Debunking myths and confirming realities of elite high schools
Most of the problems high schoolers face in Silicon Valley are first-world problems, but that doesn’t make them any less painful for us. As I prepare to start my first semester of college—online, of course—I’ve been joining countless group chats to talk with my future peers about what their high school experiences were like, and to my surprise, they were drastically different from mine growing up in Silicon Valley.
This has given me time to reflect on what my high school experience was like at Cupertino High School and how it may be different from that of others. Most people outside the Valley tend to stereotype the culture here, but it’s more intricate than you may think. Let me break it down.
Misconceptions that aren’t true:
- Not everyone is part of the robotics team.
- Not everyone codes.
- Engineering is not seen as nerdy, but an important part of academics.
- There aren’t millionaire tech-mogul teens walking around.
- Not all of us are geniuses. We fake it till we make it.
On the other hand, some things are true:
- A lot of us have some introductory exposure to coding, but only about half will code seriously (for example, app dev, embedded systems, or light ML/A.I.).
- Taking AP Computer Science gives you almost no clout. You need to win science fairs or grants for colleges to see you as something special.
Let me break it down further and lay out some observations and generalizations. Note that these are based on my experience and what I witnessed at my school. I realize others may have different opinions or views.
Programming is a lifestyle
This one is pretty obvious. Most of my peers started coding at least one language in early to late middle school—many not by choice. It’s difficult to say no when your parents, your friends’ parents, your teachers, and your role models are all connected to a FAANG company in some way.
As high school approached, even more of my peers started to code. Most of them got their first exposure through clubs, while others self-learned via Coursera, Udacity, or YouTube. During high school, I attended upwards of eight hackathons. Most students, no matter their interest, will probably be dragged into at least one hackathon by friends or forced to go by parents. I know a few students who have attended as many as 20 hackathons in two years.
All of this means:
- Lots of free T-shirts.
- Lots of lost sleep and overcaffeinated teenagers.
- Lots of hackathon stickers on everyone’s laptops.
Of course, programming doesn’t end when the last bell rings. My high school has at least seven clubs dedicated specifically to programming. These can be competition-based, project-oriented, or networking clubs.
Need a sponsor for your club or personal project? Chances are a tech company not too far away has what you’re looking for. Apple HQ is two miles away. Google HQ is 10 miles away. You get the idea.
There are other prominent cliques in Silicon Valley high schools, but they aren’t as large as software-oriented groups. I know a lot of students who have no interest in coding; instead, they enjoy business, medicine, or politics. Still, I can almost guarantee most students will know how to solve easy leetcode problems.
Academics are everything
“What math level are you in?”
“How many AP classes do you take?”
“Ugh, I would take AP Bio next year, but I’m also taking [AP Calculus] BC.”
—Overheard in a hallway
Here’s my hot take. Most of the stress and pressure we face come from places that can easily be avoided. If you’re going into software, you don’t need to take AP U.S. History, AP Microeconomics, and AP U.S. Government. I know that the majority of students take a lot of classes to pad college applications. Who can blame them? When you’re being compared with the kid sitting next to you, it makes sense to try to one-up them.
It starts to get dangerous when a student puts too much on their plate. This is, unfortunately, the case for a lot of us. There were times when I felt I was going to crumble. If you’re lucky enough for parental pressure not to be a burdening factor, then peer pressure will take you out.
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It’s typical for parents to spend several thousand dollars per summer enrolling kids in “SAT boot camp.” And yes, it’s as bad as you’d imagine—maybe worse. Think 30 kids in a room for five hours every day solving practice SAT papers throughout the summer.
Art is undervalued. I was one of the few students who took the honors drama program and AP Computer Science. Partly because I greatly enjoy both, but also because my parents and peers were a supportive bunch. I know a handful of friends who wanted to take choir, band, orchestra, or drama but were told no either by parents or college coaches. “You’re not going to make money as an artist” is a common line of thought for parents in the Valley.
It doesn’t end with math and science. If you’re going to do a sport, be the best at it. If you’re going to be in drama—although it will be heavily looked down upon by many—get lead roles.
Life is just exhausting
“Dad, what’s your favorite color?”
Life from age 15 to 18 is already hard. Staying sane despite growing pressures to succeed is extremely depleting. Many can’t handle it. As much as this article could upset Silicon Valley parents and educators, it’s important to hear. Suicides continue to happen, but everyone looks away. Someone may have taken their life, but people will pretend the problem was in the person, not the system around them. “Obviously, he must have some mental health issues or always been suicidal” goes the start of a common thread of thinking.
And then there’s the wealth. It’s not all Malibu mansions and butlers. Most of the Silicon Valley middle class do not openly flaunt their wealth, but with a little practice, it’s not difficult to notice the flex. Newest iPhone, check. Newest Apple Watch, check. Two Teslas, check. A fully automated home, check.
Silicon Valley students brag about the weirdest things. It’s not uncommon to hear a group of friends arguing over who got the least amount of sleep the night before a final. Okay, great, you got two hours of sleep. Do you want a medal for that?The Silicon Valley Four-Year PlanFrom career fair to consultant by 26thebolditalic.com
Look at any Silicon Valley kid’s Instagram. Cute, right? What’s not visible behind the sunset pictures and ski trips are the countless nights sobbing yourself to sleep because you’re going to get a B in calculus. An anonymous user on Quora said it best: “We are all like ducks on a pond. Trying to make it look easy on the surface but underneath paddling wildly for dear life, just trying to stay afloat.”
When your parents are so successful, it’s natural to be afraid of failure or disappointment.
I should note that there are positives. Many students find a balance, many are happy, and many are successful. As someone who is genuinely interested in technology, I’m very fortunate to have gotten the chance to grow up here. It’s awesome to think the next tech revolution is happening next door. I’m surrounded by the most diverse and talented set of peers I could ever find. Not to mention the amazing variety of food and boba.
I’m in awe of everything happening around me, but at the same time, it’s absolutely terrifying to think I won’t live up to the Silicon Valley hype.