At junior Zoë Bowlus’s September birthday party, a group of her close friends surround an outdoor table on a cool summer night. But her friends aren’t discussing Taylor Swift’s new hit or the latest episode of “American Horror Story.”
Instead their conversation is a parent’s dream. It’s almost too good to be true. They’re talking about college.
“Our class is the craziest,” junior Emma Belliveau said. “We all think we have to go to Harvard, and all of us want high-paying jobs like being doctors, lawyers or engineers.”
Although every SCDS class has its share of college-crazed students, the class of ’16 may have the most.
According to Belliveau, the competitiveness all began in seventh grade.
“Once a lot of my classmates went to Algebra I instead of pre-algebra, people started fighting over grades,” she said.
“Now we have a large amount of competitive people.”
Belliveau’s mother, Philippa, agrees.
“In seventh grade, math got more competitive, and students were also taking slightly higher languages,” she said.
College counselor Jane Bauman explained that the ability to take geometry in middle school allows students to be on track for AP Calculus BC by senior year.
Also, in middle school, students more proficient in world languages can easily be placed into more advanced classes.
Thus, she says, there’s been an upward trend in placement in AP math classes and AP world language classes.
Of the 33 juniors, 19 are in AP math classes, and eight are in AP world languages.
But the middle-school competitiveness doesn’t stop there.
To get ahead, junior Manson Tung began his college preparation in middle school by taking his first Kaplan SAT prep class.
“At first everyone thought I was really dumb because I kept asking basic questions, but then they realized I hadn’t taken geometry yet,” he said.
Tung says that this type of early preparation is typical of the class of 2016.
“A lot of people in our class decided what they wanted to do in seventh grade, academically demolishing everything in their path,” he said.
Besides lots of motivated students, what ingredients go into a competitive class?
It boils down to four things: SAT preparation, college counseling, a heavy course load and extracurriculars.
Junior Aidan Galati exemplifies one of these competitive 2016 students. Not only is she taking three APs, but she also has an independent college counselor, volunteers at Loaves and Fishes and the Ronald McDonald House, is on the SCDS varsity and club volleyball teams and is editor- in-chief of the yearbook.
On top of all that, she plans to apply to Notre Dame’s leadership conference and Telluride’s summer leadership program.
Junior Jag Lally’s load is similar, with a current internship at the Yuba City Pulmonary Health Clinic, a neurosurgery camp at UCLA and self-study standardized test preparation the summer before his junior year.
“I’m stressed,” he said. “Basically, other people’s worries make you worry yourself, and it spreads like a fire.”
Tung describes it as “a ripple effect.”
“Someone starts discussing what they’re doing to prepare for college applications, and it gets everyone else talking about it too,” Tung said.
After coming to Country Day in sixth grade, junior Julia Owaidat, a prospective civil engineer, noticed a pattern.
“Everyone kind of has their future planned out, and that takes a big toll in terms of how much work they’re doing right now,” she said.
For example, juniors Akilan Murugesan, Colby Conner, Serajh Esmail and Lally have all wanted to be doctors from a young age.
Esmail’s aspirations go back as far as fifth grade.
Along with taking four APs, Esmail has shadowed surgeons at Mercy Folsom Hospital and has volunteered at the Mind Institute at UC Davis, working with autistic children.
But despite large workloads, stress and competitiveness, Owaidat and Tung agree that the junior class is not cutthroat – instead, they find the competition helpful.
“If you had more (classes) like ours, then you’d probably end up seeing an increase in SAT scores,” Tung said.
“People may be self-motivated, but no one wants anyone to fail,” Murugesan said. “You’ll always find a group of students studying together in the library.”
Although Belliveau agrees that it isn’t a cutthroat environment, she finds that a hyper-competitive class can be bothersome at times.
“A lot of the class complains when they get a 90 percent on a test,” she said.
Murugesan explained that these students have an entirely different definition of “failing.”
“They’ll get an A- or a B, and they’ll say they failed the test,” he said.
Esmail describes it as inadvertent bragging.
But not every junior is college crazy.
Junior Adam Ketchum said that most of the juniors take it all too seriously.
“People will complain about being too stressed when they chose to take like 80 APs,” he said.
Ketchum said that he’s participating in his extracurriculars for enjoyment, not expressly for college.
Apart from one AP class, Ketchum shows rabbits in 4H, runs on the track team, takes photos for the Octagon and plays trombone in concert band.
“I’m just not super stressed like all the other juniors are,” he said.
“It’s not that I don’t care about college.”
Bowlus’s philosophy is that everyone at Country Day is going to get into college, so there’s no point in stressing too much.
Tung, despite being a self-proclaimed college-crazy junior, agrees.
“Sometimes it’s like our class is in a giant hamster wheel,” Tung said. “It’s just work, work, work.”
And that wheel doesn’t stop—even at a birthday party.
Previously published in the print edition on Oct. 28, 2014.