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Flash a smile, score an A: Study links GPA to attractiveness

Published: Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Updated: Tuesday, September 8, 2009 07:09

Girl Looking in a Mirror

James Choca / Tufts Daily

According to a study, a look in the mirror might be the key to success for high school students.

    Conventional wisdom tells us that girls are made from sugar, spice and everything nice, and we all know that everybody's crazy about a sharp-dressed man. But a recent study has shown that these traits, along with physical attractiveness, actually affect a high school student's GPA.

    In a recent study published in the journal Labour Economics, University of Miami professors Michael French, Philip Robins, Jenny Homer and Lauren Tapsell showed that high school students' grades may not be completely merit-based.

    "What was found in the labor market [is that] those who are more attractive than average made wage premium and those below average made wage penalty, and we wanted to see if that relationship held up in grades for high school students," French said in an interview.

    The researchers found what they expected, as French and his colleagues discovered that female students who have good personalities tend to have higher GPAs, as do male students who are well groomed.

    Tufts students did not seem surprised by the study's results, and guessed that the findings applied to college students as well as their younger counterparts. Some pointed to the participation grade commonly factored into their final grade as the embodiment of many abstract, non-merit-based judgments.

    "How you present yourself in class and how others see you is really important," Tufts freshman Isabel Leon said. "A big part of classes require participation … doing presentations [and] class discussions. Those activities [are based on] appearance and delivery, [so] you might excel more in certain classes if you have a better appearance in that class."

    French and his fellow researchers used data gathered by the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), a study conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The university conducted interviews with students across the country. After each interview was through, the interviewer was required to answer a small list of questions, some of which specifically asked the interviewer to grade the student on a scale of one to five for personality, grooming and physical attractiveness.

    Twenty thousand different seventh to 12th graders were surveyed in the course of the study.

    By this method, no one person set the standard for subjective judgments on appearance. Rather, the ratings were normalized by the sheer number of responses.

    Some students believe that the grade bias is just a sample of the bias they will encounter after high school.

    "I think that in the real world, your appearance matters for jobs; I think it's important," Maggie Pace, a recent high school graduate headed for Brown University, said.

    Others just chalk it up to human nature.

    "Humans are programmed to read body language and personality," Leon said. "As long as we have teachers that are people [interacting] with students, I think that [bias] is going to play in no matter what."

    Despite his confidence in the findings, French acknowledged a desire for a more perfect study.

    "It would have been nice to have measurements at each year in high school where we could look at how GPA changes over four years … and how that relates to the observation of physical characteristics," French said. "What we had to work with was overall GPA at the end of high school, and physical appearance based on one observation …. As happens quite often with adolescents, physical appearance changes, especially during those years. It's not clear if changes in physical appearance change grades or if grades change physical appearance. Maybe good grades make you feel better and more confident, and [thus you] improve in all those areas."

    Looks can also be more than a purely superficial way of evaluating someone, according to Tufts senior Griffin Pepper.

    "You judge someone on their appearance because you base your opinion of their character on their appearance," Pepper said. "If you put effort into the way you look, people assume you put effort into everything you do."

    Though French acknowledges that argument, he is also quick to suggest a different explanation.

    "Although we suggest in the paper that perhaps teacher bias could be at work here, there's no reason to completely disregard the fact that the students that were more physically attractive or had more personality are more intelligent or more motivated," French said. "It could be that those characteristics are picking up effects of something else we couldn't measure."

    Still, the study's results pertain solely to high school. Perhaps judgment of looks and personality is specific to high school culture, and the atmosphere in college is not quite the same.

    "In college, [the grade bias] is a lot less prevalent than it is in high school," Pepper said. "I have many professors that I've tried to charm, and it has not worked. I [work] harder [for my grades] if I don't impress them with my stunning personality and well-kept hair."

    Leon hopes that her Tufts experience will be different from her time in high school.

    "High school has a strong and distinct culture which definitely … shapes the students' personalities in that they want to … act a certain way where they will not be shunned and [will] fit in," Leon said. "However, if you continue to go on to higher education, there's more on the line. You have an incentive to be there. The typical culture of high school cliques and drama … will just fade away because now the students have incentive."

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