I've just started to read an unsettling new book about the sometimes insane pressure high school kids are under to get into a good college. It's called Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids, by Alexandra Robbins. The book profiles teens from the Maryland high school both my sons attended. I picked it up because, despite the pseudonyms, I know who she's talking about. But I think it's a good read for anyone, especially parents with children about to enter these intense years. You might think many of the problems she finds are confined to high schools in areas like Washington D.C., a city where overachievers are plentiful. But Robbins finds a group of teens in a small New Mexico town who feel the same pressures.
Much of this book is terrifying. Like the story of one young man whose mother punches him in the neck when he wants to go out with friends instead of reading his Harvard course guide. And that's after he's been admitted to the school early, with perfect test scores. And after he's been allowed to do little more throughout high school career than study for hours on end. For other kids, the pressure to meet high expectations — often self-imposed — are subtler, but just as destructive.
Having gone through the college-admissions process twice with my sons, all this stress now seems absurd. Things will work out, often in unexpected ways. My youngest son took lots of advanced math and science classes to get into a good engineering program. Two years later, he's decided what he really wants to do is be a chef.
The problem isn't what kids achieve, but the damage that can be done in the process. That seems to be the message in Robbins' book, and also in Harvard's decision earlier this week to eliminate its early admissions program.