What Straight-A Students Get Wrong

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Worthwhile opinion piece this weekend from Wharton professor Adam Grant - "What Straight-A Students Get Wrong"

The evidence is clear: Academic excellence is not a strong predictor of career excellence. Across industries, research shows that the correlation between grades and job performance is modest in the first year after college and trivial within a handful of years...Academic grades rarely assess qualities like creativity, leadership and teamwork skills, or social, emotional and political intelligence. Yes, straight-A students master cramming information and regurgitating it on exams. But career success is rarely about finding the right solution to a problem -- it's more about finding the right problem to solve.

Interested in seeing how this is received by the bankers, consultants, and Harvard MBA applicants of the world where GPA is at a premium. Thoughts?

Comments (67)

Most Helpful
Dec 10, 2018

The most fundamental issue with being a straight A student is to learn to swallow when you are wrong, because in school you weren't wrong a lot. If you aren't used to failure and you end up failing big, the psychological impact can be devastating.

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Dec 17, 2018

This. I've gone through some failures recently and the psychological impact has indeed been devastating.

Dec 10, 2018

Went through it. It's a new world indeed when you come out of it and it's for the best.

Dec 17, 2018

Comments for 4.0 students coming into finance:

a) A lot of talented students don't know how to work hard, success has just come easily for them, making a steep learning curve very challenging as you learn to work

b) Praise becomes less common, as a straight A student, you're used to getting feedback from tests and assignments and awards for how great you are, for some MDs, high praise comes in the form of an email that says - "thx"

c) You're not that special, and rather than special projects where you can show off how smart you are, you will get stuck doing monotonous and boring work like pulling raw data for charts to be used in an appendix that no one will ever read. Also for the first couple years, your work will not have much creativity and will be heavily directed by people only a little senior to you, some of whom, you will suspect are not as smart as you

d) A lot of the skills that make you a good student (memorisation / regurgitation) are pretty useless in banking

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Dec 19, 2018
neink:

The most fundamental issue with being a straight A student is to learn to swallow when you are wrong, because in school you weren't wrong a lot. If you aren't used to failure and you end up failing big, the psychological impact can be devastating.

To piggy back off of this it also comes down to how you handle failure or when everything you're working on or doing is going wrong and your facing rock bottom. Having bounced back from numerous academic and personal "bottoms" I've realized how to face issues head-on and rarely falter when under pressure.

Learning from failure is key but if you've "never" failed you'll be "deer in the headlights" when you do because you won't know WTF to do.

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Dec 10, 2018
RedRage:
neink:

The most fundamental issue with being a straight A student is to learn to swallow when you are wrong, because in school you weren't wrong a lot. If you aren't used to failure and you end up failing big, the psychological impact can be devastating.

To piggy back off of this it also comes down to how you handle failure or when everything you're working on or doing is going wrong and your facing rock bottom. Having bounced back from numerous academic and personal "bottoms" I've realized how to face issues head-on and rarely falter when under pressure.

Learning from failure is key but if you've "never" failed you'll be "deer in the headlights" when you do because you won't know WTF to do.

It's also a lot harder to learn to handle failure as an adult than as a kid. If you are young, consequences are limited and you learn that mistakes can be fine so long that you learn from them. If instead you start feeling ashamed, get paralyzed, depressed and start battering yourself over personal failures, then it's a downward spiral.

Dec 10, 2018

Interesting article!

Dec 10, 2018

Cross your fingers that adcoms listened to this guy when I apply for grad school

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Dec 10, 2018
Personofwalmart:

Cross your fingers that adcoms listened to this guy when I apply for grad school

Apply to Wharton and include it as an addendum

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Dec 10, 2018

I haven't looked at the grades of anyone that has ever applied to work for us. It's so irrelevant and completely antiquated unless hiring for a STEMy position. Even then if it's comp sci related all I give a fuck about is a sexy GitHub prof.

FWIW our team has one guy from wharton and one that went to Yale + columbia and two that made 7 figures well before 30 but dropped out so we don't hire morons.

Dec 10, 2018

This. In our resume review meetings, I'll be pushing hard for someone who has amazing work experience and accomplished a ton but then there's always that one prick with the stick up his ass "I don't know man, he ONLY has a 3.3 GPA. Can we really interview him?"

