Study Shows Valedictorians Aren't The Most Likely To Succeed

In fact, a high GPA might be a bad thing

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During my final year of college, I received a letter stating I had a GPA in the top five percent of my class. That was enough, the letter said, to qualify me to write a valedictorian speech for my graduation. A panel of professors would pick the speech that best represented the spirit of our university, and that person would be crowned the valedictorian.

Of course, I never wrote a speech; five-hundred words on why I’m inspired to set the world aflame felt like too big of an ask in my final semester of college. I imagine many of my classmates felt the same. Ultimately, they picked an aspiring pharmacist who was looking forward to changing the world via prescription medication.

So, despite not being the valedictorian—either in high school or college—I turned out just fine. So did the students with 4.3 GPAs and students with 3.4s. The rankings, as it turned out, didn’t seem to make much of a difference post-academia. Those anecdotal findings have recently been substantiated by a book published this past May titled, Barking Up The Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is Mostly Wrong. Drawing from both 20-year-old studies and modern findings, author and science blogger Eric Barker confirms what many of us have known all along: Graduating at the top of your class doesn’t have much bearing on future success.

According to a 1995 study included in the book, in which Boston College researchers followed 81 valedictorians for 14 years post-graduation, the top-tier students did well (as expected), but none of them achieved groundbreaking notoriety. While most became professionals in their chosen fields, less than half reached the highest possible tier after 14 years of work. And a total of zero produced disruptive innovations. As Barker writes, “We’re all told mom wants us to be a valedictorian and to study so hard. And they do well, very well. But oddly enough, they don’t reach the same heights of success after school.”

More than 20 years later, these findings seem to hold up. By Barker’s estimation, valedictorians “don’t go on to reinvent the system or lead it. Instead, they’re part of it.” And it makes sense why this would be the case. Unless you’re in an experimental arts or STEM program, most schools value well-rounded generalists who play by the rules. Also, when you’re looking to change the status quo, Barker writes, failure is implicit. And as any competitor aiming for the highest score knows, there’s no room for failure.

On the bright side, life doesn’t operate that way. As Barker argues, you can bounce back from a professional failure and most will remember the triumphant success—not a mediocre average of the two. As a reformed perfectionist, I can attest to that fact.


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