Make More Than GPA

25% Drop in free playtime for 6-to-8-year-olds from 1981 to ’97, while homework more than doubled.  Time 30Nov, p.57.

My youngest son is a junior in high school, but won’t study for the SAT because he is too busy with classes; he won’t believe me that the SAT counts for as much as his GPA.  He does his own software projects, which is great, but mainly because he loves them.  My older son, newly at UVA, was too busy with classes, basketball and band to do his own projects or study for the SAT.

Most college students ignore my advice to take an independent study and really dive into something.  When I suggest that grad school applicants talk about their big projects, they say they were too GPA focused for those.  I tell grad students few will care what classes they took or grades they got; it is their degree and major papers that will matter.  Yet most still attend too much to in-their-face teachers and their grades.

Students seem overly obsessed with grades and organized activities, both relative to standardized tests and to what I’d most recommend: doing something original.  You don’t have to step very far outside scheduled classes and clubs to start to see how very different the world is when you have to organize it yourself.

For example, if you try to study a subject in depth without following a textbook or review, you’ll have to decide for yourself which sources seem how relevant to your topic. If you try to add something to the subject you’ll have to decide what changes are how feasible and interesting.  Doing these may feel awkward at first, but they will be very useful skills later in life.   Similar skills come from writing your own game or starting your own business or composing your own album.

Most of the interesting academics I know spent lots of time when young structuring their own “unstructured” activities; GPA fanatics usually have few interesting thoughts of their own.  Alas, today even structured activities reward dandelion over orchid abilities.  For example, the SAT math test once had harder problems, letting orchids shine on a hard problem, to compensate for missing easy ones.  Today’s SAT only rewards never ever making a mistake on easy problems.

Inspired by a conversation with Nicole Iannacone.

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  • billswift

    That’s at least partly because it’s easier. You don’t have to try to think or plan, just do what the teacher says. For most people it is hard to do something without either outside motivation or immediate enthusiasm. Especially academic studying where you don’t know whether it will ever be useful in your life. That is part of the reason I don’t have any really in depth knowledge of much, without knowing something in particular will be useful, I tend to follow my interest of the moment, when I wasn’t doing something for work. The sort of vague generalities most parents and teachers tend to spout aren’t going to help motivate anyone.

  • Dan

    That’s funny; I just got the opposite advice from a professor the other day. This semester, I sat in on a couple courses I was intrigued by, and I worked through a few textbooks covering subjects I was interested in that weren’t being offered this semester, plus the relevant background material.

    Upon finding out about this, one professor told me I shouldn’t audit classes or just work through material, because it’s better to get credit for effort I’m putting in.

    • Eliezer Yudkowsky

      Never listen to this professor again.

      • Kaj Sotala


      • Fredrik Bränström


    • Aaron Denney

      Eh. If you know you’re going to actually go through the entire class, by all means take it rather than audit it (assuming no horrendous course fees). It can in many cases reduce the other college requirements, giving you more time to study exactly what you want to study.

      But absolutely don’t stop working through outside material if you can’t get credit for it.

  • jorge

    You say “most of the interesting academics I know…” What about the most successful ones? Sadly, most of the world today rewards diligence over independence. We remember the flashy outliers. But most of those with “interesting” ideas also had fairly standard high-end resumes. For every independent thinker who wins the Nobel or makes a billion, there are hundreds who never got a top job or were denied tenure or had their projects rejected. The SAT matters a lot, but not if their grades are too low.

    Even the Chicago econ dept (historically the most open to students with “interesting” and checkered histories) is now more likely to pick the straight A boring student over the brilliant kid with good scores, a great BA thesis and spotty grades.

    Does it really pay to hope for a Buffet or Feynman when the risk is bitter failure? Are your children biased, or is it you?

    • Paul

      Feynman was a straight-A student…

      • Francisco

        Feynman only got A’s in his science classes. He was notorious for failing all liberal arts courses, and was accepted to Princeton with a surprisingly low GPA.

  • KenF

    This is very poor advice for high school students. GPA is extremely important. It is very smart to be GPA-obsessed if you are interested in gaining admissions to selective colleges, getting merit scholarships, etc.

