The "In" Crowd: Winners in High School, Losers in Life?

by Linda Lyons, Education and Youth Editor

Plurality says popular kids probably ended up less successful

How popular were you in high school? Whether you were a prom queen, a geek hiding out in the lab, or a super jock, you probably remember more about high school than you're willing to admit. "It's as if the adolescent within never dies, that inside each of us lies a high school kid napping," Ralph Keyes wrote in his 1977 book, Is There Life After High School? Keyes argues that the American high school experience keeps its psychic grip on people decades after the diplomas are handed out.

The term "popular" may have many different connotations, but having friends and fitting in can go a long way toward soothing adolescent angst. According to a recent Gallup Poll Panel survey*, more respondents said they were popular (74%) than said they were not popular (25%), but only 14% said they were "very popular." Most (60%) described themselves as having been "somewhat popular."

High School Recollections

Dee, a Gallup survey respondent, says she was "very popular" in high school -- so much so that she was runner-up for the coveted title of "Most Popular" in her senior class. "At the time, I was devastated when I didn't win," recalls the 60-year-old Pennsylvania woman. "But looking back, I was probably immature and had low teenage self-esteem."

"I think there are two types of kids who don't fit in," notes John, a 39-year-old Arizona business professional who says he was "not very popular" in high school. "There are the kids who try really hard to be liked but it doesn't get them anywhere -- and that's really sad. And the kids who just withdraw and don't even try to fit in, who say 'who needs them?' I was the second type. But if I had the chance to do high school over -- knowing what I know now -- I would be more outgoing and make more of an effort to make friends."

Do Popularity and Success Go Hand in Hand?

In his book, Keyes theorizes that popular kids who are at the top of their games in high school have nothing to aspire to after graduation and might attain little success in life, but that geeks tend to go on to great heights because they are still aiming to succeed. Gallup asked respondents whether they think the popular kids in high school end up being more successful or less so than unpopular kids.

A plurality seem to agree with Keyes' theory, as 37% of respondents said that popular kids are probably less successful later in life than are unpopular kids. A quarter (25%) said popular kids are more successful in their post-high school lives than are unpopular kids. Twenty-four percent volunteered that both groups are probably equally successful.

Deborah, a 35-year-old doctoral candidate from Missouri, concurs with the "popularity-breeds-less-success" theory. "Of course, it depends on how you define success," says Deborah, who says she was "very popular" in high school, "but using success in business as the standard, I would have to say that most of my popular friends have taken uninteresting, dead-end jobs -- and all the women left those jobs as soon as they had their first child. At my 10-year high school reunion," she continued, "I was surprised to see how many of the less popular kids in high school were doing very exciting things -- many working toward master's degrees and PhDs, like me."

But Dee -- the popular grandmother of seven who organizes international medical mission trips -- believes those who were popular in high school become more successful in life. "I think popular people have good people skills, and that's very important in the job market," she says.

Bottom Line

How much do people really think about high school after graduation? For those who had a positive social experience, fond remembrances may be common. "I do think about high school sometimes," says Dee. "There is a strong bond that develops among friends in high school that lasts a lifetime. These are the years when children grow into adults and we don't easily forget those times." And those who didn't "fit in," as John put it, may have been successful in at least one area -- putting the experience behind them. "Truthfully, I don't think about high school anymore," John says. "I had a good time in college, had friends, so I've never really looked back."

*These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,000 adults in the Gallup Poll Panel of households, aged 18 and older, conducted March 1-22, 2005. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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