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But it may be time for a re-evaluation of many of our notions about what matters in high school, say researchers who study adolescence and its aftermath, including popularity and friendship, intelligence and hard work. For example, "popularity is not all it's cracked up to be," says Kathleen Boykin McElhaney, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. Her study of 164 adolescents, published in the journal Child Development in 2008, found that teenagers who don't belong to their schools' in groups can still function well socially--if they find a comfortable niche among their classmates. As long as they feel happy with themselves and their friends, it doesn't matter how popular they are. "Our work shows that popularity isn't all that important," says McElhaney. "The key is finding a group of people with whom you can feel at ease being yourself."
Indeed, recent research suggests that popularity isn't entirely positive. Belonging to the cool crowd is associated with higher rates of drinking, drug use, sexual activity and minor delinquency during adolescence. And the connection between social status and risky behavior may be a lasting one: a study co-authored last year by Marlene J. Sandstrom, a professor of psychology at Williams College, reported that popularity in high school was associated with higher rates of substance abuse and sexual promiscuity in the three years after graduation.
What's more, popular kids may not even be well liked. Researchers distinguish between two types of popularity: "perceived popularity," or how socially prominent individuals are, and "sociometric popularity," or how well liked they are. Membership in the two groups often doesn't overlap. Sociometrically popular teens have a wide group of friends and are described by classmates as "trustworthy" and "kind"; perceived-popular students are admired and envied by their peers but are also regarded as "arrogant" and "stuck-up." And no wonder: many studies have linked perceived popularity to high levels of what researchers call "relational aggression": spreading gossip, engaging in taunting and bullying and practicing exclusion and the silent treatment in order to maintain one's social position.
If the populars don't have a lock on friendship, neither do the brains have an exclusive claim on post--high school success. In a study conducted last year, Stephen D.H. Hsu and James Schombert, physics professors at the University of Oregon, analyzed undergraduates' high school test scores and college grades. "Low SAT scores do not preclude high performance in most majors," they reported. High-achieving students often get that way through dogged effort, they pointed out, rather than innate brilliance. "Our results suggest that almost any student admitted to university can achieve academic success, if they work hard enough," the authors concluded.