What happens to high school valedictorians?

After graduation, valedictorians aren’t the most likely to succeed

Why valedictorians rarely become rich and famous — and the average millionaire’s college GPA was 2.9

Why your good grades won’t help you change the world

These are just a sampling of some of the articles published after Eric Barker released his book, Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong.

As stated in the book:

“There is little debate that high school success predicted college success. Nearly 90 percent [of valedictorians followed in one study] are now in professional careers with 40 percent in the highest tier jobs. They are reliable, consistent, and well-adjusted, and by all measures the majority have good lives. But how many of these number-one high school performers go on to change the world, run the world, or impress the world? The answer seems to be clear; zero.”

Before looking at what the research showed, it’s worth questioning some of these working assumptions. First, much of the research cited in the book is from one study released over 20 years ago. Second, is it reasonable to use “changing the world, running the world, or impressing the world” as the benchmark for valedictorian success? Aren’t they putting enough pressure on themselves even as teenagers? And finally, maybe we shouldn’t be quite so dismissive of people who are reliable, consistent, well-adjusted, successful, and happy. Those sound like pretty good outcomes to me.

But the book does raise some interesting points about exactly what’s required of a student to become a valedictorian, and just how those traits do and do not translate to the real world.

Barker lays out two primary reasons for his claims that valedictorians don’t reach the same top-of-the-class success in life after college.

First, schools reward students who consistently do what they are told. They’re told that earning top grades in rigorous classes is the most important factor in college admissions. They’re told that rising to the very top of their class is a noble pursuit. And while it may not be stated explicitly, I imagine they receive consistent messages that doing these things will have a far-reaching impact on their likelihood of success long past the release of their grades this semester. It’s not surprising that high-achieving kids will pursue the very achievements defined by the adults who supposedly know what we’re doing.

And second, Barker points out that school rewards the student who is a generalist and can earn A’s in every subject, rather than the student who has a true passion or expertise that dominates their time. That seems like a reasonable point to me. If you want to be a valedictorian, you can’t get so swept up in your love of playing the cello or learning karate or reading books that it gets in the way of earning top grades. Even an academic passion can’t really dominate your time. No matter how much you may want to dive in and learn even more about European history or Shakespearian plays or calculus, the pressures of your other classes—and your commitment to earning A’s in all of them—dictate exactly how much time you can afford to spend on any one interest.

So, what’s a smart, reasonable reaction for a student at or near the top of the class who might read this study and wonder if all their time and effort are worth it?

First, students should never discount the value of the traits required to earn top grades. You’ve got to be goal-oriented. You have to work hard. You have to be disciplined, focused, and able to manage a reasonable amount of stress. Those are good qualities to have no matter what your measure of success now or later might be. Those traits, much more so than whether or not your GPA stays perfect, are what will ultimately have the most influence over your future success. The right behaviors are a lot more important than the specifics of the outcomes.

But it’s also important to occasionally take stock in your personal fulfillment, engagement and happiness. While you’re earning these top grades, make sure you also regularly consider:

Do you have a favorite subject?

Do you have a favorite teacher?

Do you get enough sleep to function?

Do you have good relationships with your family and friends?

If asked to name three positive things that happened to you yesterday, could you do it?

Do you generally wake up looking forward to the day?

Can you name at least one subject you really wish you could learn a lot more about (doesn’t have to be academic)?

Do you regularly enjoy activities or hobbies that have nothing to do with getting into college?

Are you excited about the opportunities that are waiting for you in college?

Have you had at least one good laugh in the last week?

If you regularly consider those questions (or others like it) and find you’re responding with too many no’s, it’s worth considering the extent to which your pursuit of all A’s, all-the-time, is responsible.

Extremes are rarely a healthy, responsible, sustainable path. I wouldn’t recommend that a student blow off school entirely so they can pursue their love of video games any more than I would endorse a student whose pursuit of a perfect GPA has left them anxious, sleepless, and depressed.

But if you make the laudable decision to spend the time and energy required to get top grades, be thoughtful about exactly why you’re doing it. You’re better and smarter than “everybody told me to.”

Standardized test planning

Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT dominate college prep talk in many circles. Which test are you taking? What tutor are you using? What score did you get? The questions incite anxiety, especially for families who don’t yet have all the answers.

On February 27, our two Collegewisers who have the most accumulated knowledge around planning and preparing for standardized tests will present a free webinar to help you find all the answers to your testing questions. If you need help deciding which tests to take, when to take them, how to interpret your scores, or just how to make sense of the general testing madness, I think you’ll be very pleased with the information and advice we’re planning to share.