    • ardyanovich

      … and most importantly, many jobs out of school have a GPA requirement. However, independent study does help with providing more interesting material for scholarship essays and interview questions.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    I agree this is poor advice, really for one simple reason. A GPA at both the high school and undergraduate level is a permanent record, whereas an SAT score or an independent research project is not. I agree with you that people tend to overemphasize their extracurricular activities.

    The smartest people in every generational cohort easily manage it all.
    They max out on grades, test scores, and extracurrics without much effort, spending their excess time on those interesting projects.

    So really this is a race to be the top of the second tier. To be at the top of the second tier, I think first priority should be grades, second priority should be test scores (if necessary, take the tests after you finish school for example the MCAT after college graduation, if that’s impossible, make it pretty much your only extracurricular) and third priority should be leadership in extracurric organizations that send relevant signals to the next life stage selective institutions that you’re trying to be admitted to.

    This is particularly relevant to the children of elite intellectual performers, if concepts like regression to the mean for heritable intellectual ability are true.

    Which is a politically incorrect question for Professor Hanson: Do you think your kids are less intellectually able than you?

    • Brandon Thomson

      True, the smartest students are able to record a fantastic GPA at every level and excellent standardized test scores if they choose to, but it’s hard to deny these optimization activities take up at least some valuable time and effort, even for the very smartest students, which could have been productively allocated elsewhere instead.

      • Hopefully Anonymous

        Meh, You seem to be selecting a posture to respond to me with, instead of starting from first principles on how to maximize productivity of people in the face of legal age and credential barriers.
        Sure years of GPA building and standardized test-taking is a waste of time for the smartest students. The set-up may be wasteful across the board. That’s not really a rebuttal to my point. I’m sure starting from scratch we’d both create different systems. That has little bearing on my response to Prof. Hanson’s post.

      • J. Random Underachiever

        Actually it is difficult for the smartest students to max out GPA; it may not be much of an intellectual challenge, but it still takes time and attention. Most people have to be paid wages to spend several hours per day doing unchallenging but attention-intensive tasks… Some students manage it because they’re motivated by other things: grades themselves and teacher feedback, college prospects, class ranking, appearing smart. But it is not effortless for even the brightest, if only for the amount of time it takes and the dearth of intrinsic value. (At least, says someone who aced the SAT but had a low GPA…)

      • Hopefully Anonymous

        When I say smartest I’m folding in all those things experimental psychologists are trying to tease out these days (grit, executive function, conscientiousness, etc.)

        If you lacked the grit and conscientiousness to maintain a high gpa, even with acing the SAT’s, I wouldn’t call you one of “the smartest”.

    • Robin Hanson

      What percentage of folks are in this “top tier”? It takes lots of time to do a project well, and few few folks can max out on all else and put that much time into a project. Oh, and I accept regression to the mean as a general phenomena.

      • Hopefully Anonymous

        Good question. Let me do a back of the envelope calculation.
        At feeder majors in elite research institutions, about 1 in 100. I’m going to guestimate those studetns at the institution were themselves 1 in 100, to say about 1 in 10,000. I think people that can do extraordinary well at an independent progress signalling creative genius for their age cohort, while maxing out on grades, test scores, and extracurriculars, are probably about 1 in 10,000. That’s about 30,000 people in the United States, spread across the intellectual elite professions. Seems about right to me. These are the people that probably end up maintaining the highest levels of creative achievement in their field, while doing a bunch of administrative things and having an active family and social life.

      • Hopefully Anonymous

        “at an independent progress” should read “at an independent project”.

        And I’m open to adjusting “1 in 10,000″ to “1 in 100,00″. I think it probably lies somewhere in between the two.

  • Pete

    Robin – I tend to agree that there is an over-emphasis on grades and organized activities, especially among high schoolers. However, I think some of this may be the result of a general confusion over interests. How is a high school student to know what he/she should research independently? Organized activities (and your daily classes) help you hone your interests to determine what you truly want to study.

    Also, doesn’t this study also work only for those of us who are “academic entrepreneurs,” for lack of a better term? Some people are self-driven in terms of academia and research – these are the “interesting academics” you know. But many people you know are not interesting academics. These people are the ones who might as well boost the GPA and get the best grades they can, so that they can reach the best possible mid-level management job, where someone else provides the creativity and they provide the effort and manpower.

