Wednesday, February 15, 2023

“But I Worked So Hard!”

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

The assignment for the college-level American Government class I teach was simple enough. Research the US House Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and answer the six questions—some rote, some not—I provided.

Imagine my surprise when I opened up one assignment to discover the student had answered all the questions, based on their research on—the Senate Armed Services Committee. I went back to the assignment to make sure I hadn’t made a mistake, then gave the student a zero on the assignment, explaining they had researched the wrong committee.

It was then I had my first interaction with the academic expectations of this generation, when the author of the paper emailed me back and said “How could I get a zero on this assignment?I worked really hard on this paper.”

I told the student—again—they weren’t asked to address that committee, and that the student’s answers, no matter how accurate or nicely researched, didn’t address the questions I asked in the assignment. The student then capitulated, perhaps because I also pointed out that the points they lost on this assignment could be made up through extra credit.

I can’t help but wonder if too much of our work in counseling creates this same expectation—put in your time, pay your dues, and the payoff is not only automatic, it is the epitome of all possible outcomes—admission to a highly selective college, getting Suzie to go to Homecoming with you, having your parents get off your back. This generation often embraces an expectation that success is based on hours worked, not lessons learned. And that is a massive mistake.

The last two high schools where I worked as a counselor had parent bodies that had high postsecondary expectations. In many cases, students would come to a college meeting with a list of six Ivy League schools, and that was it. They recognized the admit rates to these schools were small, but surely applying to six would steer the odds in their favor—in other words, if they worked hard enough, one was bound to say yes.

I’ve seen research (alas, I can’t remember where) that says a student is indeed more likely to be admitted to at least one school if they apply to more schools, but that conclusion masks important factors like grades and strength of schedule. Still, many parents—and, alas, students as a result—are convinced that the combination of money spent on K-12 private school, writing coaches, and visiting the college campus will surely yield a favorable result from one fancy school.

My job at that point was not to say they wouldn’t get in—that, in fact, is not my place to say—but it is my place to explain that it doesn’t exactly work that way. This was getting to be a more difficult conversation in the last few years I was in high schools, a result of an increase of the “but I worked so hard” mentality. Still, having that conversation in September was better than working with a student in April who had just gone 0-for-6 in the Ivy League, and a couple of diplomatically worded conversations generally led the student to create some healthy additions to the initial list, even if this same conversation was largely less successful with the parents.

It's hard to say just where this generation decided that effort alone leads to an automatic A in life, but the need to show them otherwise is essential to their growth, and to the advancement of our society. That’s where we come in.


  1. YES! We are dealing with this with current seniors-they are constantly in a stuggle with thinking that all of their hard work was for nothing!

  2. Yes! but more destructive is their perception that "It doesn't quite work that way" gives you "dream crusher" status.

    1. If a student has a dream/goal of one day climbing Mt. Everest, I think it’s fair to point out that it’s 29,032 feet high. At least that’s the line I used to use in those discussions. In most cases, it went over their heads.

  3. It's not just the current generation but their parents as well. I am encountering the "magic formula" for admission to X.

  4. Bravo! Too often students & their families are completely unaware of the discipline, ingenuity, initiative & hard work a few students display. These exceptional students NEED to be at a highly selective institution to have those intellectual discussions in the residence hall & around a seminar table, they want to discuss the topics they read about as profuse readers, , they have taken the toughest courses in their high school & thrived, they need to stretch their boundaries beyond those that most students will ever come close to. The old Common App asked teacher Refrrees to rank their students and the key question was “among the best I have ever known” when a highly selective campus selects so few students , they must be those who fit, thrive and need the challenge.

  5. I don't hear "but I worked so hard" as much as "I have a 4.0 and 1,000 service hours." The perception isn't just effort but also their supposed accomplishment that necessitates their admission to an Ivy. They are unaware that they still have just "painted by numbers" and not truly accomplished anything beyond what they thought was a maximum. Do PhD students still have to contribute original research and new knowledge to the world's accumulated understanding? Or do they just have to write and defend a dissertation, however pedestrian?