Silicon Valley high schools. Home of the brightest engineers, the coolest new technology, and the highest salaries in the world, Silicon Valley is also home of the most cutthroat competitive high schools.
Let’s take a look at the schools with the highest SAT scores in the nation. Unsurprisingly, 6 of the top 20 are located in the Silicon Valley: Monta Vista (#15), Mission San Jose (#18), Lynbrook (#7), Gunn (#12), Leland (#20), and Harker (#2). Of course, there is no shortage of phenomenal Bay Area schools (Paly, Tino, and Bellarmine come to mind). In many of these schools, getting a 3.5GPA could put you in the bottom half of the class (academic powerhouses Gunn, Monta Vista, Harker come to mind). In other schools, athletics plays a bigger role in the culture, but success is still expected nonetheless (Bellarmine, Los Gatos, Mitty). Also, it’s a given that the student body is not only talented, but also well accomplished in many different areas.
It’s unbelievable when you see the sheer numbers these schools put out. Harker has had 173 people admitted to Berkeley in the past 3 years. In just 2015, Harker had a 43% acceptance rate to Berkeley (69 admitted out of 162 who had applied). For the #1 public university in the world, those are some crazy numbers. Not to be out-matched, Mission San Jose High boasted a 29% acceptance rate to Berkeley in 2015, with 93 admitted. I understand admission to Berkeley isn’t the best metric to judge competitiveness/success, but it shows a small part of the bigger picture.
Evergreen Valley, my home school, is considered one of the middle-tier competitive schools, but it’s slowly becoming a microcosm of the Palo Alto/Cupertino areas. It’s reflected in our college admissions. This year alone, we have 32 students going to Berkeley and 4 going to Stanford. Now, it’s great and all that we’re succeeding in the college admissions game, but at what cost?
The bottom line is behind these stellar numbers and phenomenal extracurricular activities lie a culture of overwork and incessant competition. There no longer exists a free summer for high school kids. Everyone is competing — who can get the best internship? Who can pack their schedule the most? Who can get admitted to the best, most prestigious summer programs? Even in school, everyone is competing — who can work the hardest? Who can sleep the least and still get straight A’s? Who can do it all? Who can be a part of the most clubs? Going through it, it always seemed like a giant race to nowhere. There are a few features that distinguish Silicon Valley high schools.
1. Fear of failure
This sounds counterintuitive. I mean, we live in the freaking Silicon Valley, right? Home of entrepreneurship, risks, and solving the world’s problems, right? No, not really — high school isn’t like that. We stick to what we know best. You play the piano really well? Keep doing that. You dance well? Stick to it. Don’t try other things — didn’t you know you have to commit to an activity in order to put it on your college app? Why try new things and fail when you can stick to what you’ve been doing, work hard, and accomplish great things? Because, after all, isn’t the point of life to get into college?
2. Stifling competition
We’re ambitious and we’re talented and we’re hardworking — no doubt about it. We start companies and publish books and become nationally ranked in every extracurricular activity possible while juggling a 4.0 GPA. But with all of it comes a price. By most of society here, you are judged by your numbers. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard parents ask about my SAT score and where I’m going to college, and then change their perception of me because of it. I want to tell them that these superficial things don’t define me — that I’m more than these arbitrary numbers and test scores.
3. Ridiculous over-scheduling
You’ll see kids with schedules more packed than an exec in the corporate world — gosh, is that even possible? After school, go to sports practice for 2–3 hours. After sports practice, practice your instrument for 1–2 hours. Now, it’s time for dinner. Eat for an hour, do homework for an hour and then sleep at 9pm? No — not really. Not when you have 5 AP courses that each assign Herculean loads of homework. Not when you’re managing several clubs and organizations. Not when you’re also involved in student government. Where’s the time to relax? Where’s the time to enjoy? We’re bogged up in this mindset that happiness is to be postponed. It’s this mentality that says “I’ll work hard now, so that I can enjoy my life later. It’s ok if I don’t enjoy now because it’ll get better.” But when does it end? Caught in this vicious cycle, it’s hard to see what makes life worth it.
The only thing I want to say to the Silicon Valley teens out there is to enjoy your time. Be ambitious, be hardworking, be everything you’ve wanted to be and more — but don’t forget to stop and smell the flowers. After all, what’s life without enjoyment?