If somebody asked me today about my biggest priorities in college, I’d probably say, “Connections, hands-on experience and learning about subjects that pertain to my interests.” But while I provide that same well-rehearsed answer for that question each time I’m asked, my brain — the organ responsible for getting me through college — disagrees. To my brain, my biggest college priority is getting as close to near-perfect grades as possible.
Don’t get me wrong — I want the practical experience to feel as worthwhile as the grades. Practical, hands-on experience takes precedent over perfect grades in the real world. With that in mind, why does my brain prioritize high marks like an aggravating obsession?
It’s not just me — many of my peers experience this obsession as well. And no matter how many times our grandparents, Huffington Post articles or TED talks remind us of the importance of practical skills versus perfect grades, the obsession still nags us like an inoperable brain cyst.
So, what’s the deal?
I blame the traditional school system. Throughout elementary, middle and high school, our superiors sell us a simple algorithm: The highest grades provide us the greatest opportunities for continued life success. The lowest grades, conversely, equate to a lack of success, academic failure and — worst of all — the threat of never graduating or having to repeat a grade. Some parents impose the harsh penalty of grounding or the loss of video games to further cultivate the fear of low grades. By the end of high school, prestigious universities court students in the upper grade point average echelon, offering them full-ride scholarships in the major of their choosing. In short, students are interpolated into a society where high grades are alluring and desirable while low grades must be avoided. In a society where the best grades are exchanged like currency for better opportunities, who wants to be a failure?
This sweeping generalization of traditional schooling might sound like common sense, but I believe it’s important to stop and really question ourselves: Do we want to achieve the best grades because we genuinely want them or because our society wants them?
One of my regular customers at work is the father of a fellow Communications major, who took the same class I took during Autumn Quarter. He asked me, “What grade did you get in your video class?”
“A 3.6,” I answered.
“Oh, well, my daughter got a 3.9 out of that class,” he said. Knowing that not studying for a couple quizzes resulted in my lower grade, I told him, “Sounds like she studied for her quizzes. I didn’t do enough of that.”
Autumn Quarter didn’t make my life easy: I searched for a new place to live, moved into that place, started a writing job here at The Ledger, and still juggled full-time school with my part-time retail job to keep a roof over my head. As a result, that quarter felt like ten weeks of burnout. My inner monologue ran through every excuse, including thinking her final project was as good as mine because her group didn’t try as hard to push the envelope as my group did.
More importantly: Why in the heck did I even care? Considering my life circumstances, a 3.6 GPA felt an accomplishment. A 3.6 grade is still an A-minus. An A-minus is still an “A” grade. Regardless, I felt less accomplished because I received a lower grade than somebody I barely even know.
Society tends to fixate itself on the alluring and desirable qualities of high grades due to their perceived association with high intelligence, better career opportunities and the promise of financial security. Many students fear failing grades because they don’t want to be left behind by society. Some students just want to become doctors, lawyers or engineers for the sake of job security. For me, I want good grades because I hope for something better than what I have, but also to prove to myself — and others — that I can see my ambitions through to the end. Sadly, I’ve always feared failing grades because I don’t want my family and peers to think I’m stupid and worthless.
Here’s another personal example: When I was in eighth grade, my grades were consistently terrible. So bad, in fact, that I forged my mom’s signature onto my first progress report — which led to much yelling and reaming when I got caught. I intercepted the mailed midterm report cards from our mailbox throughout the year, shoved them behind my dresser until somebody brought up “mailed report cards” to my mom. When confronted about it, I came clean about my poor grades and revealed the intercepted report cards. Two conferences later, I squeaked out of middle school with a D-average. My fear of failure — coupled with a fear of my mom’s reaction to my failure — led me to hide from an academic problem that could have been remedied with the first report card I tried to forge. Instead, I ran away from my failing grades, more terrified about being seen as a failure than accepting it and moving on.
Thankfully, as a college senior, I take my education far more seriously than my younger self. I still fall back into the same escapist habits — like playing too many video games — but being responsible for my own self allows me to prioritize better. I compile good grades and useful skills in college in hope for a more fulfilling future — especially after working in retail for 12 years. While I realize the occasional less-than-perfect grade won’t impact the cumulative value of my education, the grades themselves still make me a little crazy. And when they do, it’s good to ask myself the same question I asked before: Am I doing this for me or for everybody else?