Essay: Grades matter, but they’re not what college is all about

As a child, I remember watching the Fairly OddParents cartoon on Nickelodeon in which Mr. Crocker took great pleasure in writing big fat Fs on Timmy and his classmates’ papers in school. The daunting red letter seemed to glare back at me from the TV screen, marking the first time I began to fear failure.

The show was just one of many reminders around me that failing in life felt utterly unacceptable, and the very thought of failing an assignment in school seemed somehow worse than death. Because grades were constantly being given out as means to assess progress in each class, I came to see school as a place where I had endless opportunities to fail rather than learn new things. Receiving grades for my schoolwork felt like a game where there was an enemy trying to smack me off an obstacle course I didn’t quite know how to navigate, and I had to be on constant alert to make it through its tricks.

Many adults love to tell their students “Grades don’t matter,” or “You’re not defined by numbers,” but it’s hard for students to take that to heart when colleges are constantly advertising their GPA and SAT averages for admission to their schools. And if that wasn’t enough, high school administrators like the ones at my school would rank us against one another, listing exactly how we fared among our peers on our official transcripts. The unspoken message I got from teachers is that the best grades will get you into the best colleges, and the best colleges will get you the best jobs for life. And who doesn’t want that? To me, it seemed like any mistake – big or small – would compromise that future. With this mindset, high school became an unnecessarily stressful experience for me.

Checking the online grade book in high school was an everyday occurrence – if not something I did multiple times a day. My friends and I would talk about a test, study together and then compare our responses afterward as we anxiously awaited the scores. Even after the school day had ended, I was not saved by the bell from the unrelenting pull of grade anxiety. Sometimes as I would fall asleep after working on a paper for hours, an anxious thought about a small grammatical error would pop into my head and jolt me awake. I’d then return to my computer and fix it, only to change even more about the paper because I was so afraid of losing points.

I had intertwined stress and grades for so long that by the time I got to college, I was ready to throw my stress – and my assignments – out the window. I foolishly thought that if I didn’t think about big tests and papers that much, I wouldn’t stress about them and it would all magically work out. I didn’t know how to navigate my emotions and work effectively. Instead of working through it, I trapped myself into a world of black-and-white thinking where I thought things had to be perfect or they weren’t worth anything at all. I didn’t ask for help when I should have, and wasn’t truly honest with how I was approaching school, let alone life. I learned that trying to ignore the anxiety of school only saved me one big giant red F of my own on Banweb at the end of the semester, and all of the decisions of not doing anything had caught up to me all at once.

No matter how hard you run from yourself, it’s a losing game every time. Even though feeling like a failure sucked initially, I ultimately learned that I had to get grades – no matter how high or low – for myself. My achievement was no longer for college admission officers, my parents or my friends. I realized that even though I was a student who now had a failing grade, I could also still be that daringly curious scholar who could still excel academically once again, become president of a student organization and a columnist for this newspaper too.

I’m by no means trying to normalize or condone failing courses, but I’m encouraging students to broaden their perspective on what it means to fail, and shift their attention to how well they can recover from their mistakes. We shouldn’t assume that only weak or lazy people don’t pass a class, and most of all we should understand that failing in of itself is not a defining trait of a person’s character.

Especially during the pandemic, loneliness and feeling small has only magnified the insecurities I previously had about school, life or trying to feel enough during each day that goes by. The best thing I’ve done to work through the uncertainty of it all is to be honest with what I’m concerned about in the moment and embrace that I don’t have the answers all the time. I learned that the repetitive advice that’s given to us growing up isn’t just to be annoying or cliche – it’s to really understand on a deep level that perfection is truly the enemy of the good. It was only after I stopped chasing perfection that I could achieve some really good things in my college career, and I’m grateful for the growing opportunities I got from being a “failure.” Living in shades of grey is a lot more forgiving and rewarding than it sounds.

Liam Studer, a junior majoring in political science and sociology, is a columnist.

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