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Dec 11, 2018

GPA is a measure of how well you can follow directions and listen to "authority."

In other words, a high GPA means that you listen to your professor and do exactly as they say. So, from one point of view, this is good - if I were a manager, I would rather someone who follows instructions than someone who skips class, calls out every day, and does shitty work.

However... a high GPA means that you listen to your professor and do exactly as they say. A low GPA means that you may take it upon yourself to develop new methods of solving a problem - maybe even better than your professor would have taught you. So from that point of view, a low GPA is good - I would rather someone innovative on my team.

The tricky part is distinguishing the low GPA "innovator" from the low GPA "my dad got me this interview and I'm a frat lord who is too cool for class" dude.

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Dec 16, 2018

this is called selection bias

You killed the Greece spread goes up, spread goes down, from Wall Street they all play like a freak, Goldman Sachs 'o beat.

Dec 10, 2018

seems like an excuse to be lazy for people who would rather rely on their innate character traits than work hard in school.

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Dec 10, 2018

i always think it different between school and work (esp finance) because in school you're told almost exactly what to do to get a good grade. In finance, it's not usually laid out step by step for you.

Also, in school, you can get a 99% on everything and it'll be good. At work, you need to be 100% correct. If you fill out a 100 page powerpoint and get one slide wrong, your boss doesn't go good job on the 99, they focus on the one you got wrong.

Dec 10, 2018

This finding is generally correct. It's not grades that are correlated with career success; IQ is what is correlated with career success.

https://www.businessinsider.com/why-your-iq-strong...
(Of course, entrepreneurship is excepted.)

Dec 11, 2018

Good grades = Good at following rules and orders

Dec 11, 2018

Yeah, I already said this. Read my comment above.

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Funniest
Dec 11, 2018

Yea but everyone hates you so it cancels out

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Dec 11, 2018

A students work hard in school and are always at the top of their class to end up working for B students who end up owning the companies

Dec 11, 2018

Let's also not forget the importance of grit - Jack Ma isn't the smartest guy in the world but he sure has an unparalleled level of determination and tenacity.

Though of course, if we are strictly talking about a corporate setting, grit is probably less relevant with IQ + EQ being more important.

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Dec 11, 2018

It's a touchy subject because many of those with high GPA will take trivialization of grades very personally. If you're a 4.0 graduate, chances are you spent a lot of resources on achieving those perfect grades, so you are personally invested in the work. On the other hand, someone that opened up the book, read a chapter, and got a D will probably not feel invested in his/her grade, and will probably feel more indifferent to the system.

But let's more over to the professional life: People are motivated by different things, and as it just happens, in "real life" you're rewarded (and punished) because of many different actions. It's such a more complex environment than undergraduate academia, where you're usually given one task and one reward (Take a test, get a grade).

The use of GPA as a measure comes down to practicality. It's far from perfect, but it's good enough for most applications. It is sometimes downright useless (i.e I've seen sales teams hire fresh grads by GPA only - and as it just happens, you can be a fantastic 4.0 student but also terrible at sales)

Dec 11, 2018

It's just another filter.

Roles like finance, medicine, law, tech...all have these filters to just weed through the mass amounts of people applying to get into these positions.

Of course it won't determine long term success; you can't teach how to have a conversation with a janitor and a CEO within the same 10 minute span in a classroom. Can't teach proper leadership and ownership of your work, can't teach long term strategic thinking. These are things you DEVELOP with time, and experience.

I've met some killer GPA kids who couldn't hold a proper conversation without breaking out into 7 variations of "umms" and sweating. Reminds me of the Lizard man thread posted a few weeks ago about "How to act Normal"...

I think- therefore I fuck

Dec 11, 2018

I'd love to pile on because I had a low GPA, but I can't. Yes, you can still succeed but guys, being lazy in school has absolutely closed doors for me. It's inspiring and you should keep hustlin', which I'm doing, but I wouldn't mind having the grades over some of the supposed benefits I gained from my previous failures.

