The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids by Alexandra Robbins
I reviewed this for PopMatters earlier this week, but wanted to mention it here since I know one or two readers of this blog are huge Pledged fans.
You might wonder if nervous, panicky, grade-obsessed high school kids could be even half as interesting as drunk, promiscuous sorority girls, but believe it or not, they are more so. As much as I liked Pledged, I've got to say, this book is a little bit better.
And it's every bit as sad. Even though the kids go to an exceptionally good public school and have quite a few life advantages and opportunities (internships at the NIH and the Supreme Court, computers at home, supportive parents), they're broken little people. Most of the kids have been programmed to believe that unless they go to an Ivy League, they might as well be dead. They throw themselves into their extracurricular activities and studies with a dutiful joylessness. No one really seems to have genuine interests or a love of learning - it's all about impressing the admissions staff at Stanford.
Despite all of this, the kids that Robbins studies are quite likeable and sympathetic, and because she follows them around for an entire school year conducting in-depth interviews, you get to know them pretty well. You wish them well. But mostly, you just wish they'd loosen up and enjoy being young.
It's a mighty thick book, but very accessible and a page-turner besides. Aside from that, I learned a lot of very illuminating things about standardized tests, college admissions, and how college rankings are tabulated. Really, kids should throw out their U.S. News & World Report rankings and use a more humane source like Colleges That Change Lives (where, I am pleased to say, my own alma mater receives a very nice little write-up).
Robbins says that students should be encouraged to find a school that fits them, rather than contorting themselves to fit a school. Sounds like common sense, but you'd be surprised.