  • Brandon Thomson

    Perhaps avid GPA-optimizers feel more at home in highly structured jobs like software/product development in large organizations while folks who optimized their independent study time over GPA are drawn to more chaotic and unstructured activities like entrepreneurship or academic/industrial research.

    If I had to do my schooling over again, I would have worried less about GPA.

  • michael vassar

    I would have worried much more or not at all, probably the latter, but hindsight is more than 20-20, its informed by lots of info I didn’t have at the time.

  • rob

    I don’t think I would have survived in school today, from what I hear. I was a high school dropout — only got into a decent college on SAT scores — back when such a thing was possible — but then rarely went to class in college. I was only interested in doing my own thing, but could perform well on paper ultimately.

    I think if I were 19 today I would give up on academics and just sell drugs. I thought things were idiotic when I was in school — but now things seem completely fucked. Hopefully some minor revolution will take place and academics will lose all credibility. When I hire people these days I’m looking for the brilliant dropouts without the patience to play the system. Many of them are computer programmers with otherwise no credentials, who are happy to work their asses off doing something they like and full of original ideas.

    • Allyn Bauer

      Are you hiring?

  • Dave Hedengren

    I agree with Dr. Hason with one small caveat. And now an anecdote of illustration:

    I was responsible for interviewing applicants at the Economic Consulting firm where I worked. Due to a large volume of resumes we used GPA and SAT scores as a quick first round elimination (anything below 3.5 or 1400). We might have missed some great people but we just didn’t have time to interview all 200 applicants. We were left with nearly 50 people and the most important remaining criteria was what kind of independent research they had done. People who signaled independent initiative got jobs. The others didn’t.

    So I think keeping your GPA above 3.5 is important (and thanks to diminishing returns is about 20 times easier than maintaining a 4.0) but in order to differentiate yourself from the myriad of other 3.5/1400 students you need independent accomplishments.

    Besides, I remember far more from my independent research as an undergrad than I do from my classes. It’s just a better way to learn.

    I was about to hit submit when I remembered another important parenthetical. As proud as I am of my independent study my independent research projects and 690V/790Q weren’t enough to overcome my 3.7 GPA to get into Chicago, MIT or even Georgetown. So maybe I’m wrong and I should have spent more time taking more math classes and doing well in them instead of doing independent study.

  • Barkley Rosser

    Of course SATs and GREs are important. However, regarding grades, my sense is that they are still important for high schoolers and undergrad students. Where they do not matter much is at the grad level (and I am saying this as someone who has served on a lot of university-level hiring committees), especially for those pursuing academic careers. There it is one’s research and letters that matter more, with research that has produced interesing publications that might lead to citations and funding support easily trumping having a lot of non-A’s in one’s courses.

  • PeterW

    Isn’t it pretty easy to say “don’t worry about GPA” or “I wish I worried less about GPA,” when you’re already reaping the fruits of having a good GPA?

  • Lester Hunt

    “I tell grad students few will care what classes they took or grades they got; it is their degree and major papers that will matter.”

    I have been on the graduate admissions committee in my department for years and I can tell you that this is certainly not true of our practices. My department gets hundreds of applicants every year and admits ten or fewer. Grades determine, among other things, whether we will bother to read your major paper. There are not enough days on the calendar to read all of them.

    • Robin Hanson

      I’m not talking about prospective grad students, but about actual grad students.

      • Lester Hunt

        Well, same point. Depending on what the job description is, my dept. can get up to 350 applicants for one job. An admissions committee never has more than three members and, unlike members of congress, we have no staff to read stuff on our behalf. We use numbers — both test scores and GPAs (as well as school names and letters of rec.) as filters to decide which writing samples to actually read. It’s a crude, unfair system, but it’s the best we can do.

  • Jeff Borack

    Are there any statistics on student satisfaction with independent study? It shouldn’t be surprising that given the choice between a very likely A- or the uncertainty of independent study, that most students would take the grade. This seems like normal risk aversion.

