Beep beep beep! screams the alarm clock. You sleepily open one eye and stare at the time: 5:20 a.m. You don’t want to get out of bed, but you have to make yourself; so instead of smacking the “sleep” button, you turn the alarm off, and, with a stretch and a yawn, roll out of bed and head to the bathroom for your morning routine. You shower, put on makeup, dry and straighten your hair, brush your teeth, get dressed, and head downstairs for breakfast by 6:30 a.m. Your book bag, sitting in a chair at the kitchen table, is already packed from the previous night with everything you’ll need throughout your day. You only go to your locker before and after school; what if you forget something – like homework – in your locker and your teacher doesn’t let you go back to get it? That would mean a failing grade, which would lower your class grade, which would show up on your report card, which would appear on your transcript…! After eating some cereal and checking your bag again, you gather your things, get in your car, and head to school before 6:50 a.m. If you don’t leave early, you won’t get a good parking spot; you have too much studying to do after school to waste time waiting in lines.
Though this morning schedule seems extreme for a high school student, it is a reality for Heather Trefny, senior at Carmel High School in Carmel, Indiana. Heather looks like a typical high school girl: her dark brown hair hangs straight just past her shoulders; her big hazel eyes with long black lashes stare innocently through the burgundy-rimmed glasses she wears when studying; her body is firm, lean, and muscular; her pale face lights up when she smiles, showing off stunning straight teeth recently perfected by orthodontia. On the outside, Heather seems like a content high school senior, an optimistic young woman: “I would describe her as smiley,” says friend Rebecca Luebcke.
She’s happy on the outside, but what about inside? When the majority of thoughts revolve around getting ahead in her classes, triple-checking homework assignments, and studying more than a college student, can Heather really be as healthy and happy as she appears?
According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, an overachiever is someone who “achieves success over and above the standard or expected level especially at an early age.” Nowadays, overachievement is less of an anomaly for high school and college students. Going above and beyond the norm in the classroom, extracurricular activities, and social life is commonplace, especially among high school upperclassmen pushing themselves to the limit to gain acceptance into renowned colleges and universities. These goal-oriented, ambitious, and diligent youth excel in every area of life; yet many of them are miserable, Alexandra Robbins told Forbes magazine.
Robbins is the author of The Overachievers, an innovative view of the world of overachievers from the author’s two-year period of personal observations and interviews. “In present-day America,” writes Robbins, “school for many students has become a competitive frenzy… Sometimes from as early as their toddler years, millions of students are raised to believe that there is nothing more important than success.” By delving into the lives of high school students, Robbins reveals a side of overachievement previously overlooked in our success-driven culture: extreme negative side effects.
It is a frenzy - the competition to be in the top ten percent of the class; the pressure to take Advanced Placement (AP), honors, and International Baccalaureate (IB) classes; the drive to get straight As; the pressing need to succeed. With AP Government, IB English, economics, fashion merchandising, Spanish V (the highest level offered at her school), and PreCalculus/PreStatistics, Heather’s schedule shocks even college students taking eighteen credit hours. But the high school senior doesn’t really focus on how much she studies: “Studying is just life; I come home and I do homework and then I go to sleep.”
Heather’s attitude toward studying – that it is life – worries her parents and teachers. “Socially she doesn’t fit in with those who are more flexible and carefree,” says her mother, Jobea Trefny. The desire to work harder and be better, can be overwhelming for young adults, and Heather is only 18 years old; “I think it's great that she wants to be successful, but worrying too much about it will give her an ulcer at a young age,” says Jennifer Williams, Heather’s IB English teacher.
A study by James V. Mitchell of the University of Texas on Goal-Setting Behaviors divides overachievers into two categories: self-acceptant and self-rejectant. Self-acceptant overachievers are characterized as well-adjusted, “good” students; they consistently aspire to higher grades without allowing performance in school to control emotions, and they can deal with life’s problems without excessive stress or anxiety. But Mitchell’s assessment of a self-rejectant overachiever is depressing: “She feels incompetent, unsuccessful, unworthy, and completely lacking in self-confidence; and she is often inclined to brood over her inadequacies and her troubles and to be utterly overcome by life in general.”
Heather fits the latter personality type. “Generally I like to strive for good grades for my own self-assurance. Getting A’s makes me feel good about myself; it’s kind of like how I identify myself,” she says.
Miss Williams claims that Heather works almost too hard some nights and freaks out when she receives a B, while most students begin to stress over a C or below. On the few occasions she receives a grade below an A (even an A- barely passes as acceptable in Heather’s opinion), “she just decides to check out,” says Jobea. “Today I came home from work and she had gone to bed right after school. I walked up to her room and she was sound asleep with the covers pulled over her head. She slept for two hours and wouldn’t talk to me about what was wrong when she woke up.” Heather never told her mother what was bothering her that day, but Jobea guesses it had to do with receiving a “bad” grade, probably a B.
