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Why A-Students Under-Perform After University

by Willem (Willie) Maritz - Founder of NoMoreCourses

Will a-students outperform after school?

When I was in my late twenties, not that long ago I’d love to add, I attended a seminar offered by Peter Senge, the author of The Fifth Discipline. He said something that stuck with me since then:

“The A-students end up working for the B-students, and the C-students end up getting buildings named after themselves.” 

I guess the reason why it stuck with me was that I had been an A-student and I was at the time in a corporate job working for a global mining company. I did well for myself at the time, but those words certainly gave me a wakeup call. Ever since, I always wanted to make sure I did not become one of “those” A-students.

I’m not sure who those words originated from, but they are also attributed to the famous Robert Kiyosaki who wrote “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”. Anecdotally, this seems to hold true in the world out there. Many academic under-performers end up being spectacularly successful, and many geniuses end up doing ok for themselves, but never become the high achievers they and their parents and teachers expected. Certainly in my network of classmates from school and university, there are many examples of the over-achieving “C-students”. You know who you are!  


As a consequence of my recent involvement in educational and instructional design projects, my attention is redirected to this phenomenon. We have to ask ourselves: 

Is this true?

And if it is true, why?

Several research projects have analysed the relationship between academic performance at university, and career success. Contrary to the popular prediction by Senge and Kiyosaki, these studies show that higher academic grades tend to be associated with higher career success, including promotions, performance ratings, and income. So at least for corporate careers, the A-students are more likely to be the bosses.

But what about entrepreneurship? Are the B and C students more successful as entrepreneurs?

Fortunately, there have been good research projects investigating this too. A meta-analysis of these studies shows mixed results. Some data suggests that ambitious individuals with lower academic grades are more likely to, and more motivated to start businesses. A-students are often lured away from entrepreneurship by the promise of stable and lucrative salaries. On the other hand, studies also show that those A-students who do venture into entrepreneurship have higher success rates. Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Elon Musk have all been exceptional academic achievers in school.

The next question we have to ask ourselves is where this popular misconception comes from. Why do I “feel” this as true?

The likely explanation is a statistical anomaly. For instance, suppose we have a group of 100 students, among whom there are 10 A-students, 30 B-students, and 40 C-students. In this scenario, it's probable that we'll observe a higher number of individuals from the B and C categories in senior corporate roles, as well as among entrepreneurs. To illustrate, let's assume that A-students have a success rate of 50% in both career and entrepreneurship, while B and C-students have a success rate of only 30%. This would result in 5 successful A-students and 21 successful B and C-students out of 100 individuals.

Despite A-students being 67% more likely to succeed, the perceived number of successful B and C-students around us will still be four times higher.*


A-students do not necessarily under-perform after university. On the contrary, evidence suggests that a superior academic grade is still a good predictor for success and income. Of course, it is not the only predictor, and maybe not even the strongest predictor. In professions where creativity and interpersonal skills are key success criteria, academic achievement becomes a less-weighted predictor for success. 

Additional factors with a proven, statistical correlation with success include socio-economic circumstances, social standing, race, gender, geography and culture.  

I’m glad I chose to rethink the populist idea that A-students end up working for B-students. I’d like to conclude by quoting Adam Grant in his thought-provoking book “Rethink”: 

“I err, therefore I am”.

*based on broad statistical assumptions to illustrate the statistical anomaly

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