Do Good Grades Predict Success?

Paul Kimelman lives in Alamo, Calif., and is C.T.O. of the Texas-based microcontroller company Luminary Micro. He is the sort of blog reader we are very fortunate to have. He writes to us now and again with such interesting queries that they’re worth putting up on the blog in their entirety.

Here’s his latest:

I was speaking with a colleague the other day and he was remarking on an accomplishment I have had in my field (of microprocessor design). He assumed I had been a straight-A student all through school.

When I noted that I was far from it, he was shocked. This got me to thinking: we usually just assume that somehow grades in school (at any level) are predictors of future success, or certainly of intelligence; but I highly doubt it. I tried to find some good studies, but found five problems immediately:

1. The very definition of success is elusive.

Is a straight-A student who went all the way through Harvard Business School a success if she sells insurance? If she opens a business, what determines when it is a success? A hardware store in Iowa may not cut it, but creating Home Depot presumably does; what about all the variance in between?

It is even more complex in many other areas. In engineering, being a worker bee is success, but great advancements do not come from those people; so what are we even trying to measure? If we try to put a scale on it, what metric should we use?

Income, even attempts at “earned income,” is tricky for many reasons, but most obviously the inequity of different fields in terms of income potential. A highly successful grade-school teacher (measured by students who become motivated [by that teacher], and [were] thus successful) will always do poorly compared to even a middling professional football player. The highly successful lawyer who does a lot of pro bono work comes off worse than the ambulance chaser.

Hierarchy in the field does not really work, since few fields have clear gradations or career paths, and many such paths are not reflections of success, but only reflections of time.

2. How do you measure validity of grades?

Besides the obvious problem of the A from a poor-quality school being worth less than from a high-quality one, you also have grade inflation, subjective measurements, and, more importantly, subject difficulty.

[Subject difficulty] is more problematic. Someone who gets all A’s in “communications” at a university is probably not working as hard as someone who gets all A’s in physics. Yet this is all subjective. Why would we assume that physics is “harder” than, say, literary critique?

This is especially problematic in high school and middle school, where many “hard” subjects are about memorizing and repeating well-defined steps. Literary critique has no well-defined guide posts (unless you cheat and plagiarize), and so requires a deeper understanding of what is to be done.

3. Most middle schools and high schools put so much emphasis on homework versus actual understanding that they are measuring behavior and compliance far more than what has been learned.

So we end up with two issues: we may well predict success [only] at compliance-oriented fields, and we do not know how many have been trampled so that their possible future success has been lost. Further, this method likely pushes more people towards compliance-oriented behavior, and so reduces their potential for success outside of this narrow measure. We certainly see this in other countries (e.g. Japan).

4. Creativity and creative people tend to mess up metrics at each level.

Creative people tend to do worse on grades at each level of schooling, yet their success measures can be very high in their fields. However, creative people can also be abject failures as a result of their creative natures; so we have no good metric that predicts [how successful] these people [will be]. Even trying to separate out creative people in schools is hard, as much of their behavior is similar to those who are just lazy, have A.D.H.D., or are generally disruptive.

We often do not know the underpinnings of their behaviors until much later, and many may have been crushed under the molding systems of our schools. Further, many of the most successful [people] are specifically creative with high strengths in mathematics and its implementation: in economics, physics, chemistry, engineering (including civil; think of many of the most dramatic bridges and buildings), and so on.

5. Any research I could find was done at some university which tended to bias results using university metrics of success.

This is likely unavoidable for the above reasons, but results from different studies were so contradictory that you have to conclude filtering and selection bias had a very large role to play as well.

What interests me is whether the present system actually produces more success or heavily limits it.

Would a different system with less emphasis on conformity produce more of our best and brightest? Or does the annealing effect of being crushed by the system help to produce those best and brightest?

If you look at those who have commonly advanced our thinking, our abilities, our technologies, and our economy (through business sense), many did poorly in schools, yet they persisted. The persistence may have been the critical element, and it would have perhaps been lost had they been encouraged more.

So does this mean we need more of those mediocre middle school and high school teachers acting as the forge to both create the worker bees we need, as well as the best [and most successful] by trying to destroy them?



First, let's look at a macroeconomic level (large population)to get rid of small effects(and let's leave out anecdotal evidence).
Second, segment the population into "strategic groups". For instance, look at college graduates who go on to work in the free market (business).
A finding of a correlation between intelligence (IQ) and income would be credible if found. Grades? Who knows. But I would assume correlations (statistically valid) between high school grades and intelligence (IQ test) has been done, so why bother arguing about it.
Last, we know that an IQ test measures something. We can debate what that something is, but is a correlation exists then so be it.


