Would I Have Been as Successful in College If I Were an Extrovert?

IntrovertDear.com college introvert

I graduated from a small rural high school where only a handful of students even considered college. Still, I was an honor graduate with a high GPA, so I was shocked when I arrived at Virginia’s James Madison University and discovered that I appeared to be way behind my freshman class — in academics, SAT scores, and every other qualification.

Most of my fellow freshman had come from the wealthy Northern Virginia “super schools.” Their SAT scores were significantly higher than mine. They’d taken classes in subjects unheard of in my school, like calculus, psychology, and world religions. Their schools had swimming pools, science labs with equipment I’d never heard of, and something called “lacrosse.” They’d done summer internships at companies and studied abroad. They’d tested out of multiple freshman level courses at JMU, like freshman English, U.S. history, and biology 101. I’d taken these tests but passed none of them.

So I was a 17-year-old from the rural South and my classmates were better educated and more sophisticated 18- and 19-year-olds. By all conventional measures, if anyone was going to struggle with college academics, it was going to be me.

Beating the Odds

And yet …

I didn’t struggle. Making the dean’s list took hard work, but not strain.

Many of my classmates, however, fell into failures, academic probation, and academic suspension. My grades were a mystery to these students. Sometimes I’d be asked, “How do you do that?”

The short answer — I studied.

I was content to sit for hours quietly studying while others were socializing — and socializing and socializing and socializing. Some kids couldn’t seem to stop socializing. They could never miss a friend’s birthday party, or an outing that everyone was going to attend, even while in the dorm, they spent hours hanging out together. They seemed to regard socializing as something mandatory and beyond their control.

And since social opportunities are always abundant on a college campus, they ended up trying to squeeze classwork into the margins of their social lives. They gave studying and papers a rush treatment during stimulant-filled all-nighters, took tests with a hangover, and skipped classes out of exhaustion.

Of course, I socialized too, but being an introvert, a little was enough. I felt no temptation to go overboard. For many others, however, the constant proximity of thousands of their peers created an irresistible lure into a social frenzy. They couldn’t understand how I could stay behind and study when there was “so much going on.”

The Mythology of Extroversion

There are some profound misunderstandings about what introversion is in the education system.

I’m not saying that introverts have a monopoly on the dean’s list. I’m also not saying that all extroverts have a hard time with time management and university academics.

But a lot of extroverts do have trouble, and I can’t help wondering about the efforts schools have put into “fixing” introverts and “pulling us out of our shells” in the name of saving us from future failure. In our extrovert-obsessed society, an outgoing personality is alleged to be the foundation for educational and career achievement. It’s assumed to be the ideal. It has no flaws, no pitfalls, and no dark little corners that sabotage our goals.

Except that it does.

While there certainly are pitfalls of the introverted temperament — and we introverts should work to mitigate them — our educational establishment never seems to admit that extroversion has its own share of shadows and traps, too. Studies blame students’ failure at college entirely on developmental immaturity and indiscipline. They just need to “cut down on the partying and study.”

I’m not so sure it’s that simple. None of the “hard core partiers” I’ve known regarded partying as mere entertainment. They seemed to have a deep emotional attachment to their social engagements, along with an overwhelming Fear of Missing Out (FOMO).

If they missed an event, they feared their friends might be offended, or worse, start to forget about them. Being ever-present with their crowd seemed to be essential to their very identity. I remember one girl who even dragged herself to a party during the worst throes of the flu, because if people didn’t see her there, they might think she was “a loser.”

Skewed Data and the Privileged Temperament

The studies also fail to account for students like me. I was hardly the only quiet, studious kid at JMU. I know that at 17, my ability to handle college academics had nothing to do with any superior maturity and discipline, and everything to do with a lack of temptation. It was because I could forego socializing without feeling I was missing out on something I wanted or needed.

Despite starting from behind, I graduated from JMU magna-cum-laude.

Our education establishment is always trying to interpret student GPAs, graduation rates, and dropout rates from demographics. They compare gender, age, race, class, veteran’s status, and course of study. But in my opinion, the most influential factor has never been included in conventional demographic measurements.

Temperament.

I suspect that the omission of temperament from our educational and statistical calculations distorts them. The only acknowledgement of temperament has been to identify and “fix” introverts. We are warned that success is not just about grades but about connections, networking, extra-curricular activities, and “showing leadership.” We are told that we will be at a competitive disadvantage with our more socially-oriented peers.

Basically, we are advised that our temperament is a liability.

But where are the studies comparing temperament to college GPAs and freshmen graduation rates? Where are the warnings to students about how an outgoing, social personality can become too much of a good thing on a college campus? Where are the strategies to help these kids compensate for the weaker aspects of their temperament?

In our extrovert-privileged society, the idea that there can be such a thing as too much socializing doesn’t seem to exist. Likewise, admitting that extroversion can be a factor in any kind of failure seems to be regarded as blasphemy.

But that doesn’t make it any less true.

My college days are a distant memory from another era. I’m glad it all worked out in the end. Knowing that I skew heavily towards introversion on the temperament spectrum, however, I have to wonder what the outcome may have been had I skewed just as far towards extroversion. Could I have overcome a lesser high school education, a younger age, and an instinct to socialize at every opportunity?

I’m thinking no. 

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Beverly Garside is a novelist and screenwriter. As well as writing, she enjoys painting, tropical fish, reading, and making her cat happy. She lives with her husband in Maryland.