The winner's paradox : how successful students at a top university become "failures"

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While previous researchers investigating the competitive environment at the highest levels of academic scholarship (e.g., Deresiewicz, 2014; Pope, 2001) have concluded that students buckle under an unbearable amount of stress as a result of over-achievement and narrow conceptions of success, they have left the construct of success itself unexamined. Building upon the work of George Herbert Mead (1934/2015) and Erving Goffman (1959; 1963; 1967; 1978/1981), this dissertation argues that the buckling of students at a top university may be best understood as a response within the culture of success, a set of generalized attitudes which together comprise the American cultural ideal of the extraordinarily successful individual. To understand what underlies the general malaise affecting these students, I first lay out the discourse surrounding the college admissions process at the most highly selective institutions of higher education and then demonstrate how understanding that discourse helps explain the everyday anxieties that students experience. Next, I report on the results of a two-year qualitative study a top-tier American institution, Wellborne University. These materials, gathered through participant observation, interviews, focus groups, written testimonials and information on web sites and university-published brochures, demonstrate that students suffer from their perceptions of the various ways they fail to embody the traits that they have internalized as necessary for success. The discourse examined frames success as the social act of winning, a process by which individuals are selected over their peers based on their ability to project certain desirable abilities or character traits. The individual admitted to a top school is often described in terms of being a total winner: the ideal self-made individual who excels without effort, confidently demonstrating genuine intellectual passion and desire to make a difference in the world, while effectively harnessing resources to realize increasingly greater achievements. This discourse creates the conditions for individuals admitted to Wellborne University to report seemingly countless contexts for failure, as they become aware of the ways their behavior—and projected identities—deviate from what is expected of a "total winner." This work seeks to unify students' descriptions of stress, insecurity, and self-criticism into one core issue: the fear of social exclusion due to perceptions of failure within the culture of success, where failure is unacceptable and, for many students, seemingly ever-present.


Type of resource text
Form electronic; electronic resource; remote
Extent 1 online resource.
Publication date 2016
Issuance monographic
Language English


Associated with O'Keeffe, Jamie Kyra
Associated with Stanford University, Graduate School of Education.
Primary advisor McDermott, Ray (Raymond Patrick), 1946-
Thesis advisor McDermott, Ray (Raymond Patrick), 1946-
Thesis advisor Antonio, Anthony Lising, 1966-
Thesis advisor Polanyi, Livia
Advisor Antonio, Anthony Lising, 1966-
Advisor Polanyi, Livia


Genre Theses

Bibliographic information

Statement of responsibility Jamie Kyra O'Keeffe.
Note Submitted to the Graduate School of Education.
Thesis Thesis (Ph.D.)--Stanford University, 2016.
Location electronic resource

Access conditions

© 2016 by Jamie Kyra O'Keeffe

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