Why Some High Achievers Fail In College While Others Thrive, According To Science

Conventional wisdom, not to mention logic, dictates that if you did well in high school, you will excel in higher education too. But that is not always the case; some high achievers fail in college, while formerly average students find themselves at the front of the academic pack, and until recently, nobody could quite figure out why. In a working paper published this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers at the University of Toronto explored the factors behind the differences in "thrivers," who outperform expectations going into college, and "divers," whose grades take a nosedive. Although it's tempting to attribute the latter to too much partying, things are a little more complicated than that.

A student's grade point average (GPA) is affected by all kinds of nonacademic factors, particularly socioeconomic status. In their study, researchers focused on the personal side of things: life goals, characteristics, and so on. According to the Washington Post, participants were given personality tests, and the results were compared to their grades to see which traits were related to success — or failure — in their first year of college. Researchers classified students in either extreme into the two groups mentioned above: Thrivers and divers.


According to the study, divers tend to procrastinate, putting off work longer than other students and cramming for exams. They also score lower in conscientiousness, or attention to detail, than thrivers, and their life goals are less philanthropic — they're more likely to value things like getting rich. According to the Post, divers tend to be more impatient as well. In contrast, thrivers tend to work harder for their GPA; researchers found that they expect to study more hours per week than divers. Their life goals are less superficial, and they're more goal-oriented.

The results paint a rather unflattering portrait of divers, but to be fair, there could be extenuating circumstances. The Post points out that divers are more likely to work during the semester, so they may simply have less time to study, or there could be financial issues going on. Research has shown that students from wealthy families are far more likely to graduate than their lower-income peers, and it's not hard to see why a student working their way through college would have a lower GPA than someone whose only focus is school.


It's important to note that the study is correlational, and it's still a draft at the moment. However, the results go to show that GPA isn't the only measure of intelligence — and it can be a fairly inaccurate one in the first place. On the other hand, the study also serves as a warning to us all: As tempting as it is to watch six hours of cat videos instead of working, procrastination rarely ends well.

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