You can find all the information, and the link to register, here. Spaces are limited, though, so I recommended you register soon if you’re interested.

I hope we’ll see you there virtually.

Collegewise is hiring nationwide

Collegewise is looking for the next batch of smart, passionate, interesting people to join our team.

Do you want your work to feel like a calling where you make a difference every day?

Would you like to help more families benefit from a service that helps students achieve their educational goals?

Are you looking for the training, resources, and support necessary to do the best work of your career?

We have open positions for:

  • College counselors
  • Director of College Counseling
  • Director of Finance
  • Inside salespeople
  • National Head of Sales
  • Online college counselor

A little more about Collegewise
Collegewise believes that the college admissions process has spun out of control for high school students and their parents. Too much anxiety and confusion. Too little appreciation for the wonderful educations and experiences waiting at so many schools beyond just the famous ones. And we’re out to change all of that. Together, we’ve built the nation’s largest college counseling organization with over 60 highly trained counselors injecting guidance, perspective, and occasional cheerleading into the admissions process for the families who join our programs. Since 1999, we’ve helped over 10,000 A-students, C-students, and everyone in between find, apply to, and attend the right colleges for them.

Open positions nationwide
We’re currently hiring in seven locations nationwide, and we have one online counseling position for a person who could live virtually anywhere on the East Coast. If you’re looking for an opportunity to learn and grow as a professional, to make a difference for kids and parents, and to do it all with smart, passionate, supportive co-workers who bring their hearts to work every day, we hope you’ll consider joining us. Let’s make a dent in the college admissions universe together. You can find all the information about us and our open positions here, and you can view our short video about life at Collegewise here.

Know someone who might be great?
If you know someone who might enjoy working at Collegewise, please send them the link to our Careers page. If we end up hiring them, we’ll pay you $700 after the person completes three months of successful work.


The science of time management

Dan Pink just released his new book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. And if you’re a student, parent, or counselor who may be feeling like you just don’t have enough hours in the day to get everything done, you might enjoy this 30-minute podcast interview with Pink.

Here’s the summary from the website:

Do you always feel like you’re short on time? Most days, it seems like there just aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish everything that matters to us. But what if the problem isn’t how many hours we have — but how we’re using them? That’s the big idea from Daniel Pink, our guest today on the StoryBrand podcast. Daniel has done the research and studied the science, and it turns out that certain times are better than others for doing different types of work.  Donald Miller sits down with Daniel to help you finally understand the smart way to structure your time. He points out the common time management mistakes he sees and how to fix them. And he shows you a simple way to pay attention to your natural rhythms, so you can maximize your productivity and creativity every day. The quest for the ideal schedule ends here!

8 questions for managers (plus counselors, parents, and students)

Claire Lew’s latest piece, The 8 best questions to ask during a one-on-one meeting, is designed (and perfect) for managers to ask of an employee. But some versions of these questions might be helpful for counselors to ask their students, for parents to ask their kids, and even for kids to ask themselves.

That third suggestion might seem strange, but students, imagine if you regularly considered—and honestly answered—questions like:

How’s life?

What am I worried about right now?

What are my biggest time-wasters?

Would I like more or less direction from my parents or my counselor?

Are there any decisions I’m hung up on?

Wouldn’t you be in a much better position to work towards answers that would make you happier, more successful, and less stressed?

Perspective power

Nate was an early Collegewise student of mine who had remarkable talent and passion for music. I remember when he brought a CD (it was 2002) to one of our meetings so I could hear an original song he’d written. It sounded great, and when I asked him about the band on the recording, he modestly revealed that he’d played all the instruments—both guitars, the bass, and the drums—himself, and then mixed them together into a fluid recording. We got back to researching appropriate colleges with music programs. He was a smart, nice, interesting kid. And I’d really been enjoying working with him.

But after one of our meetings, he and his family stopped returning my phone calls. Almost two months later, his mother finally called me back. I still remember her exact words because they hit me so hard.

I’m so sorry we haven’t been in touch. I just wanted to be honest and tell you what’s been going on in our family. We learned that Nate has a pretty serious substance abuse problem, so we’ve pulled him out of school to get him the help he needs. I don’t know how this is all going to turn out, but it might be awhile before we can focus on college for him again.

She was so calm, measured, and genuinely concerned about her son. The college planning didn’t matter for the time being. Nate’s life was a lot more important than his GPA.

