Palo Alto High School is one of the most prestigious high schools in America. It is situated in an affluent community where the median house price is over $ 3 million. Parents here are well educated and successful and expect a lot from their children. Students at Palo Alto High try hard to do well, working late nights, and cutting out sports and other activities so that they can concentrate on academics. As a result, a student scoring 2200 on the SAT who would be in the 99th percentile of college bound seniors nationwide would be only in the 75th percentile in Palo Alto. As an article in the New York Times stated ” The bar for academic success has been set so high that solid performance can feel mediocre.” Students have panic attacks in class and some suffer nervous breakdowns. Saddest of all… This past year, three boys from Palo Alto High committed suicide because they felt they did not measure up to expectations. Since 2009, five students from Gunn High School, the other high school in Palo Alto, have also taken their lives. Parents try their best to lower pressure on their kids by telling them that their happiness is what matters more than academic success but their protestations are not always sincere or successful.
I have seen first hand the effects of parental pressure. Since I retired I have been helping some students with their SAT prep. Some years ago I was contacted by a family was interested in my services. They came to my house with their son to interview me. The boy’s father told me that his son had achieved perfect 800 scores in the Math and Writing sections but “only” 690 in the Reading Comprehension Section. Taking the test a second time, he had repeated his success in Math & Writing but done marginally worse in Reading, this time getting 660. Since the aggregate for all three sections was over 2250, putting him in the top 1%, I asked why it was important for him to take the test again in hopes of improving the Reading score. The father told me that Harvard U would not consider anyone for admission who did not have at least 700 in each of the three sections. This was news to me but he told me a Harvard representative had come to his place of work, a Wall Street firm, and gone over the requirements for admission to Harvard. He said he was determined that his son would get into Harvard and asked if I had any special coaching techniques that would help his son get over the hump. Of course, I had to say that I didn’t and that was the end of the interview. They thanked me for my time and left.
I didn’t have any special techniques but, from observing the family dynamics, I could tell what was holding the boy back. Throughout the session, during which the father did all the talking, the boy did not utter a word but sat sat quietly with his eyes cast down. The father was a very hard driving, successful Wall Street executive accustomed to getting his way but the Harvard dream was his, not his son’s. The boy was obviously intelligent ( as evidenced by his scores) and had received extensive coaching both from tutors and his mother. If he did not do better, it must have been because of the burden of living up to what his father wanted. It certainly wasn’t for lack of brains or want of effort. If only his father had told him to try his best and then left him alone…
I don’t know what happened afterwards. Did the boy get into Harvard? If he did get in, was he able to withstand the pressures of competing against the other elite students? Your guess is as good as mine.
The pity is that parents do not realize an Ivy League education is NOT a pre-requisite for a good job. Perhaps the only exception is the finance industry where usually only graduates from these schools are invited for interviews by Wall Street firms. It is not like Japan, India or South Korea where the college you attend determines the course of your entire life. It is my understanding that, in Japan. only graduates from Waseda and other top universities are interviewed by the top tier firms; the others, no matter how well they did in lesser colleges, can only hope to get into second tier firms. The same is true in South Korea, India and other countries where the jobs are few and the labor pool immense. It is not true- not yet , at least, – in America where jobs are more plentiful and where the pressure for academic success comes largely from parents who project their own desires and dreams onto their children while telling themselves it is for the children’s sake.