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How School Doesn’t Prepare You For Life (Especially If You’re a Straight-A Student)
Updated 13 Mar, 2021

Recently I found out several students who went to my academically-gifted high school had needed therapy to adjust to the real world after leaving.

And the scary thing? My first thought was “Yeah I get that”.

Maybe I can’t speak exactly for those students’ experiences, but I can remember my shock at discovering the huge gap between what school had taught me about how the world worked, and how it actually did.

Student graduates school unprepared for life.
Stanley Morales/Pexels

In school, we learn that life functions in this simple linear system. Input equals output, study equals results, and to be a ‘success’ in this system, all we need to do is keep our head down and follow the rules.

In the real world, things are never that predictable. 

To achieve success there, you need complete opposite skills – being comfortable with uncertainty and asymmetric outputs, dealing with multiple failures, and persevering even when you have no feedback or instructions to follow. 

You rarely get places in life with straight lines – you get there via squiggly, convoluted loops instead. 

My story leaving school for the real world

I vividly remember my first wake-up call on this.

I was trying to find my first job out of university and had applied to the graduate programs of many big corporate companies. 

To prepare, I approached it the way I always had to achieve success…by studying the heck out of it. 

I did practice assessment centres and painstakingly wrote out answers to potential interview questions, then memorised and rehearsed them.

As a result in the interviews, I sounded like a robot. Nerves also got the best of me and I ermed and ahhed, trying to recall my rote learned script, rather than talking naturally and authentically about what I could offer.

After working so hard and spending hours memorising and reviewing, all I got were rejection emails from all the companies I applied for. 

This was completely devastating for me, I didn’t understand why my map for success wasn’t working and everything felt like it falling in around my ears. I questioned my self-worth and battled feelings of inadequacy.

At the time, what I didn’t understand was that this experience was completely normal.

It’s life.

Sometimes things don’t go according to your plan. The hardest working, or most deserving person doesn’t always get the job.

I just needed to try again or a different way because there’s always multiple ways to get to a destination.

In school though we’re not taught this. We’re taught that there is only one correct answer and you have to follow one strict formula to get there.

This sort of simplistic black and white thinking sets students up to stumble from the moment they leave the schooling system. They’re not equipped to deal with failure nor given the resilience to look for alternate solutions.

I don’t know how many other students had to go through the same unnecessary anguish I did coming face-to-face with real-life, but my guess is many. 

The Research

Interestingly, research agrees that the version of ‘success’ that school sells us doesn’t reflect what it takes to succeed in the real world. 

In fact, it shows the better you are at succeeding at school, the less likely you are to be hugely successful in life.

A study of 81 valedictorians (students who graduated top of their class in high school) by researcher Karen Arnold from Boston College, showed that none went on to significantly impact the world or do anything remarkable with their lives.

Don’t get me wrong, they were comfortable, with nearly 90% ending up in professional careers and 40% in the top tier of their profession, but none reached the heights of success their academic achievements seemed to promise.

Similarly, a study by Harvard Professor Shawn Anchor showed that university grades had no correlation at all with success later in life.

Why doesn’t school prepare students to succeed in life?

Well, because school teaches students to follow instructions and not rock the boat. The students who succeed at this the best, are usually the ones who end up top of their class.

But if you want to run the world, change the world or achieve anything extraordinary, you need to be able to forge your own path, think for yourself, and trust your instincts rather than always look for external sources for validation. 

So, those straight-A students end up internalising the exact opposite skills that it takes them to reach success in the real world.

I can vouch that I learned my most valuable lessons stumbling for several years through the ‘school of life’ rather than actual school. 

I think that’s a massive shame.

Many students would be saved from years of heartache and therapy if school had just given them the truth from the beginning: that failure and correction are part of life (and are desirable even, because they provide us our biggest lessons and opportunities for growth), that the process is always more important than any ‘right’ answer, and that persevering is what eventually gets you to where you want to go.

Those are the lessons that I wish school had taught me, but it never did.

What were your experiences of leaving school? Do you think it prepared you adequately to deal with life? Share your experiences in the comments below!

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