High school seniors across the country wait every year to see if they have put together the right amount of scores and achievements to earn them a spot to attend the college of their dreams. “Independent Lens: “Try Harder!” – set to debut at 10 p.m. May 2 on Valley PBS – focus on San Francisco’s Lowell High School where the intensity to get into a top university has created great stress on the student body that is nearly 70%  Asian American.

Producer and director Debbie Lum (“Seeking Asian Female”) follows seniors as the pressure intensifies to impress admissions officers at prestigious universities such as Stanford and Harvard, with every aspect of their application—from their SAT scores and GPAs to their extracurricular activities and even down to their racial identities.

The film reveals that students must deal with pressure from all sides.

Lum says, “The parental pressure is the one I heard about and understood from a personal perspective.  At a high school like Lowell, it’s like a high school anywhere.  It’s peer pressure that really is super motivational.  In fact, when we were making the film, we kind of imagined the parents would be sort of like the parents in Charlie Brown, in the Peanuts, where they would just be in the background, like ‘wah, wah, wah.’ 

“The kids that I met that ended up doing the best in their college results were the kids that were doing it regardless of what their parents had to say in the matter.  You know, if anything, they were doing that based on their own sense of their identity, which is largely coming from their peers around them.”

“Try Harder!” is the latest work from Lum who has dedicated her filmmaking career to telling Asian American stories. Lowell High was a perfect choice because it is a place where being Asian American is not only the norm but is celebrated.

The film offers a variety of perspectives of students: an outgoing aspiring surgeon and son of Taiwanese and Chinese immigrants who spends his time dancing between classes; the daughter of Chinese immigrants who’s both captain of the tennis team and editor of the school newspaper; and an aspiring writer who, as a biracial African American at Lowell, is in the minority. Lum also spotlights parents who take different approaches toward their children’s career paths and identities outside of academics, and teachers who just want the best for their students.

Lum quickly learned how intense the academic world is at Lowell. The making of the documentary was not always a priority with the participants.

“It was interesting.  We often would get, ‘Hold on.  I have something more important to do than to speak to a documentary filmmaker.’ But at the same time, we spoke to hundreds of students.  In a way I think it was great for them to get a moment to stop for a minute and just articulate how they felt during such a stressful time,” Lum says. “We often got that sense from the kids that it was something they really needed, actually.”

The intensity at Lowell has created years of success. Former Lowell graduates include Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, actor Benjamin Bratt, comedian Margaret Cho, and best‑selling author Daniel Handler. Ian Wang, Lowell class of 2017, graduated from Emory University and now is a Teach for America corps member in Atlanta.

Wang’s time at Lowell is a bit of a blur because the intensity to succeed created a lot of sleep deprivation. He recalls enough he could give his younger self some sound advice.

“If I could go back and tell myself something, I would tell myself not to be so anxious, everything happens for a reason, and it’s all good.  Everyone’s happy in their next step at some point,” Wang says.

Wang describes his high school days as the best and worst of times. It was difficult to get through the demands of high school where he would have seven classes a day and as many as four tests in one day. But, that made college – where there were at most four classes and two tests a day – a much easier experience.

Lowell taught Wang to prioritize and manage his time.

“I am really grateful for all of the pain and lessons I had to endure at Lowell because it made college a lot more enjoyable, being able to manage time, being able to prioritize friendships, being able to do school and explore my interests.  That was huge,” Wang says. “I probably couldn’t have done it had I not gone to Lowell and been thrown right into the blender.”

“Try Harder!” made its world premiere as an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival and continued as official selections at AFI Docs, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, and CAAMFest, among many others. In addition, the film was nominated for a Cinema Eye Honors Audience Choice Prize and a Film Independent Spirit “Truer Than Fiction” Award.

If you miss the initial airing on Valley PBS, the film will be available on through the free PBS Video App and PBS.org.