Interestingly, Mitchell describes the self-rejectant overachiever’s distrust of herself as radically misplaced; “she comes closer to attaining [her academic goals] than anyone else!” his study concludes.
Heather’s AP Government teacher, Alicia Smith, says, “At the end of the day the grade isn’t as important to me as how much a student has learned about working hard, study habits, the content, themselves, etc., because that is where the real value of education lies. And from that measurement I think Heather is excelling.”
“I hope that people perceive me as an overachiever, to be honest; somebody who works really hard and gets good grades; somebody who’s diligent and responsible,” Heather says. Friends, family, and teachers perceive her exactly the way she hopes.
But the people close to Heather worry about her constant drive to achieve. They agree that she is “overly worried about schoolwork” and needs to “loosen up and enjoy life more.” Her father identifies her as a definite overachiever, commenting on her paranoia about finishing tasks and striving to the point of exhaustion to complete her schoolwork. Her mother says, “Heather is always trying to attain the next level of competency, but is never very happy with her present ability, no matter how good it is.” She puts her self-worth in her grades, which can be mentally and emotionally exhausting, not to mention detrimental to her self-esteem if she accomplishes less than she sets out to attain. Miss Williams describes Heather as “a quiet, motivated student who isn't confident about her knowledge. She works hard but doesn't have a lot of self-confidence about her work.”
A CollegeBoard article lists the downsides to being an overachiever, including “unhealthy self-image” as number four of the top five negative aspects of overachieving. “Overachievers often base their feelings of self-worth on their accomplishment,” the article says. “Overachieving frequently causes students to forget that self-worth is measured from within,” rather than by grades and scholarly behavior.
Miss Williams sums up most peoples’ concerns regarding Heather’s schoolwork habits: “I think most students do their homework and call it studying. I think Heather studies more than the average student and much more than two to three hours a night. I think she needs to be careful because I don't want her sacrificing her ‘life’ for perfect grades; that's not worth it!”
But for overachievers everywhere, the sacrifice is worth it. “I don’t see giving up social time as a sacrifice,” says Heather. “More so on the weekends I feel like I sacrifice doing stuff that I want to do and study instead. Sometimes I’ll work on homework from noon until three and then go out and do something for a couple hours, then come home for dinner and do more homework. But, like I said, I’m not really sacrificing anything; I want to get straight A’s, so I do what I have to in order to get them.”
Performance psychologist John Elliot, author of Overachievement, insists that overachievers do not think rationally, which helps explain some of Heather’s behaviors. She does not recognize her precarious emotional state as a negative result of overly studious conduct. Heather says she lets her actions speak louder than her words, and by getting good grades she hopes to be noticed as a hardworking student. But when hard work becomes an obsessive desire to get ahead in class, receive nothing less than an A, and recklessly pursue unattainably high goals, how does a student return to a healthy level of scholastic achievement?
CollegeBoard recommends that overachievers weed out the activities that give them little or no pleasure, say “no” to activities they have no time to be involved in, schedule time to relax and de-stress, eat healthy foods, get enough sleep, and exercise regularly. “I do all those things,” Heather says. “I don’t really have any extracurricular activities because I’m not very good at dividing my energy into different activities, and especially this semester I feel like I need to focus on school and not on other clubs or events.” She swam for the Carmel High School girls swim team her freshman year, but quit after realizing she did not have time to do well in school and swim. “School won,” Heather says.
Her focus on school should be a positive thing; after all, she is about to start applying to colleges and determining the next step in her life. She believes otherwise: “I think it definitely hurts me though, especially in regards to college applications. It makes me less of a well-rounded student because I’m only dedicated to one area; I’m not good at being studious and a social butterfly. I don’t think I have a very healthy balance…but I don’t change it.”
“Overachiever culture is disturbing not because it exists but because it has become a way of life,” writes Robbins. Teenagers like Heather inevitably conclude that no matter how much they achieve, it will never be enough. The pressure gradually builds.
But nobody changes anything.
REBECCA TREFNY is a senior English major from Carmel, Indiana. She is also a music minor and violist in the TCU Symphony Orchestra. When she’s not busy writing or practicing, Rebecca is an avid reader. Her favorite book is The Hero and the Crown, which she’s read more than twenty times. After graduation, she plans on either entering corporate America or teaching middle school English. Her favorite band is Death Cab for Cutie, and she cannot live without cake batter ice cream.
A typical after-school scene in the Trefny household: Heather hard at work before dinner.