  • Bill

    Too much attention on school. Not enough on independent learning, or learning how to learn.
    Here’s the best advice I would give:
    1. See if you can work for a professor in a subject matter you like as an undergraduate. I learned more how to economics than I ever did in class by working with a professor, both for academic and consulting work.
    2. Today, you can learn at your own time and your own pace during or preceding a class. Just go online and attend free courses at Stanford, Berkeley, MIT, Yale, etc. There are some amazing classes online, so, if you are nervous about something, or want to brush up, find the free stuff–listen, watch, and learn.
    3. Pick out some classes you like at other universities and read the sylabus, pick out what you like, and learn by yourself. Sometimes the sylabus comes with Professor notes.
    4. Learn how to learn. No place to teach you that.

  • Bill

    Finally, I teach as an adjunct both in law and graduate business school. My observation is that students need to learn how they can learn when they get out of school. Students expect to be spoon fed, and are shocked when they are given projects without instruction and told that they need to figure it out themselves.

    They do quite well, after being thrown into the water; always there with a lifeline, though.

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  • Alex Perrone

    Acquiring good independent research skills, creative thinking, and so on may payoff later but also may not if they are traded in for time spent on admissions-conforming activities that secure one a spot in a top program, post-doc, job, etc. The actual solution to maximize what you desire (knowledge, success, fame, prestige, …) will likely have a mixed solution at various stages. You may need to get good grades now to get into a top program later to chat with a top professor so that you can then dive into independent research.

    Two points: 1) I’m not sure what the advice Robin recommends is trying to maximize, 2) even if Robin’s advice maximizes so-and-so, *why* should students or whoever else care? Why is that thing worthy of being maximized? Qualities that *really* make a change to the world of course don’t always, for example, conform to the admissions standards of the day.

  • Doug S.

    My father is a professor of electrical engineering. He recently said that, as an undergraduate student, you’re far better off taking normal classes than getting course credit for “original research” instead, for several reasons. First of all, in many subjects, you need to go well beyond what is taught in undergraduate courses before you run into a question that can’t be answered by looking it up in a textbook. Second, if you do get to participate in an actual research project, you might very well end up being a professor’s gofer and glorified lab assistant, feeding animals or washing test tubes while someone else does the “real” work of choosing what to investigate, designing experiments, and so on. Third, real research projects can easily last more than one semester and take up more time than an undergraduate student is expected to devote to a single class. There’s a reason many students take years to complete their PhD dissertation; undergraduate students generally won’t have enough time to undertake a research project and see it through to completion. Finally, you’ll learn less from doing “original research” than from taking courses, even if you don’t run into the problems already listed. Research tends to be narrowly focused and doesn’t cover the breadth of subject matter that a course would, and furthermore, it takes more time to do research and learn from it than it is to learn from someone else’s already completed research.

    None of this, however, means that reading textbooks or taking on projects in your own time is a bad idea, just that what passes for “original research” it no substitute for an undergraduate course.

  • Joseph Knecht

    Maybe the emphasis on the unimportance of GPA and doing things “by the book” is just a way of signaling what a creative and brilliant iconoclast the speaker is.

  • jorge

    Most important of all is that top schools are clearly choosing to emphasize diligence over brilliance. The SAT used to be harder and fewer could do very well (percentage of 800M/V was much lower than post 1994). Grades are also easier to get than before. So both are weaker signals. As a result students need to max out on these as a minimal signal of ability and THEN do well on indep projects. But the minimal signals are necessary. Same for entrance to grad school.

    Now, Robin is correct, that conditional upon being admitted to a grad program (and conditional upon passing prelims) doing a good dissertation beats any grades. But that is very late in the game. If your son does well at UVA but only has a 3.3, that will hurt him if applying to law or MBA school and will be effectively disqualifying for med school. Consider that Med students at Caltech and MIT are more often rejected than from the Ivies because of lower grades. Caltech even has official posts about the problem of applying to med school.

    Only in the fields that reward brilliance and innovation highly (primarily entrepreneurship and academia once past the initial filters) does GPA matter relatively less. [And I'm sure most readers of this blog will be surprised to find that academia rewards GPA less than does professional school. But that explains where Robin is coming from.]