Dec 14, 2018

Could you elaborate on which doors have been closed due to poor grades. I would have assumed after having spent time in the field the importance of grades dissolves? (Apart from grad school pretty obvious on that front)

Dec 16, 2018

Not the OP but perhaps MBA admissions -> Loss of opportunity from MBA degree from a M7 or whatever

Dec 11, 2018

Hey, just saw this. I'll give my personal opinion but first, 1) I am not trying to crap on the aspirations of people who aren't 4.0s at targets, etc, and 2) I do agree that GPA is less relevant as you get experience and goes away completely in some fields.

There are a ton of cool opportunities out there, but if you get wrapped up in a specific BB, going to megafund PE, etc, you sometimes have to temper your expectations. For me, it was trying for MBB after getting my MBA - still had to put that pesky GPA on there, and those guys care a lot. My GPA was okay, meaning right in the average at an M7, but the people who really wanted consulting obviously pushed themselves harder and got better marks, Now, no one is going to cry me a river because that particular door is closed (at least for now), but my point is that it's taken me out of the conversation for certain things. And while I'd consider my social skills above average, I didn't have enough to compensate. Finally, in my case I'm older than most of you, and so playing catchup.

Not really sure where I was going with this, lol, but my advice is if you have time to unscrew your grades, do it, and if not, there are still lots of opportunities. I just don't want to say grades don't matter, because you have to compensate or re-position a lot of things without them.

Dec 11, 2018

Why would a large, established company want to have innovators or creative thinkers when their business models aren't threatened and they can succeed with incrementalism?

I mean I can see why it's useful in a small company, though

Dec 12, 2018

Sears, Best Buy, Blockbuster, Toys R Us, etc.....

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Dec 11, 2018

But are those examples the result those companies being unaware of threats/lack of ideas or because of complacency and bureaucracy? Or both?

I agree with you that those incumbents should've been more active. I'm just saying that they are comfortable with the status quo such that they probably wouldn't want someone who is a radical (like startup-era Bezos) in their ranks. A person who doesn't exhibit group-think likely wouldn't succeed long enough to reach the rank of decision maker in these established companies who are satisfied with short-term success.

Dec 12, 2018

To quote Lidell Hart "A model boy rarely goes far, and even when he does he is apt to falter when severely tested. A boy who conforms immaculately to school rules is not likely to grow into a man who will conquer by breaking the stereotyped professional rules of his time-as conquest has most often been achieved".

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Dec 12, 2018

A very interesting read indeed, and even more interesting are the comments. I don't usually post on this forum (yeah, I'm one of those lurkers) but this topic for some reason really triggered me.

I am of the opinion that GPA (whether we are talking high school or university) has very little correlation to financial success in the "real world". At the same time however, GPA does reflect to a certain extent things like character, work ethic, responsibility, and other such esteemed values, which are important.

One thing that irks me is the standard view that "A students work for B students who work for C students who work for dropouts." This is absolutely nonsensical and more importantly, non-factual due to the absurd lack of evidence. You knowing some guy who smoked a lot of pot in College and dropping out and going on to start an incredibly successful "tech startup" does not count as evidence that "A students work for B students who work for C students who work for dropouts." Don't get me wrong, you very well may know someone who has done this or someone who knows someone who has done this.. but this does not qualify as evidence (did you guys take statistics in school?) These guys/gals represent 0.01% of the population if not less.

It could very well be that a student that graduates with a 4.0 has a successful career. Another student with a 2.4 might have an even more financially successful career. Bottomline - having a high or low or perfect GPA is no indicator of whether someone will have a financially successful career.

Given all of this, I am also of the opinion that GPA does NOT measure "intelligence." What is intelligence? Thing is, intelligence is very hard to measure and the beauty of our world stems from the fact that people are diverse and share many different / unique skills and passions.

Let me ask you a few questions: do you regard Einstein as smart? Or perhaps Stephen Hawking (rest his soul)? You probably do. In fact you probably use the word "genius" to describe them. Do you regard Frida Kahlo or Sandro Botticelli as smart? Probably don't even know who they are. Why is it then, that we associate Einstein and Hawking as "geniuses" but Kahlo and Botticelli (or any other incredible painter) not? Because being good at Math is connoted to being intelligent, whereas being good at art is connoted to being creative. Is there a difference? If two people are master's of their crafts, are they not BOTH intelligent? (fun fact: the word genius has developed over time to mean someone who is really smart - whatever the fu** that means. It's actual meaning is something more along the lines of "being in tune with ones craft / passion and excelling at that through countless hours of practice / dedication).

