It was a Tuesday afternoon. High school juniors huddled around a long dining room table, nervously scraping their cuticle-bitten fingers along the edges of manilla folders.
College counseling class, for when you know that not getting into a good college is both a real and an unacceptable possibility. In the folders, there were sample applications from students who applied to all the big name schools: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Brown, etc.
Before I even opened the envelope, I dreaded meeting the superhuman student inside. He or she would have perfect grades, stellar SAT scores, and extracurriculars that would prove him or her a humanitarian, a school leader, and an entrepreneur. I slept in on weekends.
We were told to open our folders and carefully digest its contents for later replication. The first application I read was by a seventeen-year-old boy to Harvard University. My stomach sank as I prepared myself to face my shortcomings. He had gotten straight A's, perfect 5s on all of his AP tests (of which there were five in one year) and a 2400 on his SATs. I reassured myself that he would be boring. His extracurricular activities couldn't be stellar. He had to have been spending all of his time working at schoolwork to get these kinds of grades. Or had he?
Surely enough, his essay gave a detailed account of his semester abroad helping orphans in Africa build homes and get clean water. He taught them English as he learned Swahili. He was a Mexican immigrant, and his parents were extremely poor. He had gotten the money to go to Africa on a scholarship. In his spare time, he built houses for habitat for humanity, captained the school's basketball team, and helped his mother cook meals for his many siblings (this is a true story). I reviewed everything I had done since age fourteen and wondered how I could make a story about running headlong into a glass wall into a meaningful essay.
A silence of inadequacy filled the room as one by one the manilla folders dropped hopelessly onto the desk.
Although not every kid is expected to have this kind of resume, the pressure for teenagers in high school to accomplish great feats while still maintaining a perfect grade point average is staggering. Parents who spent their teenage years running around and being kids are pushing their children to dedicate their weekends to volunteering and their precious after school time playing sports or participating in clubs to further their academic interests. My peers and I got home late and alternated between eating and frantically typing up essays that were due the next morning.
Several factors create the fanatic drive for early success. Colleges have become more selective. Anxious for their children to attain the same or higher level of financial security, parents push them to exceed their peers' accomplishments in the new and demanding process. The second reason is less logical, although still understandable. There is a basic assumption, especially in high income families, that younger success breeds prosperous futures. We have to become heads of startup companies, write novels, publish theses, and win awards by puberty to be considered impressive. However, many kids, pushed to the point of breaking with the strain of work without respite, frantically accomplish as much as they can and then collapse under the pressure. Few people are thinking about storing up stamina for the later years by allowing their children to be teenagers, goof around, and make some mistakes so that in later they won't feel that they never got a chance to be kids.
The most important and arguably most destructive factor in this sweat-soaked climb to success is the parents' egos. No parent, in an increasingly competitive world where other kids are climbing to the top of Mt. Everest at twelve and finding the cure for cancer at fourteen, wants to have the only kid who sits around watching TV. High schools, especially private prep high schools, and college preparation programs make money on this fear. They assure parents that for an outrageous price, their child will be as successful as all the other kids and will become a competitive candidate for the top schools. They deliver by pushing the students harder than most of their parents can understand, having never experienced the same pressure at such a young age. The Tiger mom has become the Tiger society.
The schools are not going to change their marketing scheme unless parental demand changes. They make money out of forcing your child into an uncut collegiate diamond, to be mined, shined, and marketed to the world wearing the brand of an Ivy league. All that the parents can do is listen to their kids. When teenagers say that they are exhausted and aren't getting enough sleep, listen. Don't rob them of the only teenage years they will ever have, and in the future, they won't feel like they missed out.