About the author: David Quan, one of thirty recipients worldwide of a Cambridge Trust Scholarship, was one of our state’s top performing students, earning a near-perfect ATAR and International Baccalaureate (IB) score. An Order of Australia Association Student Citizenship Awards recipient, David has tutored, coached and mentored hundreds of Primary and Secondary students over the last half-decade, especially through his active volunteering and leadership roles for school, basketball, music, public speaking, social enterprise and community service.


Advanced Education SA is pleased to partner with David before he commences his undergraduate studies at the world-renowned University of Cambridge. We hope that his fresh insights and perspective may offer all our students further inspiration to access excellence and advance their education. For private and group tuition enquiries, please visit our website at https://advancededucation.com.au/

 “Oh, she must be a NERD!”

Throughout our teenage years, this is an expression we either hear from others or think to ourselves when that kid walks on stage to receive another academic achievement award. The expression is in and of itself neutral as a statement of judgement. Perhaps, if ‘nerd’ is defined as being an expert or intellectually gifted, it can be seen as a compliment. However, if we speak truthfully: we use ‘nerd’ more often than not in a derogatory, demeaning or pejorative manner. Sure, the ‘nerd’ is smart or intellectual, but we more consider that person to be lacking in social skills, boringly studious or introvertedly quirky. In short, most of us – especially as a teenager in middle school – do not want to be labelled as a ‘nerd’.

This fear can be so great that research suggests that kids who are capable may purposely underachieve, especially in subjects like Maths and Science. I never went as far as to intentionally get questions wrong, but I do remember telling Dad in Year 7 that I only want to do above average in school because I am not a nerd! You know, like other middle schoolers, I wanted to have friends and fun instead of just dating textbooks in the library!

In the next couple years, though, my perceptions gradually changed. No, not that I wanted to be a nerd but rather, I noticed that almost all the top academic achievers were, more often than not, not ‘nerdy’ at all. Counter-intuitive! They were school leaders, captains of sporting teams, multi-talented musicians, enthusiastic entrepreneurs, diligent debaters, passionate public speakers, amazing actors, and vigorous volunteers – much like Don. It was then that I wondered whether it is possible to ‘have it all’! So, I did all that I could to find out.

A Somewhat Shocking Secret to Succeeding in School

Without quantitative research evidence, I cannot claim to be objective or conclusive. But my belief, from my own exploration and experience, is that achieving academic excellence at school is a long journey full of peaks and troughs. To earn a high ATAR, for example, you do not just sit one IQ exam. Instead, you need to complete assignments, engage with classmates, teachers and parents, figure out and stick to a routine, have the courage to try new methods, revise for and perform under pressure in tests and exams, and actively respond to feedback, all whilst maintaining good Well-being. It is complicated and in a sense, you do not need to be smart – you just need to learn about yourself and adapt to the rules of the game. Traits like discipline, resilience, grit, adaptability and emotional intelligence are unquestionably important.

But teenagers do not just develop these transferable skills from reading textbooks or videos; in my view, experience, often through co-curricular activities, can be invaluable. Table 1 is my example:

Table 1: How my experiences from one area later helped me academically within the classroom:


Therefore when…

Basketball, I have been cut from representative teams, missed game-winning shots and lost games. But coaches always encouraged us to use that as motivation to improve. I under-performed in tests, I was familiar with feelings of disappointment. But I believed that I could bounce back after more disciplined, focused and consistent training.
Big Band, in order to win Generations in Jazz, not only did we have to master our individual parts at home, but we all had to perform in harmony together on stage. Given a group assignment, I knew that we all benefit long-term from selfless contribution and collaboration. It would be important to encourage and help one another.
Public speaking, I was constantly impressed by others’ insightful opinions and arguments – often thoughts that I had never previously considered. It challenged my thinking. Approaching my 4000-word extended essay, I thought that it would be wise to seek opinions to develop a more well-rounded perspective. Sure enough, I benefited from others.
Coaching or volunteering, I learnt first-hand how emotional intelligence, communication and teamwork are necessary to get the best out of one another. Being genuine matters. Struggling with workload and stress, I understood that it is OK and beneficial to seek support and vice-versa. It is the faith that we all have each other’s best interest at heart.

It is critical to emphasize that I did not in any way become immune to struggles and made many, many mistakes and bad decisions. I still have much learning to do. But those experiences instilled into me the confidence that rarely any academic challenges are insurmountable. I just needed to figure out the puzzle. So perhaps contrary to common perceptions, I believe that our top academic achievers, maybe with the exception of myself, are actually interesting and socially adept people! They are adaptable learners. How else could they have successfully handled the arduous journey?

Please Be Kind to Her (And Yourself)!

I challenge my students and myself therefore to reconsider the condescending connotations and implications associated with automatically labeling a high achiever as a ‘nerd’, and to not see things as a zero-sum game. Instead of viewing Academic, Co-Curricular, Community and Emotional learning as competing agendas, we should actually appreciate their complementary potential.

Maybe just maybe then, when she goes on stage next week to receive that academic award, ponder the possibility that whilst she may be ‘nerdy’ at times, which is not actually a bad thing, she may not be a geek or a nerd (in the demeaning sense that we are accustomed to). Rather, she may highly likely be an interesting person with rich experiences, just like you, who we can all learn from. And if you are an aspiring middle school boy, please do not make the same mistake as me. Know that you can actually achieve great things within and out of the classrooms and still be a regular, cool dude!