‘Try Harder!’ is a concerning glimpse into the world of competitive college admissions

April 7, 2022, 5:40 p.m.

“Try Harder!” is a documentary that almost feels like a high school drama. The film, directed by Debbie Lum, explores San Francisco’s Lowell Public High School — but Lowell is different from any school you’ve ever seen on the big screen. It’s a high school filled with exaggerated characters and tropes that bring the documentary to life.

The film introduces us to a handful of Lowell students, including Ian: a charismatic person who struggles with issues of academic-pressure. Ian describes the school as unconventional; as he gives the viewer a tour through Lowell, he stops at various award displays and an AP Physics C classroom, rather than at quintessential “high school” spots like the football stadium or popular hang out locations. 

The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 30, 2021, was officially released nearly a year later by Greenwich Entertainment. Since its release, it has been well received by audiences and has racked up nominations for numerous awards, most notably Film Independent’s Truer Than Fiction Award and the Cinema Eye Audience Choice Prize. 

The film interviews numerous students as they discuss environmental pressure, feelings of inadequacy and their dream colleges. Rather than the epic highs and lows of high school football, shots of students in the middle of physics exams capture their intense concentration and the panicked flicks of pencil strokes. As one student, Alvan, explains, “One wrong answer could potentially mean the difference between an A and a B, or a B and a C, right?” 

The traditional documentary form offers viewers a glimpse of what a normal day looks like for the students. Tellingly, the shots are dominated by scenes of overachieving: students in class, studying or building their extracurricular resumes. Students aren’t shown socializing, which reflects how school dominates their lives. But these people aren’t robots — they’re kids, as Alvan’s occasional goofy mannerisms remind the viewer.

Scenes where students are doing “normal” high school activities like taking pictures or attending parties are juxtaposed with clips of students talking about how mediocre they feel. This, along with the awkwardness of the students themselves, creates a comedically unnatural atmosphere, but gives us hope that these young people can still have quasi-normal lives outside of school.

Right after scrambling to get their early college applications in by the deadlines, students attend a Halloween-themed school dance, which most students forgot about amidst the chaos of college application season. The dance is filled with uncoordinated dance moves and kids who seem to be having fun for the first time, but is nevertheless an exciting and wholesome scene. Their return to normalcy is short-lived, however, as the film quickly jumps to Alvan talking about the pressure his parents put on him to succeed. 

The documentary also focuses on the predominantly Asian demographic of Lowell. Some of Lowell’s students raise concerns about their ability to get into college because of their Asian identity and related stereotypes. Simultaneously, Rachel, a half-Black and half-white student, deals with her own issues of racial identity. Rachel battles with questions of self-worth and identification as her classmates claim that her race gives her an admissions advantage. More specifically, Rachel takes pride in both facets of her heritage, but is unsure as to whether she should identify herself as “mixed-race” or “Black” on her college application after facing pressure from her mother to do the latter. The school’s unique racial demographic and unhealthy emphasis on college admissions work in conjunction to create a space in which students face stereotypes and often feel defined by their race. 

“Try Harder!” was created with the intention of raising awareness and sparking meaningful discussions about the mental health of students facing excessive pressure to succeed in high-achieving environments. To this end, the film could have done more to demonstrate the social and personal effects that being in such a highly competitive school system has on these students. While I appreciated the lighthearted approach of the documentary, the film did little to show the actual pain of mental health struggles. Interviews focused on feelings of inadequacy, high levels of stress and general unhappiness, but did not go deeper into the effects that such sentiments have on students’ life at home or relationships with friends. The film’s almost redundant emphasis on the extreme pressure students experience was a missed opportunity to explore the deeper psychological effects of such pressure on students’ development.

The film did, however, effectively capture the experience of being at such a high-pressure school by sharing students’ candid reactions to test scores and college decisions, as well as their conversations with parents at home. It also demonstrated the significant (and often problematic) role that parents play in students’ high school experience. Alvan, for example, talks about how his parents put him in a box, confining him to certain activities and behaviors. He describes how he is constantly trying to balance what he wants with what will make his parents happy. Rachel shares a similar story, lamenting that the college she wants to attend is different from the college her mother wants her to go to.

Ultimately, “Try Harder!” is an inspiring but depressing watch. The film follows a group of students who try so hard to gain acceptance, not only from a top college, but from their parents and their peers. Some succeed after working hard for four years. Others don’t, despite working just as hard. Lum effectively exposes the toxic attitudes and education systems that drive teens to extreme levels of stress, competition and misery. By solely viewing high school as a stepping stone on the way to college, parents and students alike turn what is supposed to be the best time of your life into “three and a half years of killing myself here,” as one student says in the film. 

This message goes beyond the scope of high school. The film advocates for individuals to adopt a mindset that prioritizes personal fulfillment and happiness over societal standards of success at all stages in life. Even after these students achieve the goal of getting into college, there is the next step of finding a lucrative job: another cycle of competition and exclusivity. Attending a prestigious university is not the key to happiness and success, despite how Lowell students and their parents might see it. Rather, it is simply another stressful stepping stone — if you treat it that way. I remember being told during my first week here that “everyone’s Stanford experience is different.” As I reflect on what I want mine to be, there’s a lot I’m not sure of. I’m unsure of what job I’ll have in five years, what my major will be and even where I’ll be living next year. The one thing I do know, though, is that I want my time here to be four years of experiences I’ll never forget.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

Eric Zhu '25 is a writer for the Arts & Left section. He is a freshman from New York City interested in Data Science and Symbolic Systems. In his free time, he enjoys playing basketball and playing the one song he knows on the ukulele. Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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