Surviving Toxic Achievement Culture: Lessons from Never Enough


The Grand Plan

You have spent countless hours as your student’s full-time chauffeur and cheerleader. The family has set a budget for development camps, private coaching, extra lessons, and tutoring. In a few years, it will all pay off in the confident, motivated, professional, and successful adult you raised.

There is little left to do now: just narrow the list of potential schools, brainstorm for college essays, and meet the college counselor. Of course, it will undoubtedly help to hire a Revolution Prep tutor and register for the paper ACT or digital SAT during the athletic off-season. Your student may also need to increase community service hours, join a club on campus, and get a private lesson in before tryouts. Oh, and it would be good to run for a leadership role in the club, pick an advanced science class for next year, raise their English grade to an A, and start the research on that term paper. 

That’s all—it will be simple. 

So, tonight, after dinner, after practice, and after school (but before bed), you plan to discuss everything.


A Harsh Reality  

Perhaps this is your only child, your first child, or the very (very) last time you are going through this pre-college planning phase. Whatever the case, you should know a few updated statistics: 

  • The valedictorian and salutatorian of the approximately 27,000 high schools in the country could fill the incoming classes of the top twenty-ranked colleges and universities at least twice. 
  • Forty years ago, the acceptance rate at Yale was 25%. Today, it is around 4%
  • The number of applications received by colleges has increased by 30% in the last 4 years, from 5,434,484 to 7,057,980.

The College Admissions Process is becoming increasingly difficult due to increased competition and the scarcity of seats. Children are simply under too much pressure, and the stress has become contagious. In fact, even mothers of middle school-aged children are affected—reporting the highest levels of stress and the lowest levels of life satisfaction. This widespread stress underscores the urgent need to examine the deeper implications on our youth.


The Toll of Achievement Culture

Unfortunately, our children are at greater risk for poor long-term physical health under such high levels of stress. The adolescent years should be dedicated to exploring personal identity, but many students’ sense of self has become reliant on their achievements. They equate their self-worth with their grades. Even worse, they link feelings of love and acceptance to high achievement. Speaking of which, students attending high-achieving schools are 2-6 times more likely to suffer from clinical levels of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse disorders than the average American teen; these students are now considered an “at-risk” group. It will take a collective effort to mitigate the excessive pressure, calling for parents, educators, and communities to come together to redefine success metrics and foster environments that celebrate learning and personal growth over mere achievement. Until that happens, there are a few things we can do at home:

Cultivating a Supportive Home Atmosphere

We all thrive in a warm and loving environment. The difference between what is said and heard can be magnified as your child grows in their teens. Young teens can often misinterpret frustration and impatience as criticism and rejection. It is essential to bolster their self-worth by building a close and supportive relationship. You can make them feel unconditionally valued by being interested in them and what they say and cultivating support at home.


Staying Connected

Family connectedness is the strongest protective factor against distress, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts. Here are some things you can do to foster this:

  • Create a safe space for your children to discuss difficult feelings and talk openly about values.
  • Model important habits like asking for help and supporting the less fortunate.
  • Assign age-appropriate chores to show them how they contribute and add value to others, reinforcing their sense of responsibility and achievement.
Supporting Mental Health and Rest

Children may need your support to emphasize the importance of rest and mental health protection:

  • Prioritizing Sleep: Teenagers require 8-10 hours of sleep nightly, yet fewer than 25% are getting the minimum.
  • Addressing Mental Health Risks: Insufficient sleep poses significant risks to teens’ mental health, potentially exacerbating stress, anxiety, and depression.


Encouraging a Healthy Mindset

Here at Revolution Prep, we are all about Growth Mindset. That said, adopting a balanced approach to the growth mindset is crucial to avoid it becoming counterproductive:

  • Recognizing the Dangers of Misapplied Effort: A misinterpretation of the growth mindset can lead to the belief that not succeeding is solely due to not trying hard enough, which can be harmful.
  • Shifting Focus to Intrinsic Values:
    • Encourage focusing on personal growth and self-improvement over external validation such as awards and achievements.
    • Highlight the importance of learning from experiences rather than just the outcomes.
    • Promote activities that foster self-discovery and personal satisfaction independent of external recognition.

Implementing these strategies can help children develop resilience, maintain mental well-being, and cultivate a sense of self-worth that is not solely tied to achievement or external validation.

So, tonight, after dinner, after practice, after school (but before bedtime), ask your child about lunch. Ask your child how they enjoyed their lunch. You can schedule stressful conversations for another time. Get to know your child and remind them you will love them the same, no matter what. 



Facts and figures highlighted in this blog are sourced from Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic—and What We Can Do About It by Jennifer Breheny Wallace. For a detailed exploration of this topic, including extensive data and insights, this book is a pivotal resource that examines the issue and suggests actionable solutions.

Ashley Scorsone
Ashley is a professional tutor at Revolution Prep. She enjoys family beach days and dance fitness when she is not nerding out on neuroscience.