The curse of being an overachiever

13 Nov

A top student who always knows the correct answer, aces all exams and gets full marks for homework assignments. A student who is unhappy as long as there is someone else in class slightly better at a particular subject, a student who wants to excel at everything. Welcome to the world of an (average?) overachiever, who does everything in his/her power to be above average.

What an unhappy world this is, if such a student lands in an environment that does not challenge him/her. Getting straight A´s (and cum laude) is not a big deal – because “yeah, everybody can do it”. Sure, 20% of students may be failing and kicked out, but that does not make this overachiever feel any better. (S)He feels that “everything is too easy” and that “this cannot be one of the best universities in the world because I do not have to study that much”.

The problem is that the top students tend to put the benchmark for success very high and if they reach it without much work (read: if they do not break down twice before they reach that specific goal), they feel that they are not working hard enough. A logical consequence is that they take up an extra course (usually one for older students) and find the challenge they were looking for.

However, there are two scenarios what could happen after that: A) The overachiever finds the right ballance of work and finds it rewarding (plus having a CV extra is a nice bonus) or B) the overachiever suddenly has too much on his/her plate and fails.

Unfortunately, unlike his/her peers, the overachiever is unable to deal with failure that easily. Going to bar and drinking herself (himself) to sleep is not an option (because tomorrow is a deadline for an important assignment!) and going to the resit exam is so embarrasing! Depression, loneliness and frustration follow, even though this student may still be among the top 5% at the university. Freaky? …

Today´s overachievers have it tough since hardly anyone is aware of their mere existence, but there is a way to help them: If every university designed a programme for “normal” students and added an “extra” workload for ambitious people (e.g. Honours Programme) that would be neither too low nor too high, it would provide the high-flyers with an opportunity to feel that they are doing their best and the university would make sure that they can stand the extra pressure. Just like in microeconomic theory – more is better (the more chocolate you have, the happier you are), but only up to a certain point (you become sick). So simple, yet so difficult to understand for most institutions. What a shame. High-flyers are people too!


Posted by on 13 November, 2011 in Education


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2 responses to “The curse of being an overachiever

  1. dodd

    16 November, 2011 at 5:30 pm

    the unhappy student isn’t the high achiever, the unhappy student is the kind of person who kills themselve by doing the work and then gets a mark that is disgracefully low. Like a university student prehaps.

  2. lenkah

    16 November, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    Thanks Dodd for the comment. I agree that these students you describe are indeed unhappy, but they have it easier in terms of getting help. If an overachiever comes to a school psychologist and weeps over getting “only” 84%, everybody thinks he/she´s nuts. If a “normal” student comes and breaks down because of the lousy grades, everybody is very understanding.
    But my point is that the unhappiness of high flyers is often neglected and/or laughed at, perhaps because it is so uncommon.


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