Am I actually smart or just good at school?


Some people are good at school and some aren’t. Even though I’ve mastered the school system, I can’t say I’m smarter than those who have lower grades than me. ( photo courtesy of Amanda Ray)

Part of the problem with “smart” is that it’s a pretty ambiguous term. According to Marium Webster, smart means “mentally alert” or “knowledgeable,” but this doesn’t take into effect the connotations of the word. Generally it’s someone who’s good at school: a high achiever who earns good grades. Most would consider someone with good grades smart. But what if they’re completely oblivious to the world around them and lack common sense? Are they still smart?

As long as I can remember I’ve been considered one of the “smart ones.” I was one of the kids labeled as “gifted” back in fourth grade and have always been good at school. Growing up, I realized some of my friends were struggling in school with the same things that I found easy. This always confused me because some of these friends were people I considered just as smart, if not smarter than I. So why were they doing so much worse in school?

The US public school system doesn’t really change from Kindergarten to High School. Obviously the content you learn change, but in general school continues to follow the same general outline. Teachers introduce a concept and guide students through practice, then students practice individually and take an assessment to “prove” their learning. In Kindergarten, learning spelling words we would go over them as a class, then do spelling activities with the teacher, and then take quizzes to make sure we learned them. The same process was applicable when I took Calculus last year: Mrs. Mayfield went over how to solve integrals, we did examples as a class, then individually, and finally had a test to assess our learning.

I’ve thrived under this system. I’ve developed the cleverness necessary to succeed in school. However, this isn’t the case for many students. They work tirelessly at school, studying for hours and asking their teachers for individual help, just to earn C’s or worse on their tests. There’s no doubt they’re working harder than I, but for some reason their grades don’t reflect it.

Isn’t that the point of tests after all, to prove your learning? How are these students working so hard to earn average grades? Is this really a “fair” system?

This common pattern of “smart” students struggling with school causes me to wonder: Am I actually smart or just good at school? I know I must have some general intelligence — there’s no way I’m completely dumb (I think). But as I reflect on my amount of useful knowledge (street smarts), I feel like I’m lacking compared to others. There’s plenty of people I know who I’d consider “smarter” than I, even though their grades don’t back this claim.

Succeeding in life takes a different kind of wit than succeeding in school. A skill not taught in school–emotional intelligence, refers to the ability to connect with others and understand social cues. This different type of “smart” is extremely important for the real world, and can be the deciding factor in earning a job. Also important is a strong work ethic, which is ultimately killed by school. When students don’t have to work hard in school and do just fine (receiving A’s or B’s with minimal effort), it destroys their drive, and they forget the importance of giving a strong effort. Likewise, students who work hard with minimal results may simply give up, even if the same work ethic would help them thrive in the real world.

As to if I’m actually smart or not, I don’t really know. I’m good at school, which is satisfactory for now, but I can’t help but think about how this is going to affect me as I integrate myself into the “real world.” I’m sure I’ll end up being okay, but I really feel for those whose options later in life may be limited because of their inability to thrive in school.


  1. Hi,
    I really related to this article. I was also really good at school and got good grades. When it came time to go to college I got in to schools but I noticed I did not get into the best schools and deep down inside I knew it wasn’t because I didn’t deserve to go to these schools but I knew it was because I would not be able to keep up with the rigorous work load and pressure. I have never had to work hard at anything and I would like that to change, but honestly I am comfortable. Thank you for sharing and I hope I can become a hard worker. I am sure it is somewhere in me or waiting to be unlocked in me.


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