    • retired urologist

      If your son does well at UVA but only has a 3.3, that will hurt him if applying to law or MBA school and will be effectively disqualifying for med school.

      Popular misconception. The Association of American Medical Colleges gives all such statistics here. 88.2% of applicants with MCAT scores of 39-45 were accepted, regardless of GPA. In the GPA level of 3.3, approximately half were accepted if the MCAT score was 30 or higher (out of 45 possible). The most likely MCAT score of the applicants was 30-32, and 65.4% of these were accepted, including 20% of those in the 2.4 GPA range.

  • jorge

    retired urologist. That’s the wrong statistic. What matters is conditional prob of acceptance given equivalent MCATs from programs with very different grade scales. Say an easier major at Stanford vs. EE at Berkeley or MIT. A good study would look at students records in high school to try to normalize ex ante student ability. The word from both students and faculty at Caltech and MIT suggests that entering med school is objectively harder from both places and their acceptance stats confirm that. I personally know someone who attended Caltech, got spectacular MCATs, mediocre grades and was rejected by dozens of med schools getting into only one out of 30 or so. Kid then aced med school and has had a good career, but those odds seem mighty slim.

    Robin knows I’m right. He just doesn’t value conventional career success very much.

    • retired urologist

      I say again: 88.2% of applicants with MCAT scores of 39-45 were accepted, regardless of GPA, including your anecdotal Caltech acquaintance. These are hardly slim odds.

      • Hopefully Anonymous

        RU what’s you’re point? If one has crappy grades, they have to score much, much higher on the MCAT for a shot at medical school admission? Hardly an argument against grade-grubbing in the years before one takes the MCAT.

        Also, you’re statistic seems misleading to me. I suspect the people who didn’t manage a high GPA who scored a 39 or higher on the MCAT is vanishingly small (but to be fair, I don’t know how things may have changed, I’m a few years removed from college). But a good start might be “What percentage of people who scored a 39 or higher had a GPA of 3.3 or lower?” That should be good for a laugh.

      • retired urologist

        RU what’s you’re point?

        I was responding to jorge’s contention that a 3.3 from UVA disqualifies one for med school. In reality, 71% of such applicants were accepted if their MCAT’s were high.

        But a good start might be “What percentage of people who scored a 39 or higher had a GPA of 3.3 or lower?” That should be good for a laugh.

        1682 med-school applicants 2005-2007 scored 39 or higher on the MCAT. 152 had GPA’s of 3.3 or less, or 9%. Strangely enough, there were 84 applicants with GPA’s of 3.8-4.0 who scored 14 or less on the MCAT’s; only 3 were accepted (3.6%).

        Overall, 74.1% of the highest GPA level were accepted, but 88.2% of the highest MCAT’s were accepted, including one with a 2.3 GPA. It’s more important to have high MCAT’s.

        If your MCAT’s are high enough, your are likely

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  • Shae

    Unfortunately college doesn’t much make it possible to ignore GPA and focus on interesting projects.

    If the question was whether to let an A slide into a B, then sure, focus on projects and get the B.

    But too often the question is whether to stop absolutely swimming in homework and let an A slide into a C or D.

    Many classes have dozens of pages of for-credit homework every class period. In calculus, I would have loved to have skipped the first dozen easy problems, and really sunk my teeth into the few hard ones at the end. That would have absolutely sunk my grade, so I did the first dozen easy ones, got credit for them, and sometimes muddled through one or two of the hard ones. After that, I did the same thing for three other classes, ate a bag of doritoes, and fell into bed at 2:00 am, unable to even consider a project, much less do one.

    In other words, I agree, and it’s the school’s fault. At least it was at my school.

  • Arthur B.

    Whenever people are graded on a curve, the curve matters a lot. When I was in France, I was graded on a gaussian curve, when I was in the US, I noticed the grad distribution was roughly exponential (mostly A’s, then B’s etc). It might have just been my program of course.

    In the first case, the curve inverse is convex for good students, encouraging specialization, wherease in the second case it is concave, favoring consistency, hence dandellions.

    • Robin Hanson

      Yes, a good point.

  • Renee

    Actually, you’re giving your the son the wrong advice. His GPA is worth a lot more than SATs.