Schools tend to cater to a narrow set of learning styles. The narrower the styles, the more intelligent people fall through the cracks. Mental health issues have a tendency to evade diagnosis durring school-aged years as well.

science minded

Dear Chris;

sorry to have to make a correction- but I was around 12 at the time and in a public middle school- it was as a result of a paper I wrote for the only science class I took where we studied physics- so perhaps elementary and middle school is where a change in attitude towards women as scientists needs to begin..


I'm a high school student and I know I'm smart. I enjoy reading about quantum physics, I love reading Dickens, I play chess, and many other things. The problem is is that I see the system as flawed, I feel that I learn more at home than I do at school. I know that if I really wanted too I could get my math grade up but I see no point in it I guess. I might just be irresponseable or what not. I know I think differently than most people and the way everyone think is unique. Anyway the point is is that my grades are not great but I feel that I am smarter than what they represent and I worry that because the system shows me as my grades that I won't get into a great college. By the way I run and go to every practice so that must be a sign of responsiblity. Any comments greatly appreciated. Sorry this is choppy just a little nervous!


"A highly successful grade-school teacher (measured by students who become motivated [by that teacher], and [were] thus successful) will always do poorly compared to even a middling professional football player."

The nice thing about football and professional sports in general is that you CAN actually measure success. A "middling" professional football player is also one of the top 1000 football players in the world (compared to how many millions of others who played football and didn't make it to the NFL).

science minded

You raise a great question. so I will repeat it for myself: do good grades predict success? I have not had time to read all these comments-- hope to real soon-- too busy trying to succeed for myself at understanding one. So I can only speak for myself here and now and hope there is a reader out there who understands. yes-- if by success is meant absolute certainty. My grades were always so extreme- great at understanding the math, but a lousy test taker- so one day an A and another an F. Nothing to do with the amount of studying- alot with my mental/emotional state then and there which has not been so good lately- been pulling these all nighters for the first time in my 58 years- But I finally understand the situation- needed a bit of time and I guess it's not too late. I do hope y'all do get the message and my one friend in particular.


It seems there are certain reasonable barriers to entry. In general, a high school diploma is needed for most all jobs. Professional careers require undergraduate degrees or even graduate studies.

Even entering certain careers mandates some level of success, coming in the form of education completion. Finish school(a success) and you will be rewarded with a career(hopefully) that says you need a piece of paper to be considered.

Where it becomes difficult is obviously comparing apples with apples. One college graduate with another or one law degree with another. A person skirting by with a 2.3 GPA may very well end of having more success, however it is measured, than a top of the class graduate. Again though, the barrier to entry factor needs to be considered in this case as well. Being hired by a more exposed, high profile, better paying firm will require a certain level of success, thus giving the leg up to a student. This is not to discount the perserverence factor that is written about in this post, which may be the outright winner over grades any day...



Ok, reality check. I think grades are a reasonable predictor of success, barring some major change in the life of the person who got the grades. They are indicative of both a desire and ability to succeed within a system. Unless the system in question was not challenging, the person should be able to transfer these attributes to a job. Of course, if something happens to diminish the desire to succeed, such as depression or loss of confidence, or failure to identify the appropriate field of work, then success is not guaranteed. It is irrelevant if I forget trig identities or whatever if I never need that knowledge. The point is not the knowledge but the ability to acquire it. I can always relearn trig identities if I need to, but I can't learn aptitude.

Of course, there are some people who get crappy grades who do really well. Some people with great grades crater. But the outliers should not guide this discussion.



Define success. Money? Power? Good works?
I do not have an answer. Do you?



Success is achieved when :
"What you have" = "What you want".

It definitely should not be a survey filled out by friends and family, it should be whether you meet your own expectations of yourself.


I have read somewhere..."Success is getting what you want, Happiness is liking what you get"...

I guess Success is a relative term and assumes different definition based on the person, the surroundings etc...


'You need not understand what you're doing, as long as you get an A. It's all that matters.' I reckon my teachers told me so. Interestingly said.


Why not turn the question on its head and ask:

Do Poor Grades Prevent You Winning a Nobel Prize?

pradeep kumar

I am also from india and i would like to share my view,As the country is moving forward rapidly, some drastic changes in education department has to be made . Now our education completely focus on the past, thus by studying the past one can adjust to the present..
but this is more suitable for the in a world which thinks about current present. but we are looking for future the system has to be changed so that it should teach the current cutting edge technologies need to be learned by the people.

I always believe , good grades measure hard working nature of the people...if that is ensured
..then if we expose these good grades people..then they will do more useful things.

