Do Grades Determine Success?

Parents and kids share several concerns when it comes to the future (and particularly, future potential success). Every semester the ritual is the same when grades are reported. Some don’t ever have to worry, the report cards are full of A’s, and others hide them under the bed. The situation begs the following questions:

How important are grades for determining success? Are grades important in life?


Grades are often touted as the single most important factor when determining college admissions, job applications, and future success. The following is one of the single most asserted facts of life: 

Good grades grant entrance to an elite academic college. Academic success at a top university guarantees a well paying, highly respected job. Well paying jobs grant the necessary outcomes of success, including a big house, exotic vacations, societal status, large bank accounts, and many more luxuries of life.

Examining this assumption will elucidate the issue of “grades determining success”.

We become slaves to what we measure

As soon as we decide to measure something, we become slaves to it. Grades are no different. Grades are a practical way to measure whether or not a student has learned school curriculum material. 

Without effective ways to measure other signals of cognitive and non-cognitive abilities, parents and children alike obsess over report cards. This is the executive summary of a student’s academic performance at school. Did the grade go up? Did it go down? Was it high or low? 

Yes these snapshots in time are important. These quarterly updates give parents and children a great sense of how students are doing.

What grades are important for:

  • Grades are important for college. Like it or not, your high school grades are important signals to college admissions counselors in determining future academic achievement.
  • Grades in college are important for graduate school and many highly selective corporations. With limited spots available for thousands of applicants, grade criteria is an easy selection process determining who gets a chance.


Information asymetry contributes to the stress on grades as signals in decision making processes. Good grades signal an ability to learn, and that is one of many qualities colleges and employers are looking for. However, grades are not the only sign, and in fact once grades are deemed good enough, many many factors will trump them in determining success. 

Therefore, we must examine what we believe to be success, and, once you have signaled you have enough ability to learn, what really determines success.

Character Determines Success

Character traits such as grit, curiosity, teamwork, oral communication and creativity are non-cognitive abilities that are not tested and reflected in report cards. These traits can help you get good grades. But they are not only useful in solving convergent problems, but also addressing the entirety of divergent problems and solutions in the real world. 

In the classroom, success is determined by a student’s ability to take converge to the right answer. In the real world, information is not clear. It comes from all different locations. The answers to real world problems are more divergent. There are thousands of solutions.

We must have a certain level of cognitive intelligence and ability to learn. Clearly, good grades signal this ability. Success requires so much more. Success requires the ability to communicate complex ideas to a diverse team of people, relentlessly pursue solutions, and explore possibilities beyond current knowledge.

When grades can reflect all these non-cognitive abilities, then they might hold more weight towards determining success.

What is Success?

The narrow path of success is a concept we’ve discussed in our blog before. It is one story of success. But in fact, there are unlimited possibilities when it comes to success. Most of the media paints a very consumer-centric view of success, and so that is often all that our children hear.

I cannot define success for you. The very script we are examining, “grades are important in life and grades determine success,” leaves out one important distinction. What do you want and how do you define success? Success is a personal endeavor, and if we don’t take time to step back and ask ourselves what we hope to accomplish in this life, we will never be content. Too often, we leave decisions up to others. But I charge you to ask yourself: what you want out of life? What would success look like for you? Realize that it is conscious decision, and that it is your individual vision that will lead to success.





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