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Teens: Cool to be Smart, or Smart to be Cool?

This article is about peer pressure.

Not your typical peer pressure, though.

We know there are kids in your school who urge you to break rules large and small: skip class, get high, and game the system by sharing test answers ahead of time or crowd-sourcing homework assignments, projects, and papers. They get in your ear and offer an attractive sounding alternative to going to class, working hard, and conforming to norms. On the weekends, they’re the ones who know where all the parties are. They have the beer, the drugs, and somehow, what they don’t have is a curfew.

From the outside looking in – from the perspective of a teenager who follows the rules, for the most part, and does what’s expected, for the most part – the offers sound good. It would be fun to just allow yourself to give in to FOMO, let down your hair, yell YOLO! and take a walk on the wild side.

Guess what?

We’re not going to give you advice about that kind of peer pressure. Because adults warn you about about that stuff so much it’s like beating a dead horse.

A dead zombie horse that keeps coming back and keeps needing to get beat down. But like we said: we think that of any generation yet to walk the earth, your generation can handle the brutal and relentless onslaught of undead zombie horses.

You got that covered.

There’s something else, though, that maybe you don’t have covered. Maybe you don’t even realize this kind of peer pressure exists. And if you don’t realize it exists, you may not even know it’s affecting your decisions. And the decisions it’s affecting can alter the course of your life.

No joke.

Peer Pressure and the SAT

Before we go any further, we’ll offer a caveat: no one here thinks the SAT is the be-all and end-all measure of your self-worth, your intelligence, your relative goodness or badness as a person, or an absolute indicator of whether you’ll have a happy, fulfilling, and successful life. We bring it up because a study published in 2016, based on data collected from high school students in Los Angeles, identified three phenomenon that make total sense and zero sense at exactly the same time:

  1. Kids from the high-achieving high schools were less likely to sign up for an SAT-prep course for one reason.
  2. Kids from the low-achieving high schools were less likely to sign up for an SAT-prep course for a different reason.
  3. Kids from both types of schools were less likely to sign up for an SAT-prep course if their decision to sign up was going to be revealed to their peers.

Can you guess the reasons for one and two above?

Peer pressure. But a strange kind of peer pressure: one that keeps them from exploring their academic potential and sabotages their long-term chances at job security, income, and overall health and well-being.

We need to back up and reassert that caveat: your SAT scores won’t determine your chances at becoming a successful adult, but you know what will?


We know, you know, and everyone knows that a solid educational foundation lays the groundwork for the future. No matter what you choose to do. Even rodeo cowboys need to balance their (virtual) checkbooks. Motorcycle mechanics need to read the fine print when they’re applying for a loan to open their own shop. Everyone needs basic skils and knowledge.

This is about education, and the disturbing facts discovered by the study.

Guess the reasons yet?

The Pressure is Too Much

In item number one – responders from the high achieving schools – students said they were less likely to sign up for an SAT prep course because they were afraid it would make them look dumb in front of their peers. In this peer group, everyone was on a college track. But students thought admitting they needed help was an acknowledgment of inferiority. Which would make them less popular.

Which makes social sense, but does it make actual sense?

In item number two – responders from low-achieving schools – students said they were less likely to sign up for an SAT prep course because they were afraid it would make them less popular. In this peer group, fewer individuals were on a college track. But students thought seeking help would somehow make them appear like they thought they were superior to their friends. Which would make them less popular.

Again: makes social sense. But actual sense?

Not so much.

Students from both groups chose not to sign up for the course – based on social consequences – even though they acknowledged that taking the prep course would increase their scores by at least one hundred points.

One more time: the point here is not about SAT scores or getting into Stanford. It’s about the criteria you use to make decisions that affect the rest of your life. In this instance, signing up for the SAT prep course is really a metaphor for any action you might or might not take that relates to education. And by education we mean getting a solid foundation in the basic knowledge and skills it takes to do anything at all as an adult.

Are You Too Smart, or Are You Too Cool?

Let’s state the obvious: those kids who might judge you for taking the course are not you. They’re not living your life and they’re not making your decisions. And they certainly won’t be paying your bills when you do become an adult. Those kids in your life who might judge you for studying hard, or judge you because you need to study hard – their current opinions about your academic choices will not matter in the least when you’re an adult.

The best way to handle the popularity game – and how it affects your academic decisions – is to make your own choices based on what you think is best for you, then stand up for yourself and defend them with no shame and no apologies.

You get the respect of your peers by being your own person and sticking to your own set of personal values and beliefs. If that leads to popularity, so be it. If that leads to you having a small crew of divergent thinkers, then also: so be it.

This is all about you, not them. This is all about your future, not theirs. Go ahead and be the smartest cool person in your school. Or the coolest smart person in your school.

Be neither, or both.

Whatever you do –  just be yourself.

It’s your life, after all.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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