As high school seniors slog through the arduous and often cutthroat process of applying for college, it’s as good a time as ever to contemplate what a thick acceptance package or a thin rejection letter really means. As someone who went through that process not so long ago and is the midst of my undergraduate education, let me assure you that a yay or nay for college says surprisingly little about how smart you are – but you may not understand why until you begin your freshman classes.
During my first year of college, I observed (and heard about) more than a few classmates crying over their math classes. Sometimes it was during lecture, sometimes it was bent over their textbook in the library. To many, a difficult math problem triggering an emotional breakdown is confusing, even ridiculous. But when I and my classmates saw this, I think we understood. What was happening here was not so much about the math problem as about a new environment where being the smartest in your high school was the new norm. It was about coming to the realization that we may be less smart than we thought we were. Which might not seem like a big deal, but when so much of your life seems to have been predicated on your supposed intelligence–for example, your admittance into this very college–finding that intelligence to be lacking can raise profound questions and anxieties.
Many students have grown up in a society is fascinated by the idea of absolute measures of intellect, that a high enough SAT or IQ score, or a diploma from a good college represents something inherent and integral to a person, a level of intelligence that will remain constant throughout their life. We think of intelligence as something you have or don't (god forbid!).
Perhaps this helps explain why feeling lost in math class, why any indication of unintelligence, can seem so devastating to a college student. If we think of intelligence in a static, flat way—as something you have or you don’t—butting up against a lesson or concept you can’t quite grasp feels like a final cap on our intelligence. It feels like we are doomed to be part of a population that simply doesn’t get it.
Likewise, college acceptance and rejection letters are perhaps the most final evaluations of intelligence for a high school senior. Coming at the end of high school, they seem to dictate that student’s intellectual ability and what can be expected of them. There is somewhat of a social myth that getting into college means “making it," when, for many, it is simply the next step in growing up, which involves struggling with ever heavier questions and problems. Some of these questions involve reassessing how we think about intelligence, and ourselves.
We think of intelligence as something absolute—as solving a math problem, as achieving a test score, as being admitted into a school, because we only observe intellect in its end product. We’re more likely to share our ideas once they’re fully formed: We remember the great artists, such as Boticelli and da Vinci, by their finished masterpieces, not sketches; we remember scientists, such as Newton and Einstein, by their final theories and equations, not their scribbled notes and scratchwork. So, for those of us still scribbling—still in school, still struggling with concepts we don’t fully understand—it’s easy to think that our struggling is a sign of our unintelligence.
But taking from Meriam-Webster, the first definition of intelligence begins with “the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations.” Our conception of intelligence is remarkably static for something which is essentially synonymous with learning: an intrinsically dynamic process. When we learn, we move from not understanding to understanding. In contrast, displays of intelligence often seem born from an instantaneous understanding. But what we don't see are that these displays are preceded by long sequences of trial and error, many of which ended in failure. Although there are accounts of writers producing entire works in the fervor of an epiphany, in my experience much of writing requires multiples of a piece’s final word count in tried sentences, deleted paragraphs, and unsatisfactory drafts.
Intelligence is a process, not a possession. In this sense, no student is a finished product. There is a general increase in our intellectual ability across our lifetimes, even if a standardized marker such as an IQ score seems to remain stable (and even that score can be significantly changed by influences such as education). On a macro scale, the revelation of changing IQ has wide-ranging implications—including reducing how much we blame student’s inherent abilities for disparities in academic performance and raising our expectations for our education systems.
But for students who are just starting college or are facing the even more daunting task of trying to get into college, these studies may point to a needed shift in the way we view higher education. Getting into college or being at college are not the marks of people who are smart. They are part of a person striving to become smarter.