If you want to get mathematical or scientific about it, "being intelligent" is usually referred to having a high IQ - intelligence quotient. This is just a standard benchmark that humans have created to rank other fellow humans based on nothing more than the speed with which they can perform calculations. Think of IQ as horsepower in cars. The more the horsepower, the greater the speed with which the car can travel (generally speaking). Same thing with IQ.

The fundamental problem is that the "real world" isn't overly concerned with absurdly high IQs. If you had a car with 5,000 BHP that could do a 1/4 mile in 1 second but couldn't turn right or left to make a corner, then what use would that car be to anyone? Same with IQ. Same reason why some kids who graduate with incredibly good grades don't fare as well in the real world. This is not to say that kids with good grades can't fare well.

Some other factor is at play then... and that factor is IQ's less famous brother: EQ. Emotional Quotient is significantly more important (IMO) in "career success" than IQ. EQ is concerned with one's ability to integrate within society. It is concerned with one's ability to read people and be compassionate. Having a moderate / high EQ means to be able to connect emotionally with other people and being able to empathise. Having this other factor means that you know how to act like a proper human, and guess what, humans - being the social creatures they are - like it when other humans behave like normal, compassionate, caring humans.

Therefore, having a financially successful career stems from having a blend of good horsepower (IQ) - which can be augmented, much like cars can be tuned to increase BHP - and good steering capabilities (EQ) - this too can be augmented. Stupid statements like "4.0 kids are just nerds", or "3.3 kids did the bare minimum and chased tail in college" are inaccurate generalisations that really have no substantive data backing them up.

I graduated with a 4.0 and by no means do I think of myself as smart. There are guys and girls out there that absolutely blow me out of the water. I was able to get my GPA thanks to some natural intelligence but mostly (90%) due to my hard-working / persevering nature. I think employers like that in people and I honestly think there's nothing wrong with that. I had plenty of time to do everything - I was on an athletic team, I went out, I started my own e-commerce business while in school, had a girlfriend and still managed to get good grades. It's all about balance and hard-work!!

TL;DR: Intelligence is hard to measure. GPA does not measure it, nor does GPA have any correlation with financial success in the real world. A blend of IQ and EQ is needed. Kids with 4.0s can be successful in the real world, and so can 1.9s. Generalisations are stupid, and I think we should make fewer. Keep working hard everyone.

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Dec 16, 2018

You're right.

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Dec 12, 2018

Stannis,

I am just going to ask you one thing and then leave it at that, because the last thing I am trying to do is start a discussion on who is right vs. who is wrong (hint: if you read my last post you might infer based on what I wrote that there is no right or wrong in this situation given the overly complex nature of the very thing we are discussing).

You said that intelligence cannot be improved. So, by your definition, if we took two kids - one with a lower IQ and one with a higher IQ - and we ban the high IQ kid from ever attending any type of school (kindergarten to post-graduate) whereas we let the low IQ kid attend everything (including getting his/hers PHD), what would the outcome be? Based on what you are saying, the High IQ kid will still be more "intelligent" than the other.

See how flawed that reasoning is? Intelligence is hard to measure and IQ alone doesn't measure it. Education is important - it is one of the most important things in our society because it allows us to innovate, create, and solve world problems which propels us into the future.

BTW, at least use some evidence if you are going to try and make a point. It has been shown (and I believe some people have already linked some studies) that EQ is more of a predictor of success than IQ.

Also confused by what you said. "If you have a high IQ, and other qualities, you will probably do well regardless of your IQ."
If you have a HIGH IQ you will do well regardless of your IQ??? What does that mean?

Dec 13, 2018

I'd like to add my thoughts to this. As a student who had a 2.9 gpa in college, and who only got his consulting job by leaving out his gpa on his resume (thankfully they didn't ask) I agree that gpa doesn't have too large of an influence on professional success. THIS IS NOT TO MEAN however that gpa doesn't matter. Many articles like the one we are currently discussing make it seem that the C students are so smart they don't need to do well/don't care. In actual honesty, most C students (myself included at the time) are fucking retards who are FUCKING LAZY. Getting a high gpa doesn't mean your not lazy (could pad your semester with fluff courses), but having a low one MEANS that you are lazy. Your GPA is a question of your work ethic, and nothing more.

