Published Online: June 10, 1998
Published in Print: June 10, 1998, as Take Note

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The secret of their success

It might be nice for the rest of us if we could attribute the successes of valedictorians to their exceptional gifts--bigger brain cells, superior IQs, and so on.

Karen Arnold

But elbow grease is probably the real cause, says Karen Arnold, the director of the Illinois Valedictorian Project, an ongoing study of 81 valedictorians, salutatorians, and top honors students who graduated from Illinois high schools 16 years ago.

"In this culture, we tend to prize ability over effort ... but effort makes a huge difference," Ms. Arnold says.

Students tossing their mortarboards at the top of their classes this month are likely to be generalists who excel at a variety of tasks and activities, rather than just one subject, she says.

"These are incredibly well-rounded people," Ms. Arnold says. "They are not grinds or misfits. They are socially active. ... They wrote for the high school paper and played for the band."

Of the students tracked, 95 percent obtained undergraduate degrees and earned a mean grade point average of 3.6 in college. Fifty-seven percent received graduate degrees, and 24 percent obtained terminal degrees in medicine, law, or academic disciplines.

While almost all the students came from two-parent families, those who have been most successful so far also had mentors to support their endeavors.

"Access to mentors, interactions with sophisticated insiders, and career socialization experiences are vital elements of undergraduate talent development," Ms. Arnold wrote in Lives of Promise, a 1995 book about the study. "Even the best students need such conditions to develop their talents for adult life."

Ms. Arnold began working on the study while a research assistant for Terry Denny, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Now an assistant professor of higher education at Boston College, she continues to meet regularly with the students to follow their progress.

Ms. Arnold is incorporating the educational patterns of valedictorians' children into the study, which has been funded in recent years by the U.S. Department of Education and Boston College.

--JULIE BLAIR

Vol. 17, Issue 39, Page 3

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