Anything but lonely at the top

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During my senior year of high school, some parents gathered to discuss how the school should determine the valedictorian of our small class. Several students were running neck and neck, and a few parents saw something unfair about how courses of different difficulty were weighted in grade-point averages.

I don't know how heated the meeting got, but fortunately, kids' friendships weren't strained during the tussle. In the end, the school honored a group of top students.

Competition has always been part of American culture, but in the past decade or so, more and more parents have become preoccupied with making sure their kids are on the track to the top. This week, we launch a three-part series about what's driving them to feel so, well, driven.

Recommended: 'Raising the Curve': 8 stories from a struggling elementary school

Part of the explanation is that college admissions are, in fact, more competitive. But today and next week, Marjorie Coeyman also delves into things that are not so easy to measure - such as parents' ambitions and fears.

It's not always the parents who throw academics into full throttle, though. Sometimes students push themselves to get out in front of the pack.

The Houston Chronicle reported last week about the competition between two top students to be valedictorian of a local high school. The "winner" is open about how he played the system by taking an honors course in a foreign language in which he was already fluent. Looking back, he said, it wasn't worth what he sacrificed in social and leisure time.

That sentiment is echoed in Part 3 of our series, when Mark Clayton checks in with students and educators about how college campuses are affected by young people's continuing drive to be "the best."

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