Graham King

Solvitas perambulum

Does success at high school predict success in life?

society book

Lives of Promise, by Karen Arnold, is a 14 year study of achievement and life choices. It is based on the finding of the Illinois Valedictorian Project, which follows 81 high-school valedictorians who graduated in 1981. A valedictorian is the person with the highest average grade in their high-school year.

The study answers some interesting questions.

High school success predicts life success very well. Valedictorians continue succeeding at most everything they do, as long as they know the rules of the game. High school success is at best orthogonal and at worst opposed to becoming someone who changes the rules.

Does high school success predict college success?


95% of the project members graduated college, most of them doing extremely well. Of the four who didn’t, none of them left school for academic reasons.

A history of academic success, in sum, is an extrordinary powerful predictor of further educational attainment. What high school teachers measure by top grades apparently mirrors what college professors reward. High school valedictorians and salutatorians are as close as it gets to rock-solid bets for superb undergraduate grades and college graduation.

Does high school success predict life success?


Outstanding academic performance is a strong general indicator of vocational accomplishment fourteen years beyond high school. Nearly nine in ten valedictorians hold professional-level positions, including 40 percent who work in the highest-level occupations.

Although less uniformly outstanding, the occupational attainment of these top students feature high levels of professional work. [They] work in the top tiers of such professions as college teaching, law, medicine, business, and science. Valedictorians follow normal pathways of adult development to establish successful personal lives as well. They form satisfying, enduring friendships and intimate relationships.

In short, nearly all valedictorians succeed in careers.

Does high school success predict eminence in your field?


Here is the profile of eminent achievers:

Historical and contemporary eminent achievers typically “fall in love” with a particular talent domain in childhood or early adolescence, focusing strongly on that single area instead of multiple pursuits.

Powerful early interest evolves into lifelong, intensive, even obsessive involvement in the talent area. Combined with prodigious work and persistence, this motivational profile yields significant creative achievements in fields like science or the arts.

Exceptional adults achievers often recall formal schooling as a disliked distraction or even an impediment to learning and production in their speciality.

To be valedictorian, you need to get good grades at everything. You need to be a supreme generalist. School recognises hard work, not passion.

Unlike creative eminent achievers, academically talented students rarely fell in love with a single talent domain that they placed at the center of their lives. They did well at everything in school, making decisions pragmatically instead of following a specialized personal interest. Eight in ten valedictorians chose professions with scant possibilities for creative eminence.

Applied fields such as accountancy, engineering, medical practice, and law offer progressive ladders of advancement and financial rewards, but rarely provide arenas for transforming disciplines or domains of thought and practice. Most work comfortably within conventional systems of thought and action; only a handful aim to change them.

The best academic performers are safe bets for career achievements, but most appear unlikely to end up as mold-breaking, transformative leaders.

Careerists and Intellectuals

A few of the valedictorians do hold potential for eminence; those the project identifies as intellectuals. The book splits students studied by the project into careerists and intellectuals.

Careerists attend college primarily for vocational reasons. Although at times genuinely interested in their academic work, careerists choose majors and occupational fields for the instrumental purpose of furthering vocational goals. Careerists were independent, self-sufficient, and sure of their goals. They could also be narrow, materialistic, driven, and worried about the future.

Intellectuals are the opposite of careerists, choosing majors and careers according to personal interests with little emphasis on vocational ends. Although often interested in finding fulfulling vocations, intellectuals focus on liberal arts learning during the college years.

Most valedictorians are careerists.

The process of becoming valedictorian did not favour intellectuals. Students who focus on following their own intellectual interests would be extremely unlikely to work hard at school subjects and tasks that they found intrinsically unengaging. Following one’s own muse might result in high grades in some areas but seldom yields a perfect academic record.

Intellectuals are motivated by mastery, not grades. Coming from highly educated and often wealthier families, they do not require a direct connection between their college major and a lucrative career. They tend to study a broader range of subjects than careerists. They choose higher-rated universities, further from home, and participate in a broader range of on-campus activities.

The small group of students who approached college as intellectuals includes most of the valedictorians who can trace their career fields to intensive childhood interests.

Significantly, it is these men and women who remain the most likely project candidates for extraordinary career attainment.

Do they enjoy their careers?

Mostly, but not always. Although they all succeeded (even at jobs they disliked), they did not all find a career they enjoyed.

Valedictorians are talented and motivated, but they are also achievers within standard institutional systems. In college they continue to perform what the believe is their task – working hard and succeeding academically.

During the undergraduate years, however, the achievement arena moves beyond school. Envisioning goals and managing career exploration is an achievement project that occurs mostly outside the classroom and has relatively little to do with mastering academic content. The knowledge needed to find a personally meaningful career channel is not formally taught, nor does it automatically accompany top grades.

The students from more privileged backgrounds had role models and family members who helped them negotiate career choices. Other students got help from faculty members or mentors. Those students who had neither have often not found careers they enjoy. This last group consists primarily of women, minorities and working-class students.

Many students found nothing in college beyond the visible curriculum and instruction in the classroom. They did their best, earned good grades, and went on the their chosen professions. Their talents were not fully developed, their options were incompletely explored, and their eventual achievement was dimished.

Many landed in jobs they dislike, even more in careers that do not engage their passions.


All the valedictorians display a Growth Mindset.

Over and over again, star students told us they rose to the top partly because they were intelligent, partly because they were schoolwise, and mostly because they worked hard, persisted, and drove to achieve.

The top students readily identified themselves as “school smart”. Academic talent, to them, meant the ability to excel at academic learning and school tasks such as note taking, memorization, and testing. Many of them clearly attributed their success primarily to effort rather than ability.

Parents, students, and teachers can learn from the valedictorians that work, perseverance, and focus lead to academic success and life attainment. No matter what an individual’s ability level, achievement requires sustained effort and a belief in the efficacy of hard work.

Apart from a deep understanding that academic success is mostly about hard work and perseverance, the valedictorians were normal.

Nearly all of the group came from stable, two-parent families. Most, although not all, describe their home environment as psychologically healthy and nurturing. Parents modelled and stressed values of doing one’s best and working hard.

The school achievers rarely fit stereotypes of narrow study grinds or social misfits. In high school they led exceptionally well rounded lives. Academically, they worked hard and succeeded in everything. [..] Friends, music lessons, sports, church activities, and employment occupied them after school. Psychologically healthy and interpersonally capable, valedictorians were good kids leading conventional teenage lives.

In short

Choosing her words carefully, Karen Arnold starts the last chapter of the conclusion like this:

Are schools rewarding the right people as the highest achievers? If the goal is hard-working, productive, adaptable adults, then U.S. high schools are recognizing precisely the correct group.