Q & A: How Much Does Intelligence Matter at College?December 17th, 2008 · 59 comments
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An Interesting Question…
A student recently sent me an interesting question. It’s a topic I’ve thought a lot about, so I thought I would share my answer with you.
Here’s the original question:
To what extent does intelligence matter in college success? I have a group of friends that try very hard at school, yet fail to score the grades a select group of people I know are able to do. This question captures my concern about grad school admissions: no matter how hard I try, there will always be hundreds of other “geniuses” out there.
I responded: I don’t believe that intrinsic intelligence plays any significant role at the college level.
Let me explain why…
Doogie Howser Nation
Americans are obsessed with genius. We love the idea of Doogie Howser. We think there are math people and arts people, naturally gifted writers and those who were born to play golf.
In the classroom, however, this causes problems. When we see a student breeze through a class while we struggle, we label him “naturally good” at the subject and then write it off as something that we’re not meant to master. This holds back a lot of students from reaching their potential. It also causes a lot of unnecessary anxiety.
Here’s the thing: I don’t buy it. And neither do scientists. No matter how hard researcher look, they can’t find any trace that significant natural abilities actually exist.
How Does a Piano Virtuoso Become Good?
In the early 1980s, Benjamin Bloom, an educational psychologist from the University of Chicago, launched a massive research effort to answer a simple question: how do extremely talented people become good?
His team identified 120 individuals who achieved international recognition. They were split evenly between the following fields: concert pianists, tennis players, swimmers, mathematicians, sculptors and research neurologists.
Over a period of five years, his team conducted extensive interviews with the individuals (and their families) to reconstruct their path to superstardom. The important result from this study was not what Bloom found, but what he failed to find: There was no trace of prodigies.
These stars got good only after many years of deliberate practice. Not only did it take a long time, but for many of these years there was no evidence that they would one day be great. After 6 years of serious training, the future concert pianists, for example, were still competing only at the local level. And they lost as much as they won The swimmers, on average, competed for 8 years at the national level before they started placing first, second, or third. Among the mathematicians and the neurologists, no one become renowned until their late 20s or early 30s.
This begs a natural follow-up question: if practice is key, why did these 120 individuals practice so hard while so many others give up? Fortunately, one of the researchers from Bloom’s team thought this question was worth exploring.
The Source of Persistence
In a 1997 study, Lauren Sosniak, a current Berkeley professor who was a member of Bloom’s original research team, dived back into the interview archives to figure out why the superstars persisted. She soon discovered that almost without exception they had all been exposed to their field, in a playful, unstructured, exploratory manner very early in life.
This random exposure built an interest which gave them just enough confidence to persist through the first stage of formal training. This extra persistence distinguished them enough to get re-discovered and advanced to more rigorous formal training. Their confidence grew. They were rediscovered and placed into ever more elite groups. Their confidence grew some more. And so on…
How a Math Person Becomes a Math Person
Sosniak gives the example of a future math star who recalled that when he was a kid, his dad would play a game where he would ask him what fraction of his omelet was left on the plate. He thought it was fun and soon learned his fractions.
Let’s imagine, for a moment, how this early exposure might have played out throughout the future mathematician’s education.
The omelet game might have generated slightly more confidence when the student was in his early elementary school math classes. His teachers, impressed that he seemed to know the fractions so well, probably would have then tracked him into the gifted and talented programs for math. At that young age, there isn’t much criteria to judge by, so seeming to be engaged in the math classroom is as good as any.
Once there, the student would get advanced training. More importantly, his confidence that he was good in math would increase. This would lead him to spend more time grappling with problems, which provides perfect deliberate practice (he’s stretching just beyond his ability) which in turn would make him even better. This gives him more confidence which leads to more deliberate practice and more ability, and the cycle continues.
By the time he arrives at college he’ll be considered a math whiz. By the time he’s 30, he’s a star in his field.
Because his dad liked to play with his food…
What You Can Do
You will encounter people at college who are much better than you at certain subjects. As we learned, this has nothing to do with a natural ability that you lack. They have simply done more deliberate practice of the relevant skills than you.
Here’s the good news: you can reduce this gap. Instead of despairing about your lack of ability to solve math problems or ace the LSAT, figure out your own plan of deliberate practice.
For example, you can experience huge jumps in math ability by tackling problem sets in a way that stretches your ability and adopting insight-driven review. Remember, this is how I went from a non-math person to a math whiz in one semester.
The same idea holds for other subjects. Early in my college career my papers were lacking. I came from a public high school. Many of my peers were from top private schools that had more demanding classes. These students simply wrote much better than me.
I didn’t, however, despair: “I just don’t have a gift for writing!” Instead, I practiced. I wrote for the newspaper. I wrote for magazines on campus. I obsessed over my papers, pushing myself to be better with each draft. By the time I reached my junior year I would regularly get notes that my papers were some of the best in the class.
I made myself into a “writing person.” Natural ability had nothing to do with it.
To answer the question that motivated this post: stop obsessing over intelligence. People are good at what they’ve practiced. Figure out what you want to be good at, then start making yourself better. You might not catch up to the rare student who has been building his ability over the past decade, but you can get good enough to score well.
Unless of course you’re Doogie. For him, everything just comes easy…