Not more than an hour later, another parent called me in tears because her son’s SAT scores hadn’t risen as high after his tutoring program as they’d hoped. She wanted to discuss what “could be done to fix this.”

I’m not marginalizing her reaction to her son’s scores, especially given her money and his time that they’d invested (though disappointment was probably a more appropriate reaction than tears). But I remember thinking about the power of perspective, and that while both parents were just wanting what was best for their kids, one had a lot more to realistically worry about than the other did.

The college admissions process can chip away at even the calmest, sanest parent’s perspective. When fellow parents around you seem so concerned about grades and test scores and candidacy for prestigious colleges, you can almost feel negligent as a parent if you don’t engage at the same level so many other parents seem to be lured to do.

But when you feel that pressure getting to you, take a step back and ask yourself some honest questions. Is this a problem worth worrying about? Is there a potential outcome that could cause your student legitimate long-term damage to their health or happiness? Will this issue really matter in 10 years, in 10 months, or even in 10 days?

I’ve never heard a parent of a grown adult say that everything would have been different if their son or daughter had just gotten into AP Bio or raised their ACT score or been accepted to Brown back in high school. Perspective can save your college admissions process, and your parental sanity.

This week, I heard from Nate. He didn’t go on to college, but today he’s happy, sober, and succeeding in his career. He also sent me a photo of his infant son…perched atop Dad’s guitar.

Parents, no matter what happens during your college planning, please maintain your perspective. Your child’s future is everything, but their future college is not.

Greatest hits: college interview edition

For seniors who will soon be meeting with college interviewers, here are five past posts to help you prepare, feel more relaxed, and make a good impression.

  1. Five ways to make a great impression on college interviewers.
  2. What should you wear?
  3. How to handle pre-interview panic.
  4. Five questions you should be ready to answer.
  5. Five potential questions to ask your interviewer.

And here’s a bonus tip from Jay Matthews of the Washington Post: Pretend your interviewer is Grandma’s friend.

That’s what the breaks are for

High school students face a scheduling challenge most adults haven’t faced since they walked their own high school hallways—most can’t start doing their work until the afternoon or evening. After attending school and participating in activities, it’s not unusual for many students to find that their first opportunity of the day to do homework and study comes after the sun has already set. How can you make the most of that time while still leaving enough hours to get a good night’s sleep?

The answer just might be to take more breaks.

This article shares the latest scientific findings about how regular breaks actually boost rather than interrupt productivity. If you read through, you’ll find three different research-backed recommendations for your work/break balance.

  1. Set a timer for 25 minutes. Work. When the timer goes off, take a 5-minute break. Repeat three more times, then take a longer (30-minute) break.
  2. Work in 90-minute blocks, taking short breaks in between.
  3. Work for 52 minutes, then break for 17 (the article explains not only why the specifics are important, but also why research shows this might be the most effective approach).

But no matter which version you choose, it will only work if you commit to focusing intensely during your work time, which means eliminating all distractions and getting into your work zone. Answering texts, responding to emails, checking social media, etc.—that’s what the breaks are for.

Where can you be an assist leader?

Basketball player John Stockton isn’t just widely regarded as one of the best point guards in basketball history; he was also named to the NBA’s 50th anniversary “All-Time Team” recognizing the 50 greatest players to ever play the game. In his 19-year career, Stockton was a ten-time All Star and won gold medals in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics. Since he left the game in 2003, the Utah Jazz have retired his number, Salt Lake City named a street after him, and he’s been inducted into the basketball hall of fame. Today, standing in front of the arena where he played his home games is a statue bearing his likeness. Few players have ever reached the heights that Stockton did during his time as a player. He’s one of the best who ever played.

But Stockton didn’t garner those accolades as a scorer. In fact, in terms of total number of points scored by a player in their career, Stockton barely makes the list of the top 50 (he comes in at #46). Where Stockton made his mark was in dishing out assists. For non-basketball fans, a player is credited with an assist when they pass the ball to a teammate in a way that leads to a score. Stockton made 15,806 such passes over his career, more than any other player and almost 4,000 more than his closest competition.

When it came to helping teammates score, nobody in the history of the game did it as well as Stockton.

Individual achievement is just one path to greatness. If you can’t be the best at what you do, maybe you can be the best at helping others be the best?

Everyone can be an assist leader in something.

P.S. Stockton also holds the NBA record for career steals by a considerable margin. But it’s a lot harder to draw an appropriate college admissions comparison to taking the ball away from an opponent.