A legacy of achievement: Whitman alumni reflect on the culture of high performance

By Kate Rodriguez

When writing her 2006 national bestselling book, “The Overachievers,” Whitman alum Alexandra Robbins (‘94) shadowed eight Whitman students in their day-to-day lives. She aimed to portray the extensive and underreported lengths high school students go to when applying to top universities.

Whitman’s “overachiever culture” establishes a frame for “The Overachievers” and remains a trademark of Whitman’s social climate today. Robbins detailed the lives of high-performing students against the backdrop of an environment and community that pressures them to perform at the highest level possible. 

Julia Oliansky (’05) and Sam (’05) are two of the main students the narrative follows. Each is considered an “overachiever” in their own right, and they’ve taken time to reflect on their experiences at Whitman since they graduated.

Oliansky was labeled “The Superstar” in the book and was portrayed as high school royalty — smart, popular and athletic. Packaged together in an application, Oliansky became an appealing candidate for top colleges. 

Oliansky attended Dartmouth College, an Ivy League institution. However, the school’s prestige ultimately had little impact on the quality of her education, she said. 

After finishing her undergraduate degree, Oliansky decided to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in Design at the School of Visual Arts.

Now Oliansky works as a consultant and strategist, emphasizing environmental connection and preservation. This work allows her to employ her creative and analytical sides in addition to tying in her lifelong love of the outdoors.  

Oliansky became a mother in 2022, and she has no desire to push her daughter to attend an Ivy League school, she said. Drawing on her own experience, Oliansky has found more positive ways to channel the desire for her daughter, and her potential future children, to succeed.

“I would love to put more emphasis on helping them discover their passions and develop their kind of skills and what they love to do, versus any cookie-cutter path,” Oliansky said.

On the other hand, Sam (’05) was “The Teacher’s Pet” according to Robbins. He seemed to fit into the overachiever mold perfectly. He had straight A’s, played varsity tennis, served as an editor for The Black & White and interned at the Supreme Court. 

Sam no longer believes that anyone should aim to be an “overachiever,” he said. Instead, he suggests that students create an individualized standard of achievement for themselves. He agreed to speak with The Black and White under anonymity.

After the intense college application season chronicled in the novel, Sam attended Middlebury College — a small liberal arts college in Vermont. There, Sam increasingly found merit within himself rather than measuring his success against that of others, a habit he had gravitated towards in high school, he said. 

“It was a very different kind of competition because it became about competing solely with yourself and your expectations,” Sam said. “In some respects I succeeded, and in others, I learned some hard lessons.” 

 Sam now dabbles in multiple fields, taking on jobs that call on his wide skill set. Instead of focusing on a specific profession throughout college, he prioritized learning for the sake of learning and allowed himself to pursue a non-traditional hybrid career path, Sam said.

“I knew that studying hard things and learning how to work both hard and effectively would set me up for a lifetime of interesting choices,” he said. “I’m not sure I made any conscious choices that led to today, but I knew that by building a muscle for always learning I’d end up okay.”

As another season of college preparation and application unfolds, Whitman’s current overachievers continue to navigate their college search. On the surface, junior Diya Bhattacharjee appears to be the right subject for a new chapter in the book: a stellar student, dedicated athlete and competitive debater. However, she brings a uniquely non-college-oriented mindset to the table. Although college acceptance remains a consideration for her, she doesn’t allow it to dictate her high school experience, she said.

Bhattacharjee is every bit as hardworking and motivated as her predecessors were — and in many ways still are — but she carries a more realistic perspective hardened by the uncertainty of today’s college admissions rates and brightened by the possibilities.

For Bhattacharjee, education is a door to a world full of information.

“I think that there’s a lot that exists in this world and a lot that there is to know,” Bhattacharjee said. “I don’t see why you would limit yourself to only knowing a certain amount when you can do more, which is what higher education provides. You get a better breadth and depth of knowledge.”

According to Middlebury’s common data set for students in 2005, the acceptance rate was 23%. For the college class of 2025, however, who began college in Fall 2021, the acceptance rate fell to 13%.

Similarly, in Oliansky’s application cycle, the acceptance rate at Dartmouth was 17%. Now, for the class of 2025, the Dartmouth acceptance rate has decreased to 6%.

Even the most outstanding applicants cannot assume that their spot at any institution is guaranteed. When faced with this truth, students are forced to find perspective, reevaluating their reasons for pursuing college urges students to discover what education truly means to them, Bhattacharjee said.

In the face of these daunting statistics, Oliansky and Sam each had the same advice to offer today’s Whitman students: first and foremost, listen to yourself.

“Trust your gut,” Sam said. “You are the one that you need to hold yourself accountable to at the end of the day. So make sure that your voice is the loudest in your head, and you’ll figure it out.”

This story was published in print in December 2022.