Ty

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Dec 11, 2018

Are you a "sales consultant" at a retail store? lmao

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Dec 13, 2018

no I'm a legit "consultant" haha.

Ty

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Dec 14, 2018

I would just tweak this to say low GPA means you're lazy with school work. I have friends that were working 40 hour weeks to put themselves through college and graduated with mid 3's. Yeah they probably didn't put all the time in that the could, they were distracted with work and other responsibilities.

I spend 50+ hours a week in college focused on athletics, and graduated low 3's. I will admit that I was pretty lazy with my school work. The subjects were boring and I just didn't care. But I was by no means lazy overall. I just did what I had to do to get by in school so I could spend my time working on something I enjoyed.

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Dec 16, 2018

I would say this is mostly because the vast majority of occupations do not really require the type of intelligence or talent that correlates well with academic success. College is seen as a barrier to entry as it gives you an extremely basic set of skills and knowledge but in that respect there is not much differentiation between a 3.0 student and a 4.0 student.

Dec 16, 2018

I also teach at Wharton and let me say that if anything, Adam Grant is understating the phenomenon of grade grubbing there.

Doing everything possible to max out on GPA is inevitable for some Wharton undergrads, because there are some really great opportunities available for those with magna and summa distinctions. In some cases, the difference between an A- and an A, in one course, is the difference between getting your first FT job at a BB and getting into a PE megafund. I know a 3.7 is needed for McKinsey. I get it, people are going to pull every string they can with the teachers because they're so competitive and ambitious. But most classes including mine are graded on curves, so giving a bump to the grubbers is unfair to those who work hard, get a B+ and suck it up.

Two things really exasperate me: 1) the grubbers who won't quit, and keep "litigating" their grade, sometimes for a whole year after I've told them it's not going to change; 2) those who keep grubbing after they already got their PE megafund job. I get at least two of the latter every year (out of 200+). Also, once in a while I get a grubbing MBA student, and I think, here's a nincompoop who didn't read the label where it says your grades aren't reported to recruiting employers.

My attitude toward grubbers seems to be pretty widespread among the Wharton faculty.

Full disclosure: I got a horribly low GPA in undergrad. Just didn't want to play the grade game. In the (unusual) career path I took, nobody ever wanted to see my transcript or even asked me what my GPA was.

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Dec 17, 2018

Can you elaborate on your horrible GPA (ball park), what you studied, your unusual career path (and why they never asked your GPA), and how you ended up teaching at Wharton?

Dec 16, 2018

Don't want to say too much, to preserve my incog on this site. I went to an Ivy and trashed my GPA through athletic, EC, and partying distractions. I got "rusticated" (suspended for a year) after soph year. Got back in and barely graduated. Got an ultra-elite journalism internship through social connections and after than, a political appointment in Washington.

Eventually I joined the Army National Guard which was a great hobby and led to more job opportunities through social connections and networking. Switched from journalism to finance at age 42. Am now teaching at Wharton as a minion of my boss in my day job in AM -- he's a professor there. That's about all I can say here.

Re never being asked GPA, for most jobs except entry level in finance, law, medicine, consulting, GPA isn't relevant. If you come well recommended with a track record of success, they just assume you did well in college, or they simply don't care. Not trying to sound jerkish, but if you graduate from an Ivy and have all prestige employers on your resume, most ppl assume you have something on the ball intellectually. And really, nobody looks down on Gates or Zuckerberg for dropping out of Harvard or asks what grades they got there.

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Dec 16, 2018

i would put one of those smart a** authors in an Eastern European country and watch how they get by with their "creativity, leadership and teamwork skills, or social, emotional and political intelligence"

You killed the Greece spread goes up, spread goes down, from Wall Street they all play like a freak, Goldman Sachs 'o beat.

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Dec 11, 2018

we're talking about the first world not the third

Dec 16, 2018
Comment

I come from down in the Valley, where Mr. when you're young, they bring you up to do like your daddy done.

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Dec 19, 2018
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