06/22/2011 09:14 EDT | Updated 08/22/2011 05:12 EDT

Revenge of the C Plus Student

I like seeing A's on my daughter's report card as much as any parent does. But may I ask a politically incorrect question? What does an A, or a C+ for that matter, mean about success in life, or even in university?

The answer: Less than you think.

We've all heard about the kids who stumbled through high school with mediocre marks and then made it big. Just in Canada, the long list includes mega-rich entrepreneurs, prominent lawyers, gurus who write books and give speeches to large crowds, the impresario of a prominent Toronto theatre and even the winner of a Nobel Prize.

It's the revenge of the C+ student, and it makes you think of that great old line --- "School is a place where former A students teach mostly B students to work for C students."

High school grades were never designed to assess the qualities that make you a success in the working world -- like single-minded drive, creativity, and the ability to read people accurately. But surprisingly, high school marks don't even predict how you'll do in university -- even in first year university, only one year after getting the A that earned so many kudos from school and parents.

Psychologist James Parker has proven this in his studies of students at Trent University. Over the last decade, Parker has been testing first-year students at Trent for social and emotional intelligence, qualities such as understanding of themselves and of others, plus the ability to adapt and manage stress. Then he tracked their progress to see how they did academically at the end of the year.

What Parker found was remarkable. It turned out that you couldn't tell from high school marks whether a student would get an A average in first year, or a C. You couldn't even use high school marks to tell whether the student would drop out along with one-quarter of first year students.

So what was the difference between A students and the ones who struggled or even dropped out? It was emotional intelligence, especially the ability to adapt and manage stress. Parker says he has a good idea from the emotional intelligence scores at the beginning of first year how the student will do in university. More than eight out of 10 honour roll students scored high on the emotional intelligence test, while more than nine out of 10 poor students scored low on the EI test.

The outcome has nothing to do with intelligence, says Parker. "It's the transition to adulthood." Kids get their heart broken for the first time. They miss the girlfriend back home. They go on a bender night after night without worrying about the negativity from parents. They might have great marks, but they still haven't learned how to regulate their emotions, so they crash academically.

So what should a kid do to bone up on emotional intelligence before starting university?

Skip the summer school, Parker says. Hitting the books will not help you be more resilient or learn how to manage people. Instead, get a job. Flip burgers, scoop ice cream, or volunteer with kids.

Dealing with a bad boss, a nasty customer or a demanding child might do more than any summer school course to prepare you for first year.

Who would have thought?