By Marcella Pires
As an international student, I didn’t even know what a GPA was till I started college a few months ago. Now I’m about to finish my first year remotely, yet to sit in an actual NYU building and still, already thinking of my ideal grade point average for junior year. It’s not just me – most of my friends seem just as obsessed with grades.
I question the control my calculus homework has over my day; I wonder why I feel like one midterm will dictate the course of my life; why I skip family lunches to study almost every Friday. Eventually, I try accepting that college grades don’t measure my success; unfortunately, I’ve yet to fully convince myself. However, recently, this mindset has persisted long enough for me to want to investigate the idea of “grades” and why they have so much power over us.
I decided to understand more about how they originated. I spoke with Business and Society professor, Barbara Mink, who referred to grades as “a sorting mechanism” that “evolved over the years, eventually going from an overall evaluation of a student’s character to more ‘objective’ analysis of ability in a course”, to eventually a letter/number system that forms a curve. As Professor Mink said, they serve a “mixed purpose: for students they can be a sign of self-worth: for the college a way to determine quality of graduates, and for employers, a sign that they’re hiring acknowledged excellence.”
I suppose grades can, sometimes, be a relatively efficient sorting mechanism. However, curves, like the one we have at Stern, limit the number of students who secure the A and incentivize students to go overboard trying to place in the top 35% of a class and avoid the dreaded B+. Despite knowing that our overall GPA won’t be all that affected by a B+ instead of an A-, we prioritize certain classes over others and grades over learning. Grades may create an efficient sorting mechanism, but this system is weak at best, ineffective at worst.
What worries me more is students thinking of grades as a sign of self-worth. Although considered a representation of our academic progress, they do not dictate the rest of our lives and aren’t an accurate indication of our intelligence or even, learning. Moreover, grades are not and should not be our ultimate takeaway from college. A high GPA is perhaps a small step towards achieving our professional goals, but it won’t be the reason we succeed and that one B+ will not ruin our future. Besides, college is where we should explore and expand our interests, not where we purposefully choose easier classes to protect our GPA.
I acknowledge that good grades are practical short-term goals we can set for ourselves. Yet it cannot override the more important goals of learning and challenging ourselves. The 4.0 GPA might land us that internship in junior summer but will provide little else. In fact, learning nothing will probably hamper our chances of getting that return offer. Ultimately, what we can give to our organization, friends and family is a collection of our experiences in life. Personally, it would be a tragedy to spend what’s supposed to be the four best years of our lives just collecting As.
In order to further explore the effects that the grading system has on students, I asked Professor Mink whether this “sorting mechanism” affects students positively or negatively. After all, as thrilling as it is to ace all our classes, it’s more devastating when we don’t meet our expectations. She said that grades “no longer serve the original purpose of a valid sorting mechanism. It’s become a perverse incentive for ambitious students to avoid courses they don’t think they’d excel at; and complete assignments by the book, rather than using creative judgement and using them to expand their horizons.”
The more I ponder, the more I’m convinced – being laser-focused on grades in the short-term can only hamper our personal and professional development in the long-term. Whenever I’ve asked seniors for advice on which classes to take, they recommend the easiest classes with the most lax curves. What is taught in the course and how it may help me in the future always comes second to the grade I’m most likely to get. But when I think of all the learning opportunities presented to me at Stern, I feel foolish for refusing them to hold onto an extra 0.02 grade points.
Professor Mink reminded me that “the willingness to fail is essential in order to succeed” and that has since stuck with me. I’m coming to realize that at some point, I will need to compromise, either on my grades, my learning or my personal life. And it will come down to my choices – whether I choose to have lunch with my family instead of perfecting my DCF or whether I choose to take a hard but useful class and risk getting a B+ or worse. And maybe my decisions mean that I graduate cum laude and not summa cum laude, maybe they mean that I won’t be the lucky junior to get the JP Morgan internship, but it may also mean that I enjoy my time in college, actually pursue my interests and make these the best four years of my life. And just maybe that will allow me to set myself apart in the long run and get me that job at JP Morgan or Bain or Google.
And now, I’ll probably get back to my calculus homework. No, grades don’t mean everything and I can rant about that all day long. But I can’t change the system and I still want that internship two summers down the line. However, after this exercise, I might take my mother up on her offer for lunch more often. If anything, I hope you readers will be able to think of grades differently. They’re still important but they won’t spell the end of our world. My advice to fellow Sternies: take chances, be bold, just sometimes, put grades at the back of your mind and take advantage of the bounty of knowledge at our fingertips. Ultimately, I hope we understand that grades are merely short-term consequences of the long-term investment in ourselves.