The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids, Alexandra Robbins, New York, NY, Hatchette Books, Price: $11.14, Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4013-0201-6.

Review by Jen Kamish, College of Engineering, Rochester Institute of Technology, [email protected]

Each fall, highly competitive universities across the nation welcome a fresh class of first-year students into their institutions, setting thousands of post-secondary paths into motion. While it is widely recognized among academic advisors that the advising role is intended to focus on the identities of students once they step foot on campus, it can be a challenge to separate these high-achieving students from the ingrained habits, experiences, and perceptions they carryover from their high school lives. In The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids, Alexandra Robbins returns to the high school she once attended and follows the experiences of nine ambitious students while they navigate the transition from twelfth-grade to the first year of college. Robbins writes with an engaged voice, her interviews often reading like fiction with their compelling tone and candor. Interspersed among these interviews, Robbins also includes chapters focused on the broader implications of the dangerous trends she observes.

While every student profiled is considered an “overachiever” by the author’s account, each has a vastly different identity and background from the others. These characterizations range from the 4.0 student with six AP classes behind him and a forceful, over-bearing mother who conflates her son’s dreams with her own to the highly self-directed student who feels she needs to earn top grades in order to be on par with her high-achieving peer group. Over the course of a year, Robbins interviews each student regularly, ultimately finding several emergent themes. On many occasions, the text discusses the use of stimulants to improve academic performance, decline in both physical and mental health as a result of burn-out and the emotional toll of unrealistic expectations from college counselors, parents, and peers. Each of these themes is discussed openly in the student interviews, but also in several “break-out” chapters of the text, which incorporate alternate sources. For example, one of the sections on expectations discusses how it is not uncommon for parents to link a “good high school” with one that offers a large number of AP courses. Here, the text refers to an outside 2004 Berkeley study which found no causal relationship between the number of AP classes a student takes and their performance in college later on.

While the content of this book is diverse enough that it could be useful to anyone in an education or counseling-related field, it may be of specific interest to academic advisors. When students start college, their advisors encounter them at a single moment in time. Thus, there is often limited information available regarding a student’s history unless the individual is particularly forthcoming. Even so, a student’s perception of his or her high school experience could vary greatly from the reality. By reading The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids, academic advisors can gain significant insight into the pervasive culture of “over-achieverism” that has followed many of these top students since their youth. It will be especially useful to advisors who find themselves regularly combatting the false narrative that any grade less than an A must be equated with failure. While Robbins does not offer direct solutions to the complex issue of over-stressed student culture, her words pave the way for discussion--both among colleagues and with students--surrounding an important topic that is often minimized or entirely overlooked. Future editions could consider going a step further and advocating to educators for a directed, action-based approach.

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