A good grade always predict success ..if it is guided properly


As humans we seem to have a driving need to recognise a simple cause & effect path in order to decide what its in our best interests to do. As a result we try & come up with plausible explanations in order to know how to behave. This trait can be used by people to manipulate us into meeting their needs by them appearing to meet ours. Perhaps if we were capable of living chaotically we would find some people liked the security of repitition & others never stuck at any activity but overall we would all get by. We probably wouldn't be as economically active and success would depend on your associations & ability to find people who'd support you and trade skills with.
Do grades predict success? For some personality types from some backgrounds probably but its not an absolute predictor. Although with humans the only absolute is we all eventually stop breathing & decay, to try and predict more than that is no more real than stock market speculation is but if you sound convincing enough theres money to be made pretending to know. Success may well be the ability to fool all of the people all of the time (& still be able to like yourself)



I think this is a Malcolm Gladwell situation where the recorded numbers aren't nearly comprehensive enough and you just to "blink" about what's intuitive.

The amateur observation seems to be that seeing as school, in general, requires skills that are useful later on and will provide tools, such as a diploma, that will help you later on, *generally speaking* someone who does well in school is more poised for success. On the other hand, of course, it seems obvious that so many positive traits (say, independent thinking) can have manifestations that will make you do poorly at school etc. etc. that this correlation is no where near absolute and it's quite possible to go in either direction.

One thing I've never understood is that "I want to be a rock star/famous novelist/actress/look at this rich and famous person who dropped out..." mentality. I'm all for idealism and big dreams that might not require high school. But it's not as though Quentin Tarintino would have failed as a director if he had finished high school. You might as well get an education anyway. It's not going to be a liability. Just a rationalization for laziness, it looks like.

Although considering how concrete-bound and herd-driven school can be, it's hard to blame them.

Getting slightly sidetracked it seems a big problem in school is the dichotomy between concrete and conceptual learning. Kids will take a History class and memorize a bunch of dates they don't understand, then move into Civics and debate a subject they know nothing about. We have this argument going on between the memorizes and the bickerers and both approaches are being tacked in with no integration. Kids should be given the concrete knowledge as a *means* of conceptual understanding. Schools should stop trying to give one without the other, or else they're going to leave with nothing but dates they don't remember and ploys for rhetoric.



That's an interesting question. I consider myself successful (not as successful as I'd like to be, but I'm young and have time). My grades were straight As through until highschool, then they sharply fell. School never challenged me, and when I hit my teenage years, I stopped caring and stopped showing up. In the end I realised it was a testament to my own work ethic and was something I had to fix, though.

Unfortunately though, no schools that I know of (in north america, anyway) award the more important things: social awareness, problem solving, critical thinking, and good judgement. All they seem to reward is your ability to regurgitate memorised facts.

It may be a crappy show, but 'are you smarter than a 5th grader' is a good example of the fact that we don't actually learn (a lot) in school because most of it is stuff we memorise as long as we need to to get out of the grade, and it's instantly discarded as insignificant.


Jason Nolan

As a high school drop out, and professor, I think Paul pinned the tail on the donkey when he noted what I call 'intentionality' and 'task dedication' as hallmarks for success. I saw it when I was teaching gifted students from grade 6 and I see it in doctoral students. I see it with Engineering students and with 'new media theorists'. If you choose something, and stick with it, you will maximize whatever it is your native brain power can make happen, and probably push it farther. Formal schooling actively works to stop this. Any institutionalized learning experience will, unless there is some counter balancing force. As a mentor said, "Never let your classes get in the way of your learning."

Now, as I work toward tenure, focusing, focusing, focusing... I feel the pressure to give in and comply. Luckily for me, due to a congenital brain malformation, manifest as Aspergers, this is just impossible. High functioning autism may cause problems in social environment, but it is wonderful to help you fight the powers of conformity in order to be all you can be. :)

As Blake said, "If the fool would only persist in his folly, he would become wise." Most philosophers have variations on that one.


science minded woman

Dear Chris M

I wish that I could agree with you that the value of a college eduction is training the mind to think. I hope that my students get such an insight from me--but---- I finally figured out just today why I did not become a Physicist-- It took me 42 years to discover that I discovered Physics at the age of 15 and was ignored-overlooked- college never trained me to think- my analyst did- my dad taught me math, but not to think- and had I been thinking- I would have discovered myself long ago-

Now I am happy- I thought for myself- And I know something nobody else does--


I Believe being a straigh-A student can bring you success! Although i also belive that it is only the student that takes advantage of choosing to have good grades. Therefore, good grades can never predict success! Being a staright-A student can have great success-I believe that! But i also belive that if you are not that doesn't mean you can be the president of some big company or achieve great things! I also believe that grades just show how responsible and dedicated one is.So in conclusion being a straight-A student can get you in high places, but being someone who is not can get you to high places to! Success predicted by you and you're the only one that can predict our success and make it into a reality!!