Accomplishment Culture

This semester, I helped my daughter with her college applications. We talked about colleges, went through her essays together, talked through the application process and the decisions it involved — where to apply? early decision or not?

Early in the process, I learned how fundamentally it had changed from when I was applying to college. When I applied, I knew very little about the process — my mother had gotten her education in a very different system, so she could not tell me what to do, and my relatively small school in Virginia did not have good guidance counselors. A majority of its students went on to jobs, not colleges — those of us heading to higher education were in the Honors and AP classes. We basically spent our entire school day together, a small cohort of students who compared notes on the application process. The applications were still on paper, and the information we received arrived in the mail — there was no email for high school students. Even when I was in college, we communicated with professors by going to office hours or leaving notes in their departmental mailboxes. We did not have university email addresses. All that came later.

I was lucky to be in Virginia — the state universities were excellent. I applied to all of them, as well as some schools I was quite sure I would not get into, including Harvard and Amherst. My grades were not great — the truth is that I was often bored at school, and read a great deal on my own. But my SAT scores were very good, so these schools contacted me. I got interviews. At my Harvard interview, I got my first introduction to accomplishment culture. The interviewer asked me about my activities, my passions. I talked about being captain of the debate team, publishing in the literary magazine — my school activities. My passion, I said, was writing. She seemed disappointed. She told me that the candidate she had interviewed before me had founded his own business. That was when I realized Harvard was looking for something different, something that I could not even have conceived was possible. My responsibilities were doing homework and taking care of my brother after school. I was a teenager. I was supposed to start a business?

I am profoundly grateful that the exclusive private schools rejected me. All the Virginia schools accepted me, and I got a wonderful education at the University of Virginia for about $6000 a year. Then I went on to Harvard Law School and got myself into educational debt, which took years working as a corporate lawyer to pay off.

Now that we are in the era of the internet, all teenagers aiming for a school like Harvard know that they’re supposed to do more than become the captain of the debate team. They know they’re supposed to accomplish at a particularly high level — or their parents know, and lead them carefully through a process of founding charities, doing independent research. If they’re applying for the most selective schools, they need to show a résumé of accomplishments. When I started helping my daughter with her applications, I watched some of their videos online. They go through their statistics (grades, test scores, and a long list of extracurricular activities that will hopefully distinguish them from other candidates for admission).

My daughter had her own accomplishments, but I had never pushed her to do things like this. I had let her go her own way, follow her own interests. She had started a Redbubble store, proposed an independent art project. But we had never tried to build the sort of résumé these Ivy-bound teens were creating. Often with parental help — it was the parents who paid for expensive sports teams and trips abroad, who arranged for their children to do research in real labs. But these children were themselves steeped in a culture of accomplishment, where what they did mattered, at least to the extent that it could be documented on a college application.

My question is, is this actually good for our children? Because they are, after all, children. Bright and ambitious, but so young. Spending their high school years making sure they have the right credentials, making sure they have passions and following those passions, and documenting them, and hopefully publishing that novel or winning nationals, because eventually it will go on the college website: “Our class of 2026 includes a published novelist, a national fencing champion . . .” You don’t see the same sorts of accolades for teenagers who read a lot, or went off into the woods and thought about life, or babysat younger siblings, or worked at the local ice cream parlor every afternoon.

And yet, perhaps those are the sorts of things children should be doing?

I think this is a very American phenomenon. In Europe, the college admissions process depends on your grades and test scores. As far as I know, there are no essays asking things like “What is your favorite word? Explain why.” The process is much more straightforward. The universities are focused on preparing students for a profession or field of study. The amenities are more basic, and there are no sports teams. What makes it particularly American is the focus on showing what you can do, what you can accomplish. In a supposedly meritocratic society, you are judged not on who you are, but by your accomplishments — your visible, tangible accomplishments. The trophy. The certificate. The publication. This is equally true for the universities — they too are caught up in accomplishment culture. How many Noble laureates do they have? How many MacArthur or Guggenheim fellows? How selective are they? The numbers matter.

I’m not saying, of course, that European universities don’t have their own problems. But this seems to me a distinctively American issue, this focus on accomplishments and accolades that often have very little to do with a student’s field of study. There is an American need to prove that we are constantly producing, which leads to a culture of overwork and exhaustion that follows students into the working world.

The problem is that we are on an unsustainable trajectory. Students can only do so much before utterly collapsing — to be honest, I think some of them are already there. Universities can only raise their prices so high or become so selective. Students can only take on so much debt. I don’t like to say that the world was better at any particular point in history– it was better and worse. Every time is different. But the college application process I grew up with was less competitive. The process I glimpsed in my Harvard interview was still confined to the Ivies. Now it seems to be everywhere.

And I think we, as a nation, will have to think about this. Because human beings are not meant to be accomplishment machines — our society gains very little from teenagers, or even adults, adding the most impressive items possible to their résumés without thinking about what’s real, what really matters. And yes, of course teenagers and young adults can do wonderful things. I teach college students, and they are smart, passionate, dedicated, deeply and fundamentally authentic. They are much more than a list of accomplishments on a college applications, and what they bring into the classroom — their thoughts and ideas and interests, their inner lives — those are the most important things about them.

(The image is The Scholar by Jessie Willcox Smith.)

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8 Responses to Accomplishment Culture

  1. Sara RLogan says:

    Dora, I am in complete agreement with you. I worry for my own child– one, because there isn’t a way I can see to pay for him to attend the kind of college I was privileged to study at, and two, he’s not an accomplishment-focused kid. He loves his friends and video games, reading and drawing and playing baseball. He wants to get a job mowing lawns, and volunteer at the nature center. I don’t want to push him to do more and more, in order that he can burn out before 25.

  2. Nancy says:

    Theodora, I so agree. It is as though we, America, in our quest to progress and achieve, have lost the way. Though many young people are striving in altruistic fields, far too many gauge success in materialistic terms. I feel as though America has lost touch with those who have slipped through the cracks, or with those whose priorities are amiss. We need people to care about people, and the environment, and the world.

  3. Sarah says:

    …and people who care about reading and daydreaming and being a little bit silly—maybe wearing their clothes inside out now and again, to see how it feels and notice what happens. We need to make room for our fey to thrive, not merely our famous.

  4. MPE says:

    So much of this is not really about accomplishment (or “achievement” as it used to be called, at least here in the UK, way back when I was young) but code for “being from a wealthy background where everything was made easy for you”. (Note: wealthy. Note: easy. Obviously, not all wealth brings ease.) Actually doing actual work (such as raising younger siblings, taking low-paid jobs to help pay the bills, etc) doesn’t count. Which is sad and awful, in so many ways.

  5. You are absolutely right about this American phenomenon, and it’s fairly recent. Not only do today’s kids have to do more in order to get into college, it costs more and offers them less for their money in the long run. Children should be allowed to be children, and it’s completely wild to me how we’re praising this hustle culture when we should be scrutinizing it harshly.

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