There’s a cult of perfectionism plaguing our campuses, argues Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
When students believe a 4.0 GPA is critical to landing a lucrative job or attending an elite graduate school, they might sacrifice their health or social life in pursuit of perfect grades, Grant writes in the New York Times.
But perfect grades don’t measure the skills students need to succeed in their careers, writes Grant. A flawless transcript only signals that the student was good at memorizing information, avoided any classes they might have struggled in, and didn’t push any boundaries, he argues.
“Getting straight A’s requires conformity. Having an influential career demands originality,” he writes. He points to research that has found that valedictorians typically go on to lead successful careers but don’t necessarily “change the world.”
Many valedictorians themselves acknowledge that what they were really good at was doing what their teachers asked of them. “Essentially, we are rewarding conformity and the willingness to go along with the system,” says education professor Karen Arnold, who authored the study.
But some commenters on Grant’s piece worry he’s over-generalizing how faculty measure student success and how A-students behave.
“I have never taught a class in which fact regurgitation was required or desirable. Mine are designed to reward original thinking on projects that reflect actual problems in the fields they plan to enter,” reads one comment. “The A students I know are also pursuing internships, serving as campus leaders, performing community service, and enjoying life with their many friends. A substantial number are working and raising families.”
In fact, more colleges are helping students cultivate the soft skills, like teamwork, creativity, and critical thinking, that Grant says grades often overlook. Many colleges, for example, are incorporating experiential learning, like research opportunities and group projects, into the curriculum to push students to apply what they’re learning to real-world problems.
Universities are also working to normalize failure and help students feel comfortable making mistakes, Davidson College, for example, has a “failure fund” that provides students with money to work on creative projects without the risk of becoming financially deprived if something doesn’t work out.
But employers and universities can do more to stop the rise in perfectionism, argues Grant. Recruiters can value skills over straight A’s, he suggests. Some companies have stopped looking at GPAs altogether. In one 2013 interview, Laszlo Bock, previously a people operations executive at Google, called GPAs “worthless as a criteria for hiring.”
And graduate programs can communicate to students that the difference between a 4.0 GPA isn’t necessary to win admission, recommends Grant. Colleges can also report grades without pluses and minuses and work to end grade inflation, he adds (Grant, New York Times, 12/8).