectations.

Whitman students—many of whom wanted to be him, many of whose parents pushed them to emulate him—didn't know AP Frank as well as they thought. Expectations from strangers probably wouldn't have bothered him if they hadn't suffocated his home life for as long as he could remember. By the time AP Frank and his brother Richard arrived at Whitman, the pressure had become routine. Each afternoon, as soon as the brothers got home from school, they were expected to sit at their desks in their adjacent bedrooms and study, backs to the hallway, doors open. From an office chair stationed in the hall, positioned precisely so that she could see every move the boys made, their mother peered at them over her newspaper. And she watched them. From 2:30 in the afternoon until they went to sleep, with only a quick break for a dinner of Hot Pockets, gyoza, kimchee, or a microwaved meal, and a half-hour time-out to watch either NBC or ABC News, she watched them.

If the brothers so much as looked up from their homework for more than a passing glance, she snapped at them to return to their studies. Even when they stood up to go to the bathroom or to grab a glass of orange juice from the kitchen, if they were out of range for longer than five or ten minutes, she reeled them back in. They could not chat on the phone; she screened their calls. They could not watch non-news television; she deemed it "junk." They could not go out with friends; she did not approve of social activities. In Mrs. AP Frank's household, which was small and cluttered—perhaps only twenty-four square inches of the dining room table were visible—there was no idle computer time, no athletics. Mrs. AP Frank was "against extracurriculars," including sports, that "won't get you into medicine or law."

Sometimes during the school year, AP Frank would peek into the hallway to see that his mother had dozed off behind her newspaper. The moment her eyes closed, he scampered to the computer in her bedroom, where he would sign on to instant messenger and gab with friends. His brother would wait five more minutes to make sure their mother truly was out, then tiptoe either to the other computer in the hall or downstairs to watch TV. Inevitably, Mrs. AP Frank would wake up, see that her boys weren't at their desks, and quietly, very quietly, sneak up behind them to catch them in the act of non-studying.

For years AP Frank thought he had some sort of sixth sense about her; although he couldn't hear her, he would somehow know when she was approaching him in time to minimize the windows on the computer seconds before she appeared. "I'm just looking up something in the encyclopedia," he would say. She would smack him on the head and tell him to get back to his room. The last time this had happened, soon before he finished his senior year, AP Frank realized he didn't have that sixth sense after all. It turned out that light reflected off the periphery of his wire-rimmed glasses so that, just beneath his floppy black bangs, he could glimpse his mother's shadow looming ever larger behind him.

Lately, when AP Frank was in the shower, letting the water run over him, lost in his thoughts until he forgot where he was, he would suddenly realize he was only days away from college, days away from moving out. He was ready to go. He would miss his friends, most of whom had already left for school, which was why he was visiting Whitman. But it seemed that wherever he went in Bethesda, he couldn't escape the expectations.

Orange Shirt Kid's interrogation echoed the arguments AP Frank was already having at home about his major. His mother demanded that he be certain, before he arrived on campus, that he was going to major in biology as a pre-med student or political science as a pre-law student. AP Frank wasn't interested in either of those supposedly pre-programmed paths. Classes were still weeks away, and he would have advisers—real advisers—to help him choose. The other day he had mentioned to his mother that he might like to take an environmental science class.

"No," she replied.

"But there's this website that rated the environmental science professors really well. And the class isn't too hard, so I could get an A," he lobbied.

"Are you crazy?" she said in her thick Korean accent. Her tone was a mixture of indignation, anger, and disgust that filled AP Frank with loathing. She used it with her sons and her quiet Caucasian husband, whom she met on a military base in Korea, where AP Frank was born. "If major in biology, you take these classes freshman year"—she ticked off the usual suspects—"and these sophomore year." She harped on AP Frank until he told her he would consider biology. But the idea of her assigning his college course load, as she had done throughout high school, mortified him. He couldn't let her guilt him into fulfilling a path she had predetermined.

It could be argued, however, that her strategy had worked, and now AP Frank feared she would do the same to his younger brother. In AP Frank's junior year, she signed him up for an eight-period day consisting only of Advanced Placement courses. The fact that he had no lunch because he was taking eight classes during Whitman's seven-period day wasn't rare among Whitman's top students (he didn't have a lunch period at Whitman until second semester senior year), but his Advanced Placement course load was. Senior year, his mother signed AP Frank up for seven classes plus a two-hour daily internship at the National Institutes of Health, which translated to a nine-period school day. AP Frank came home, studied until 2:00 A.M.


On Sale
Aug 8, 2006
Page Count
448 pages
Hachette Books

Alexandra Robbins

About the Author

Alexandra Robbins, winner of the prestigious 2014 John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism, is the author of four New York Times bestsellers, including Pledged and The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth. She has written for the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, New York Times, and other publications, and has appeared on numerous television shows from 60 Minutes to The Colbert Report.

Learn more about this author