The benefits of not getting straight As

A huge dichotomy exists between what it takes to get into college (or after college, into grad school), and what is truly the best for developing a creative, well-rounded person. In this article by Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and the youngest tenured professor at The Wharton School, Dr. Grant proposes that getting straight As can cause many more problems for students than the benefits it offers.

He cites evidence that academic excellence is not a strong predictor of career excellence, and that “the correlation between grades and job performance is modest in the first year after college and trivial within a handful of years.” He also discusses how “academic grades rarely assess qualities like creativity, leadership and teamwork skills, or social emotional and political intelligence.”

Moving past the straight A mindset allows students to challenge themselves with courses in which they may not receive an A … or to load their schedules to explore more options than they otherwise would … and to try out new clubs, volunteer, and enjoy more time with friends. In addition, he says students who are “willing to tolerate the occasional B … gain experience coping with failures and setbacks, which builds resilience.”

From personal experience, I agree with Dr. Grant’s statements completely. I was a straight-A student in high school, and when I first arrived on my university’s campus, I vowed that I was not going to put myself in that position again. My first semester, I set out to earn a B – and managed to earn two. It was a strange feeling seeing those rounded letters on my transcript, but the overwhelming feeling was relief: I now did not have to worry every semester if I was going to keep up my GPA, and wonder how I’d feel when I lost my 4.0. In fact, I went on not only to earn a number more Bs, but also a couple Cs (the horror!), graduating with a more-than-satisfactory 3.4 GPA.

Because I was not obsessing over As, I was able to participate in many organizations, having tremendous fun and learning skills that greatly helped when I was interviewing for jobs – and which were significantly more valuable than those additional As would have been when I entered the work world.

Yet to get accepted at a competitive school, for undergraduate or graduate school, you need those straight As, right? Not necessarily – in fact, as I saw in the 15 or so years that I interviewed applicants for my Ivy League alma mater, it was the students who had a unique combination of achievements that were the most attractive.

That’s not to say students don’t need to worry about their grades; certainly if a young person wants to attend a competitive university, and ultimately work at a competitive company, grades are important (as Dr. Grant says, “Of course, it must be said that if you got D’s, you probably didn’t end up at Google). However, if it’s a choice between getting a few Bs and not participating in unique extracurricular opportunities, you’re better off giving up a bit on the GPA and gaining the skills and insights that come from diverse experiences – not to mention the mental health benefits of not obsessing over grades.

In the past few years, Milford High School has moved to support students in this attitude by eliminating class rank and introducing the Latin system of recognition for graduates, plus eliminating valedictorian/salutatorian recognition starting in a few years. Before, the desire to be in the top X% of the class, or in the Top 25, was something that focused students (and parents) on grades often at the cost of exploring different classes and even students’ mental health.

How can parents help? Encourage your child to take classes s/he might never consider instead of an AP class … support the effort and attitude over and above the grade … and remind your child that getting involved in clubs, sports, band, etc, will teach him or her just as much as – or even more – than that extra AP bump or the extra point from a B to an A.

It can be hard – there were many times I know I pushed my daughter way too hard (sorry, Natalie) … but hopefully the changes made at the high school will help students, and their parents, focus more on learning and experiencing than on reaching a certain GPA.



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