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I was sick of college talk. Sick of reciting the names of the schools my 16-year-old has visited, which ones she liked best, and why. Sick of listening to other parents do the same. Sick of discussing the finer points of the new SAT, class rank and recommendation letters. Sick of the chatter about Opal Mehta, the fictitious Harvard applicant and heroine of a recent plagiarized novel. So sick of it all that I was considering a ban on extrafamilial college talk from now until spring, when my daughter will finally belong to someone’s class of 2011.
Then I read “The Overachievers,” which is almost nothing but college talk. Alexandra Robbins profiles eight students at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., in-depth over three semesters in 2004 and 2005; they talk about college. She pans wide to include overachievers across the country; they talk about college. She consults experts on college. She surveys the literature about college. She calls for new ways of thinking about college, preparing for college, and applying to college. I couldn’t get enough of it.
“The Overachievers” is part soap opera, part social treatise. Robbins identifies her main characters — four juniors, three seniors and one alum who’s a college freshman — by how they’re perceived at Whitman. Then she stands back and lets them prove otherwise. Julie, the Superstar, is so plagued by self-doubt that she worries she will be voted “Most Awkward” by her senior classmates. Sam, the Teacher’s Pet, runs out of time to find and interview a Muslim for an assignment in his Modern World class, so he makes one up and writes a fake transcript of their conversation. And A.P. Frank, who took a grueling all-Advanced Placement course load his junior and senior years of high school, wants nothing more than a decent social life when he gets to college. I was so hooked on their stories that I wanted to vote for my favorite contestant at the end of every chapter.
The book is less effective when Robbins leaves Whitman to gather supporting anecdotes from students in other parts of the country. After a while the kids at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., sound like the kids in Kentucky, who sound like the kids in Vermont, who sound like the kids in New Mexico. There’s also a detour into the cutthroat world of private schools in Manhattan that would have worked better as the seed for another book. Nice coup, sitting in on interviews and admission decisions at the Trinity School, but can we please get back to Bethesda?
When “The O.A.” is on location, it reads like very good young-adult fiction, thanks to its winning cast, its surprising plot twists — the Stealth Overachiever turns out to be the kid you’d least expect — and its pushy parents, including one truly disturbed mother. In one funny-sad scene, the Popular Girl, torn between Penn and Duke, stands at the post office with acceptance letters to each. She finally mails one, then decides she’s made a terrible mistake and begs the clerk to retrieve her letter. Twice. In another episode, it takes three hours of instant messaging for Julie, the Superstar (SAT verbal 760), and Derek, another senior (verbal 800), to establish that they like each other — but only as friends.
Robbins has a lot in common with her young subjects. A 1998 Yale graduate and the author of the 2004 best seller “Pledged,” about sororities, she graduated from Whitman a decade before she began researching this book, and she quietly admits that she, too, is an overachiever. Robbins is also a good writer, and she must be a good listener, because she more than delivers on the promise of “secret lives” in the subtitle. Her main characters confide in her about everything from cheating and test anxiety to underage drinking and self-mutilation. (Curiously, there’s no sex to speak of in “The Overachievers”; it must be the only area in which these kids don’t outperform their peers.) Robbins handles these private struggles with a minimum of fuss, offering economical, generally dispassionate digests on often disturbing topics.Continue reading the main story