How Well You Do In School Depends More On Your DNA Than Your Determination, Study Finds

When it comes to academic achievement, hard work can only get you so far. Frannyanne/Shutterstock

Though we are often told we can do anything we set our minds to, new research suggests that, unlike in the movies, determination and hard work aren’t always enough when it comes to getting the best grades in school. According to a new study in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, almost 10 percent of the difference between kids’ grades at age 16 is determined by their DNA, while only about 5 percent of this difference can be explained by characteristics such as “grit”.

Yet rather than crushing the dreams of those who are struggling in the classroom, the study authors believe their findings can be used to provide a leg up to the more academically challenged among us. By using genetics to predict people’s educational achievement, they claim it may be possible to identify people at risk of falling behind at school early in life, providing an opportunity for early intervention and personalized learning.

To conduct their study, the team made use of previous research in which scientists had collected DNA samples from thousands of people in order to look for specific genetic variants – known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) – that correlated to the number of years of education completed by each person. In doing so, they were able to identify a number of SNPs that, when looked at collectively, can be used to calculate what they call a genome-wide polygenic score (GPS), indicating an individual’s likelihood of remaining in education beyond a certain number of years.

According to these previous studies, this GPS only accounts for a maximum of around 4 percent of the difference between the number of years that people spend in education. However, the authors of this latest study decided to investigate how accurately this GPS could be used to predict the grades achieved by British schoolchildren at the ages of 7, 12, and 16.

After collecting DNA from 5,825 kids and determining the GPS for each one, the researchers discovered that differences in this score accounted for 9 percent of the difference in grades that students achieved at the age of 16, with the highest- and lowest-scoring 15 percent being separated by an entire grade boundary.

Furthermore, results showed that 65 percent of those with high scores went on to remain in education until the age of 18, compared with just 35 percent of those with low scores.

Though there are clearly many factors that determine a person’s academic achievement, the fact that grades can be predicted to such an extent using just DNA is quite remarkable. Commenting on this discovery, study author Saskia Selzam explained that “very soon, polygenic scores will be used to identify individuals who are at greater risk of having learning difficulties.”


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