2 Helpful and 3 Unhelpful Comparisons Your Teen Might Make When Studying For GCSEs and A-Levels

Over my six years as an academic coach I've seen students making some helpful comparisons between themselves and others. However, more often they make unhelpful or misguided comparisons.

In this article, I'm going to share with you:

  • The three toxic comparisons that students should avoid making at all costs
  • The two comparisons that will help them focus and stay motivated in a productive way

You can also listen to this article as a podcast. Use the player above or find this episode on Apple podcasts here.

The 3 Unhelpful Comparisons Your Teen Should Avoid Making At All Costs (and so should you!)

Unhelpful Comparison #1 – How hard their friends are working

A regular excuse for not studying harder or smarter is that they're already doing more than their friends.

This is a terrible comparison to make for several reasons:

  • They don't actually have any idea how hard their friends are working when they're at home. They may give the impression that they're doing very little when actually, they're studying really hard when no-one's looking
  • If their peer group isn't actually studying very hard, studying more than them isn't going to help them reach their real potential. See Helpful Comparison #1 (below) for who they should be comparing themselves to instead

You may have heard the aphorism, “You're the average of the five people you spend the most time with” by Jim Rohn. This isn't always true but can be a real problem when teens are desperately trying to fit in with each other – and outdo each other with how little they're studying.

We saw this last summer with a year 12 student who had 1:1 coaching with us. He and his mates were far more focused on socialising – and while his mates were out having fun or there was the chance to earn money in his job, there was no way he was going to study more. He was definitely the average of the company he kept (and wanted to stay that way) and had no desire to change either his company or his ways.

Unhelpful Comparison #2 – How ‘clever' their classmates are

Many students really worry about how they compare to their classmates and this can have the very negative impact of making students want to shrink into the background and become invisible in the classroom. It stops them from asking questions and getting the help that they need, because they just don't want to be noticed for being the one person who doesn't ‘get it'.

Most of the time, young people are judging their classmates' cleverness on their contributions in class and the grades they get. The trouble is, they don't know how much work is going on behind the scenes to get this confident class performance  and great grades.

In today's education climate, it's safe to assume that no-one is getting the best grades without expending considerable effort outside the classroom. Grades 8, 9 and A* don't happen by accident or osmosis.

In today's education climate, it's safe to assume that no-one is getting the best grades without expending considerable effort outside the classroom. Grades 8, 9 and A* don't happen by accident or osmosis. Click To Tweet

So, if your teenager is nervous about getting the help they need, make sure they know this and tell them to just ask when they need help. My older sister gave me this advice before I went to university and it is literally the best advice I've ever been given. It has saved me so much time struggling with things I don't know or don't understand – and you can be sure that if you don't get something there's at least one other person in the room who doesn't either and will thank you for asking the question.

Unhelpful Comparison #3 – Their siblings' achievements

This one is really hard to avoid because sibling achievements are so visible within families. I remember this in my own childhood. In the heat of a teenage argument, my dad once said to my younger sister (I've got three older very academically able siblings), “No child of mine gets anything less than straight As!”

You can imagine how this went down.

I've also worked with various sets of twins in The Extraordinaries Club – and the problem of sibling comparison is even more acute for them.

As a parent I'd encourage you to do three things to counteract the comparison of brothers and sisters:

  1. Praise their effort, not their results because effort's the thing each child can control, results flow from effort and it's better that we're all valued for what we do than how we're graded.
  2. Parent each child as an individual – it's not necessarily fair to treat all children the same. Each child is an individual and they need the right parenting for their talents, situation and character.
  3. Emphasise your child's individual journey – we're all on our own journey. Let them know that you see them for the journey through life that they're on. While some may breeze through the ordained steps of the education system, for many, their path will not be so straightforward – but that doesn't mean it's less valid and will fail to prepare them for the life they're going to lead.

comparisons when you're studying

The 2 Helpful Comparisons Your Teen Should Make to Increase Their Confidence and Academic Success (and so should you!)

Helpful Comparison #1 – What the top students across the country are doing

Instead of comparing themselves to their mates, who'd rather be taking selfies for Instagram or playing Xbox for hours on end, it's much more helpful to compare themselves to the students across the country who are doing really well.

In normal years, every student taking each GCSE and A-Level subject is in a competition for grades with everyone taking their subjects that year – not just the people in their school. This means that they're competing with students at Eton who have had the most privileged education all their lives. They're also competing against students who've had very little help but are determined to do everything they can to do their best.

I recommend that students do these hours outside lesson time throughout their GCSE and A-Level courses:

  • GCSE – 1.5 hours per subject per week – 15 hours if they're doing 10 subject
  • A-Level – 4-6 hours per subject per week – up to 24 hours if they're doing 4 subjects

The thing is, though, that there are students out there working much harder than this. And, it's not just about how hard they're working, it's about which revision techniques they're using to make sure what they're doing counts. 

If you'd like more help with creating a study routine that leads to success check out the Manage Your Time Module in The Extraordinaries Club. The Optimise Your Revision Techniques module will help to make sure they're using the best revision strategies to make sure the time they're spending on their studies leads to better grades.

Helpful Comparison #2 – Their past selves

The other helpful comparison it's useful to make is to how they were doing last week, last month or last year.

When you make this kind of comparison, particularly over longer periods of time, it can give you a huge boost because you can see how much you've learned and how much you've improved in things like your written answers or your ability to solve maths problems, over that time frame.

I was recently talking to a member of The Extraordinaries Club who is in Year 13. She was feeling really down about herself and her prospects at A-Level because she hadn't made very good use of the time she was learning at home during the first lockdown and had a lot to catch up on.

I asked her what she was doing differently now compared to back then. There was so much – she was actually working for a start, coming to as many of the accountability calls we run in the club as possible, she'd done the revision modules in the club and she was really trying every single day.

Last year she wasn't a great student at all. This year, she is behaving like a good student – doing everything she can to improve. It made her feel so much better to really stop and think about how far she'd come in such a relatively short space of time.

Ditch the Unhelpful Comparisons and Focus on the Helpful Ones

It's not going to be easy, but after reading this I want you to do your best to ditch the unhelpful comparisons and focus on the ones that will actually serve you to help your child reach their full potential.

If you need help with this, join The Extraordinaries Club or check out our 1:1 coaching options. We'll help your child improve their mindset and implement the behaviours that will enable them to reach their potential.

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