By Sammy Caiola
Carla*, a senior at a Suffolk County high school, returns home exhausted after extra help with her academic studies, a rigorous track practice and an SAT review class. It is 10 p.m., and while most kids her age are going to bed, she is only starting to dig into the tower of homework assignments on her desk. But rather than succumb to fatigue, she works until her essays are finished, and flawless, determined not to sacrifice a point on her homework average and consequently damage her GPA.
This is life inside “overachiever” culture: a division of high school students who are pushing themselves a little too hard to gain acceptance to top-notch universities, no matter the cost.
Carla dreams of going to an Ivy League school that accepts only 11 percent of its applicants, and for the past three years she has been stacking her schedule with Advanced Placement (AP) classes and extracurricular activities to achieve that goal. This year alone she is enrolled in three AP courses, adding to the grand total of nine she will have when she graduates.
“I really want to show colleges that I want to take the hardest classes,” says Carla. “I’ve always tried to challenge myself as much as I can. I gave up lunch last year and went straight through nine periods”
But it is not enough just to take challenging courses; it is about running straight A’s through all four years and not only doing well, but doing better than everybody else.
“The whole notion of wanting to be the best really pushes a lot of kids,” says Michael Quinland, clinical psychologist at a Suffolk County high school. “Students feel that they have to compete in order to be at the top of their class and will use any means necessary to accomplish that.”
The night before a big test, Carla’s room is a war zone. Flash cards, notebooks and loose leaf are everywhere, covering her carpet, desk and bed. She takes a blank piece of computer paper and rewrites the main points of every chapter in a different color marker until her fingertips are stained. She does not take breaks or sleep until all of the work is done.
“I don’t do anything else,” says Carla. “I don’t watch TV. I don’t go on the computer. I find a way to get it done. I don’t come unprepared to school. I don’t give in work that I know isn’t my best.”
The pressure that a heavy workload puts on overachievers is obvious, especially to teachers, who see the distress on the students’ faces every day.
“A lot of these kids are taking many AP classes at once,” says Christine Nelson, honors chemistry teacher at Paul Schreiber High School in Port Washington. “And they don’t have enough time to come to extra help if they’re having trouble.”
But even after all their hard work, grades don’t always meet the mountainous expectations students build for themselves, often causing them to crumble. For some students, a 95 just isn’t good enough, and they mentally rebuke themselves for not getting the 100.
“I had one major emotional breakdown over grades last year,” says Carla. “I was crying for about an hour, and then I had to go to practice. I get very stressed out and I tend to snap at people.”
Crazed from the Cradle
Even as a toddler, Alli Boccio’s mom knew she was special. Shortly after her arrival in kindergarten, teachers saw that she was a quick learner and urged her parents to transfer her to an advanced school with other children of her intellect. After test results revealed that Alli had an IQ of 150 at age 4, her parents enrolled her in the Long Island School for the Gifted (LISG), where she was first put to the high academic standards that would define her education for the next 10 years.
LISG is an accelerated educational program for students of outstanding intellect who want to challenge themselves by working one to three levels above their grade level. Located in Huntington Station, it is the only school of its kind on Long Island, and enrolls students from 60 different school districts, including those in New York City.
“We accelerate [the students] only in the subjects in which they are naturally talented,” said Carol Yilmaz, founder and current principal of LISG. “We want it to be challenging, but not so difficult that it impedes the learning process. Having to work at something helps them to have better study habits and teaches them to be good students.”
Being accelerated at such an early age encourages kids to keep their eyes on the future. They sit through standardized testing earlier than other children. LISG students take the English Language Arts exam (ELA) in third grade, while other students take it in sixth grade. By fifth grade, LISG students are taking placement tests for John Hopkins University, and by seventh grade they take the SAT.
“They trained us right from the start to succeed; it was like a college prep school,” says Alli, currently a freshman at SUNY Stony Brook. “The intelligence of a kindergartener there was equal to that of a third grader at a public school. The teachers praised us for everything, and always urged us to exceed expectations.”
Unlike a regular school track, where students stay in one classroom for all subjects until they reach junior high, LISG students start moving from class to class as early as fourth grade. Students of similar levels of intellect are placed in the same classes, and teachers try to create an atmosphere that fosters productivity and confidence. This places students on a focused academic path from which they are warned not to stray.
“We were very disciplined there,” says Alli. “Sometimes we called it a prison.”
Students graduate from LISG and move on to a public or private high school. Alli enrolled at St. Anthony’s High School in Melville and found the transition more difficult than she had expected. Coming from LISG, where she had already completed many of the courses her peers were taking, Alli was put in AP classes with students a year older than her. Though she was the youngest in her classes, she had been challenged so much since kindergarten that the work was still easy for her.
