High school success - or stress?

In high-pressure '90s, teen advice books are all about competition.

Teenage advice books, which have traditionally ranged from the sanctimonious to the silly, have suddenly become as serious as a final exam.

Once, these volumes offered gentle tips on dating and getting along with parents, some Kelly Girl-style tips on how to take notes in class, and a few thoughts on college.

But in the late 1990s, things are different. The "Mozart effect" has parents scrambling to expand their classical CD collection to start even infants off on the right intellectual foot. Enrollment in advanced-placement courses has skyrocketed. Entrepreneurial internships have edged aside flipping burgers for many high-schoolers in search of a more eye-catching rsum.

It's as if the heat generated by a global economy - not to mention growing competition to get into good colleges - has had a trickle-down effect. No longer is it good enough by junior or senior year to have achieved top grades, be captain of a varsity team, volunteer at a soup kitchen, and play sax in the band. Those in search of a bright future are getting a new message: the need to excel across the board starts in freshman year.

"More colleges want to see a good high school career - which means all four years," says Dan Baer, a senior at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and author of "High School Survival." "Kids need to start thinking about this at the beginning of high school. By senior year, it's too late."

Self-help manuals for the high-school set are hardly a new phenomenon. In 1954, "How to be a Successful Teenager," went through 11 printings in little more than a decade. Chapters included "How to Live with Parents," "Making and Keeping Friends," and "Dating Days." Its companion, "How You Can Be a Better Student," offered advice on note-taking and vocabulary building.

Today's books take on many of the same themes. What's changed is the level of intensity.

The new titles say it all: "High School Survival: A Crash Course for Students by Students"; or "The Ultimate High School Survival Guide: Solutions, Not Sermons, for Doing High School Right."

Mr. Baer wrote his book (Arco Press) because he felt that many kids in his high school class hadn't worked up to their potential. Baer's book aims to give freshmen a jump start on high school, encouraging them to think about the future and warning them of potential pitfalls. He doesn't mince words, telling teens: "Each and every high school class affects your GPA, and colleges care about your GPA." The book also urges students to take "challenging" classes: "Take ceramics, if you want, but be aware that your top-choice university probably places more importance on your understanding of physics than your ability to use a kiln."

This message isn't limited to those teens who hope to attend elite schools. Focusing on the future has become a popular tactic among educators trying to spark kids who just don't see the point of high school. "So many kids go through high school like robots," says Julianne Dueber, the author of "The Ultimate HIgh School Survival Guide," and a former high school teacher. "The whole point of [my] book is to get kids to see there's life after high school, and to start working toward it."

In an even more blatant attempt to link high school studies and "real life" success, some educators are stressing the connection between good grades and future earnings.

This fall, the American Federation of Teachers distributed a booklet entitled "Hard Work Pays: What You Have to Do in High School to Get the Life You Want" to several thousand eighth-graders in public schools in the Washington, D.C., area. "The average college graduate makes three times more than the average high school dropout - or about $32,000 more a year," it states bluntly. "That's the difference between driving a new convertible sports car to work and riding your bike."

There's evidence that many kids are already taking this advice to heart. A recent survey by the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that high school seniors graduating in 1994 were far more likely to have taken math and science classes above the Algebra I and biology levels than their counterparts in 1982. Similarly, between 1984 and 1996, the number of students taking advanced placement exams rose to 131 from 50 out of every 1,000 seniors.

Some experts worry that this increasing emphasis on preparing for the future is making high school too stressful and too restrictive. Journalist Patricia Hersh, who spent several years documenting the lives of adolescents for her recent book, "A Tribe Apart," says that most of the high school freshmen she spoke with expressed a "horror" at the fact that "everything counts." "We have put so much pressure on kids," she says, "so many demands for success in measurable terms."

Indeed, Ms. Hersh feels that there is "a direct relationship between this [increased pressure] and some of the tremendous acting-out social behaviors we're witnessing."

The danger is that students who fail to perform well during their freshman or sophomore year may give up altogether. "If you say that everything counts," Hersh says, "and then, for one reason or another, a kid has a bad year, what then?"

Then there's a practical concern. Will teens - highly skilled in tuning out advice - read the wisdom of their elders? "I gave [an advice book] to my son when he started high school," Hersh chuckles. "I just found it in his room and decided to give it away. He never opened it."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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