This non-fiction novel is categorized into seventeen clear straightforward parts: chapters one through seventeen.
Chapter 1: In the first chapter Robbins introduces the students she followed along with the overachiever culture that has rearranged high schools only purpose into getting students into the most prestigious Colleges and Universities rather than the school that would be the best fit for each student.
Chapter 2: Chapter two, Robbins explains the impact of Asian culture and expectations on Asian American students, especially where education is concerned. She also talks about how the problem of overachieving is universal across our entire country, not just in affluent areas or at well-known high schools.
Chapter 3: Chapter 3, details the impact of stress on adolescent health. We meet the world of professional college counselors whom parents hire to get their students into the college of choice. The emphasis is on the prestige of the University, not on the needs of the students.
Chapter 4: Chapter four outlines the importance placed on teaching to tests, including AP exams, and how NCLB (no child left behind) is changing the face of American education. In an effort to get us competing on the world stage, we are sacrificing true education and academic integrity for a prized score. Robbins describes the epidemic of cheating in our country, including information about the 2004 incident at Saratoga High School here in our area.
Chapter 5: chapter five, shows how competition begins as early as preschool and kindergarten. There are even consultants for the process of getting kids admitted into selective schools at this young age. This chapter also covers class ranks and GPA and several controversies over the titles of valedictorian and salutatorian as well as more abut how common cheating is, partly so that students can achieve high GPAs and class ranks.
Chapter 6: In chapter six, Robbins is invited to observe the inside world of kindergarten admissions at Trinity School in New York City. In addition, there is discussion of youth athletics and both their cause of major health issues in children and the intense competition at unhealthy levels and how it affects kids and their families.
Chapter 7: Here we continue our inside look at Trinity's admissions process, and then the topic turns to sleep and the adolescent. High School students go through a profound change. Their internal clocks keep them wired until at least 11:00 at night, and their bodies and brains now require 9.25 hours of sleep per night. However, high school days start at 7:00 or earlier. Some research has been done on later start times for high schools, and despite findings that this is a great success, most schools and districts will not even consider changing their schedules.
Chapter 8: In chapter eight, the high schoolers that Robbins had been following, start hearing back from colleges which they had applied for early decision admission. In their community they feel judged based on where they applied and where they are getting accepted. Robbins looks into whether a University's prestige even matters in a student's future success. (she cites many examples of well-known and successful CEOs and other executives who attended “ordinary” schools.) She also investigates into the magazine rankings of colleges and universities. It turns out that this practice is pretty faked and the entire process contains dishonesty on the part of competing schools. Finally, real admissions officers from Stanford and other prestigious share how the admissions process works, and we learn that much of what high schools students kill themselves to achieve actually has little or no bearing on their acceptance.
Chapter 9: Have you heard of “helicopter parents”? Chapter nine brings this phenomenon to light. Helicopter parents hover around their children and swoop in to handle any crisis, no matter how big or small, causing their kids to be unable to fend for themselves when they need to. A professor and former administrator from Georgia is quoted as referring to the cell phone as “as the world's longest umbilical cord.” Parents living vicariously through their students cause the kids to not even know who they are or what they want. Eventually, the children “crash and burn” (word choice of mine) and feel as though they have no value, especially if they fail to become what their parents unrealistically expect of them.
Chapter 10: Chapter ten exposes the practice of “grade grubbing,” where students refuse to accept less than an A and will pester and cajole teachers point point to get their grades raised on tests, projects, and report cards. It's no surprise that this is unpleasant among students when schools cheat in their own ratings process by discouraging certain students from taking the SAT or by falsifying data about how their students have performed.
Chapter 11: In chapter eleven we hear how students perceive one another, often mistakenly, and how in high school many students sacrifice exploring interests and having fun for trying to make their classes and activities fill out a perfect resume for impressing college admissions officers. Some students actually pushed by their parents(like one young man who took 17 AP courses during high school), but others are driven by an unhealthy perfectionism within themselves.
Chapter 12: Chapter twelve is an eye opener. it discusses drinking, drug use, and sex among high school students.
Chapter 13: Chapter thirteen covers the SAT, why and how it was changed, and whether the revised version is any better at rating or evaluating students and their ability to succeed in college. We also learn about the new SAT and its essay component, which some college completely ignore. Some college and universities are eliminating their requirement for the SAT or ACT in an effort to minimize their importance and stress that surrounds them.
Chapter 14: Chapter fourteen focuses on ADD and two commonly prescribed ADD medications: ritalin and adderall. Apparently, many non-ADD students are using other people's prescriptions to get a competitive edge at school, especially during testing periods or finals. Even more shocking is that some parents actually push for their non-ADD children to be diagnosed so that they can get them drugs. They will shop around for doctors and go through visit after visit until they find someone willing or prescribe. In the lives of the students, as SAT scores come out, one of the kids Robbins was following describes the different types of “score weasels” at her school – kids who spend all their time comparing and trying to find out each other's scores. Another student reacts angrily when her mother talks to other parents about the students score report. This “age of comparison” phenomenon extends to students' choices of schools where they apply – they are constantly asked where they've applied, where they've been accepted, and they feel as though they are being judged.
Chapter 15: In chapter fifteen we see how this intense drive to succeed begins with parents of babies and toddlers, even some whose whose baby is still the womb. Intense educational efforts are being made to give the youngest children an early start at becoming geniuses. We then lament over-scheduled kids and the disintegration of recess, despite its proven effect of improving student wellness and achievement. We learn about the rise of suicide among children (not just high school students) due to stress. The concept of taking a “gap year” is discussed as a way to give students a break.
Chapter 16: Chapter sixteen shows the resolution in some students stories as they seek to change certain aspects of their lives. We discover first hand the inability of overachievers to function as adults capable of making their own decisions and allowing themselves to seek happiness over “success.”
Chapter 17: Chapter seventeen continues winding down the student stories as each individual moves on to the next year of schooling. There is a review of overachiever culture and the author suggests how we can begin to remedy the situation.