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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Grades matter, they did for the LSAT and will for our kids

Several years ago, soon after graduation from college, my friend took the LSAT and scored in the 53rd percentile.  Very average and not the score you want if you plan to go to a top school.  He took it again 1 year and 6 months later and scored in the 96th percentile which then opened the doors to some of the best law schools in the country.  So, what happened in those 18 months?  He learned how to take the test.  He studied which questions would come up more often, he learned how to judge which ones to leave unanswered and which ones to spend more time on.  In particular for the LSAT, he learned how the questions were asked and the patterns behind them.

Now, a couple questions come to mind about his dramatic improvement on the test.  Did he become a better potential lawyer in between tests?  No, he  always had that potential, it just did not show in the score.  Did he learn anything from studying for the LSAT that will make him a better lawyer?  I doubt it.  He would have been a great lawyer anyway.  Chances are he will never have to use the skills he learned in order to ace the LSAT ever again.  Perhaps the most important thing he took away was that you can not only study for test content but can study for the form of the test as well.  Maybe this also helped him when he passed the Bar Exam a few years later.

In elementary school our kid's grades will be looked at when applying to the best high schools.  High school grades of course will affect which college they can get into and then finally, their college grades will provide another yardstick for companies to eliminate them as candidates.  I have heard many comments and read many articles suggesting that admission to good schools and companies is not about the grades and to some extent that is true.  But, what the articles ignore is that without good grades your kids are not likely to make the first cut and no matter how many leadership positions they held in school or how many volunteer organizations they worked at in the summer, they won't get the interview.

Grades matter, not necessarily because they show anything about your child's true worth but because schools and companies do not have anything else to use that is standardized and easy to compare.  As in the LSAT example above, law schools draw a line at a certain score and if your child is below the line they are out, simple.

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the current system and culture surrounding grading, it is important for us as parents to help our kids get the best grades possible.  We can complain and worry and accuse the system of being unfair but while we are doing that, the other kid with a 4.0 GPA will get the interview and the job and my son is still working on his resume.  My wife and I try to take an active role in homework and test prep with our son (certainly as much as time allows).  Following the recent advice on how to praise we are also trying to focus on how hard he studied in order to score that 100% on a recent spelling test rather than just the grade.  However we do also point out that the grades are important.

Kids in elementary school, often in high school and sometimes even in college, don't get it.  They don't have the experience of being rejected yet because of a mediocre GPA and they certainly will not connect it with how their future will develop.  We need to stay on top of them.  After our children start working, their grades will cease to be relevant.  I have yet to have a client ask me the GPA of a candidate for a mid-career job change.  There are also several examples of success where graduates with low GPAs have gone on to achieve great things.  However, isn't it better if our kids have a choice?

Some words of caution.  A 4.0 is not necessary for any but the very top schools and most competitive companies.  A 3.5 and in some cases even a 3.0 is enough.  Also, grades are meaningless if a child's health and mental well being is compromised.  While I  believe that kids need a bit of urging from us (parents and teachers) to reach their potential, we also need to keep our eyes open for signs of excess stress.  Here are a few to watch out for:
1) Change in sleep patterns
2) Change in eating habits
3) Easily annoyed
4) Social withdrawal

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