Grades and How They Measure Your Self-Worth

*Spoiler alert: Grades do not dictate your self-worth!*

Grades and school have always been an influential part of my life. From the start, my parents and I have both had great expectations of me to do the best I can in school. It felt good to get good grades. It made me feel like I was making my parents and myself proud. The ease that came with doing schoolwork and earning A’s, however, was interrupted in the sixth grade when suddenly the insecurities and anxieties of being a typical adolescent began to catch up with me and I was diagnosed with clinical depression. My grades didn't necessarily take a hard hit, but I definitely wasn’t happy with them, and I slowly began to accept and sink deeper into my little hole of depression and anxiety. After this, nothing I did was good enough for me. Although my parents reassured me of their pride in me, I still felt like I was disappointing them, simply by earning a couple of B’s on my middle-school report card.

Fast forward to high school. The therapy and medication, though helpful, still didn’t seem to help enough to make me feel proud of my work and effort. The constant disappointment I felt in myself only discouraged me even more; I learned nothing in my algebra 2 class, nor trigonometry nor pre-calculus (math wasn’t and still isn’t my best subject, if you couldn’t tell.) Even though I was aware that my mental health was deterring me from getting 100 percents on every assignment and exam, I still held myself to such unrealistic academic and personal expectations that it was easy for me to forget that the priority was my mental health, not school.

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I am only one student out of the 20 million in America. It’s no secret among the students of our generation that the pressure of academic success, as well as the romanticization of well-roundedness and having an “informed” mind, can really take a toll on one’s mental health. Having people bombard you with the importance of participating in sports, arts, volunteer work, having a job, and getting all As in order to get into a good college or good graduate school is extremely exhausting. If you haven’t experienced this overwhelming pressure yourself, I’m sure you know of someone that has been forced to disregard his or her mental health for the sake of “succeeding” in school. The generation older than ours looks down on us full-time and even part-time students for not also being the full-time workers, volunteers, and risk-takers that they were when they were our age. Getting into colleges gets more and more competitive every year; the good news is that education is obviously valued, but more students are risking their mental and physical health to be the successful adults that they’re expected to be.

The academic institution in America relies on standardized test scores and letter grades. Though it makes sense for these marks to be used to determine a student's understanding of certain concepts, the importance of such scores and grades affects students’ self-esteem and overall motivation when they are seen as measurements of a student's overall intelligence. The grading system has essentially developed into a competition for the highest test scores. If you don’t get a high exam score, it’s easy to fall into self-doubt and feelings of uselessness and inferiority to other students. This system, though useful in determining how a student is processing and applying information, seems to also lead to an increase in depression and anxiety in students who have incredibly high expectations for themselves. For me, a “C”, which is supposedly an “average” score, is in my mind a huge failure on my part. Even earning a “B” makes me feel disappointed in myself. Anything less than 100% makes me question why I didn’t get a 100%, which is good in that I will work harder to improve, but what I also care about is whether anyone else got a 100%. Comparing myself to others is what is so detrimental to my mental health, which rings true for so many other students as well. Literally, applying for colleges is putting yourself up against other "competitors", that is, other students who have worked just as hard as you have and have perhaps earned more favorable grades and test scores because they are lucky enough to not have depression and anxiety like you. Measuring individuals' worths by comparing their academic and extracurricular merits to others will likely cause these individuals to compare themselves to everyone, affecting overall self-esteem. Image credit to

When grades and test scores are held to such high standards, one can easily lose oneself in the academic turmoil. How can students learn that it’s okay to not earn all "A"s all the time? How can students learn to accept that grades do not measure one’s worth as a person? We must remind ourselves that we are only human and that it is okay to take a break from all of the stress. Standardized tests and grades, in the long run, are insignificant marks on very specific concepts that have been determined as important by America's academic institution. It’s okay to always want to improve, but if our work towards improvement endangers our own well-being, what’s the point? The academic institution has forced students to prioritize academic success and "well-roundedness" over physical and mental health. I believe the system should be more forgiving to those students who are literally working themselves to exhaustion and depression. Self-care is a necessity as a student, and as a human being trying to succeed in general (whatever "success" may mean to you). Self-care also comes in all different forms. It can be social or solitary, active or passive. The important part of self-care is that it does exactly what it’s named—caring for yourself. Remind yourself that holding yourself to high standards is okay, but not to the point of self-deprecation. Everyone has different study habits and different skill sets; no one can be perfect at everything.

Hopefully this serves as a reminder for you as much as it is for me. It’s midterm season, and that means more work, but it also means we all should pay attention to our physical and mental health. No grade is worth the self-hate or self-deprecation. If you know you’ve done your best, you can only feel proud of yourself; even knowing that you could have tried harder doesn't mean you deserve to punish yourself or think that you're inferior to others, because you're not.