Try Harder!: On the College Application Process and What It Means to Me, a High School Junior 

Try Harder!: On the College Application Process and What It Means to Me, a High School Junior 

Try Harder!: On the College Application Process and What It Means to Me, a High School Junior 

Written by Andrea Baek

Try Harder!, the closing film of SDAFF’s 10th Spring Showcase documents the story of several high school seniors and juniors at Lowell High School — one of the most competitive high schools in the country —  as they go through the college application process. The documentary is a painfully real portrayal of the pressure, learning, and growth that comes as a result of college apps. The film juxtaposes the cultural expectations of academic excellence with the reality of results as not all news the students receive is good news. Try Harder! shows not only the academic achievements of one’s high school career, but the emotional ones, as viewers watch the students learn more about themselves and who they are. The film is candid and humorous and too relatable for a high school junior like me.

My school, much like Lowell, is one with a large Asian student population. I’m so thankful that my school is a diverse place, but with this certain demographic sometimes comec expectations for success and the need to be better than someone else. These are cultural expectations — working hard and always striving for something better is an almost-integral part of the typical immigrant experience, and these values are ones that transfer to generations that follow.

Just like Lowell, my school has always been one that excels academically. It’s a feeder school for UCSD and UCLA, with a multitude of Ivy League acceptances each year. It offers more than 20 AP courses, and regularly places in the top 40 public high schools in California. Its students are nationally ranked in math, writing, and computer science, and there is intense pressure to be young and successful.

 I think I started to feel some kind of pressure starting from middle school, and it’s always felt like I had to be better. Do more. Take more AP classes. Pick up more extracurriculars. Go out there and do things that will impress admissions officers. At some point, I was afraid that even though I knew I only did things because I truly wanted to, that everything would start feeling like I was doing it because of an ulterior motive. That all of my achievements, activities, and even my hobbies would all be chalked up to things I could write on my college application. 

Film still courtesy of Try Harder

I — and the students in Try Harder! — know too well the days when everyone around you, even your closest friends, feel like competition, and when it seems like there’s no point to anything you ever do unless it makes you a better candidate than someone else. We know too well the overwhelming feeling of impostor syndrome that comes as a result of the expectation for high performance.

It took a lot of time for self-reflection for me to realize that it was okay to be different, that it was okay for me to not take certain classes, consider certain schools, do more extracurriculars just to be “better” than someone. Even with the overhanging threat of needing to try harder to look better on paper than someone else, I learned to take a step back and remind myself that there’s more to life than my stats and the name of the school on my college diploma.

The thought of the college application process scares me. To know that professionals will be evaluating me against my peers and judging my personality and values based on the extent of my achievements is something I’m afraid to think about. These are all fears the students in Try Harder! also face, and the learning that results from the process is something the film captures so well.

Despite all these pressures, high school has been a time of growth and learning: about my identity, about my values,  about my friends, about the subjects I took and the extracurriculars I chose to involve myself in. It’s a time of bonding, where, no matter what the future may look like, my friends and I enjoyed the time we spent together and the memories of youth that are available to me only in high school.

Try Harder! perfectly encapsulates the sentiments and experiences of Lowell students’ last year of high school, and in these students, I see myself. I see my best friends, I see my sister. Their story is something I resonate with, and I know that no matter what your high school experience was like, you’ll be able to see yourself in their stories, too.


Tickets available at
Don’t miss out on the Q&A with Director Debbie Lum on May 2 at 5PM PT!