Parents, does a high GPA and great test scores = Success?

If I asked you to rank the top 3 things you believe make a person successful long-term, what would you say?

I recently asked this question at a Skillify workshop I hosted on Managing Stress in High School. This workshop required students to bring their parents along.  I had about 30 parents and 20 teenagers sitting in front of me. I divided them up into two groups: the Parent Group and the Student Group.  Instructions:

“Rank the top 3 things you believe make a person successful long-term.”

Parent Group:

Ability to adapt, Persistence, Experience

Student Group:

High GPA, Degree from a notable university, Hard work

The Parent Group looked shocked.

This exercise has been done at almost every workshop I’ve hosted that included parents and their children, and the results have been similar.

When a teenager believes a high GPA and degree from a notable university are crucial for long-term success, why are we surprised to see him losing sleep over a test or feeling insecure due to a history of “bad” grades?

“But I tell him all the time that grades don’t matter, effort does.”

“Her father didn’t go to college and she sees how successful he is.”

“Both of my kids know they should be doing things that make them happy, not just things for their college application.”

Sure, but your teenager spends the majority of his time in an academic environment, where a high GPA and admission to a notable college are indicators of success. My parents too had made sure I understood that academics were just one part of my overall success, that college was just one part of my life-long education; it wasn’t something that would define me. But I still vividly remember one particular day of my senior year in high school: May 1st aka. National College Decision Day. All seniors wore their chosen college’s sweatshirt to school. This had been a tradition for years. Cliques formed immediately: Notable College Go-ers vs. Not. That day, I couldn’t help but feel that my parents had been wrong.

Given the competition many students feel, I see too many of them spending every waking (and possibly non-waking) minute thinking about what more they can do for their college applications. This hyper-focus on one specific outcome seems to be causing students to extrapolate the definition of success in an academic environment to define their success long-term.

There are plenty of parents and educators who are working very hard every day to re-align students on the meaning of true learning and success, but in the meantime, it is not enough to simply tell our students, “It’s just a grade. Take a breather.” Because to them, it is not just a grade. It is a grade. It is a grade that affects their GPA. And hence, a GPA in their eyes determines their long-term success. And what are the consequences? Angela Ma explains some pretty well:

“These students, I’ve noticed, are killing it academically. But they’re stressed out. They view college as work. Their primary focus, still, is homework and a couple side activities. They have not developed the independence that comes from being motivated by passion. They may go on to become CEOs or multimillionaires or cardiovascular surgeons. But maybe they will never become someone bigger.”

So I challenge you, tonight, with your children at the dinner table, or tomorrow, with your students in your classroom, please have a discussion on how they define themselves and their success.

Hopefully their answers do not surprise you, and hopefully, you can help them see the bigger picture.  Help them see the place of their academic successes in the grand scheme of their lives, and most importantly, help them see that they can become someone bigger.

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