“The adjustment was very difficult; I was a sophomore and every class I took was a junior or senior class,” says Alli. “I was better at the subjects than they were, and they resented it. I was teased and ridiculed. It was awful at first. I went from a graduating class of 17 students into a class of 600 students and I was overwhelmed.”
Brains on Drugs
Eleven p.m. is approaching, and Wesley* still has two essays and a calculus packet to finish by morning. Knowing he won’t make it through the night, he tells his mom he’s driving over to Andrew*’s house to borrow a textbook. When Wesley arrives, Andrew retrieves a vial of pills from his desk drawer and spills out two white capsules, which he gives to Wesley for $10. Wesley leaves, assured he’ll finish his work.
The capsules he just bought are 40mg doses of Ritalin, one of the several prescription amphetamines that high school students resort to when they need to cram. Ritalin, Adderol, and Concerta are three mild central nervous system stimulants that are often prescribed to children and adolescents with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). For a teen with ADD, the methylphenidate in the pill stimulates certain receptors in the brain and helps a diagnosed patient focus and stay calm. For a teen without ADD, it has the opposite effect.
“There is a high risk involved when taking these stimulant medications if they have not been prescribed to you,” says Dr. Timothy George, a West Islip-based pediatrician. “If you don’t have ADD and you take Ritalin, it increases your alertness, heart rate and metabolism. If taken in large doses, the result can be fatal.”
But despite the risk, overachievers sometimes use these medications when they need to pull all-nighters and coffee isn’t enough.
“Sometimes it would be caffeine pills or sometimes natural energy drinks that had some sort of caffeine or guarana or taurine,” says Wesley, a senior. “When it got really bad I resorted to amphetamines.”
Students diagnosed with ADD often have excess pills or just don’t take their prescription, which makes the drug fairly easy to find. But this isn’t a black market run by hardcore street dealers. Here, all involved are pill-popping honors students. Many of them are aware of the potential effects of the drug, but when it’s a question of finishing their homework, they do whatever is necessary.
“It’s dangerous, works for only a couple of hours, and when you run out, you want even more,” says Wesley. “Also, it’s a bit illegal. I’m aware of the damage I’m doing to my body when using the drugs, so I use them very sparingly.”
The use of amphetamines and other stimulants keeps determined students awake, which helps them finish their work, but takes its toll the next day. According to American Sleep Disorders Association, the average teenager requires nine hours of sleep every night, but many overachievers ignore this requirement.
“I was living on 3 to 5 hours of sleep [per night],” says Rob McAllister, senior at Hauppauge High School. “I pulled an uncountable amount of all-nighters throughout the school year and just forced my body to get used to it.”
But why would anyone—let alone teenagers—force themselves to get used to such an unforgiving life?
Though some overachievers motivate themselves to do well, many are pushed by their parents to live up to a certain familial legacy, or feel that they have to match or exceed high expectations set by siblings. When the family car already has two decals from top-notch universities, the youngest child is often mortified by the prospect of attending a second-tier institution and becoming the “failure child.”
“I’ve always been a little jealous of my older siblings for their good grades and their success at college,” says Mark Espina of Bay Shore High School, whose older siblings went to Dartmouth College, American University, and University of Virginia. “They all got scholarships, and I feel like my parents will kill me if I don’t get one. I want to go to a college of the same caliber as them, but not the same one because I don’t want to be compared to them.”
Getting accepted to top-notch universities is no easy task. According to Harvard College’s statistics from the class of 2013, 29,114 applicants were considered for the undergraduate college. Only 2,175 were admitted.
To make themselves stand out among a herd of Ivy League hopefuls, overachievers join clubs and community service groups in an attempt to appear well-rounded on their transcripts.
“I run track, I’m in French honor society, music honor society, and regular honor society, and I’m on Science Olympiads,” says Carla, the Half Hollow Hills senior. “I want colleges to see that I can balance everything, even with a lot on my plate.”
But that balancing act can be counterproductive. Says Christine Nelson, the chemistry teacher at Paul Schreiber High School: “[These students] think that their entire lives rely on their grades and they get overly stressed out, sometimes to the point that it makes them physically ill.”
Whether the pressure started in kindergarten or in senior year, many children struggle with their academic identity every day. And the psychological, emotional and physical tolls paid by these students can be even greater than the tuition fees at the schools to which they hope to be accepted.
*Names of students marked by an asterisk have been changed.