On GPA

 

When I first read Adam Grant’s December 8th opinion piece “What Straight-A Students Get Wrong” in the New York Times, I was upset. My whole life, I had prided myself on my good grades. School was one thing that I have always felt consistently good at. But now here was this article suggesting that the best students will never be the most successful in their careers. I haven’t even started my career yet, but I already felt like a failure. I’ve been in school for almost 15 years. What if I’ve been doing it all wrong?

Grant’s main argument is that GPA is a poor predictor of career success. He notes that grades often don’t assess important job-related skills such as creativity, collaboration, or leadership. He relates that the most creative architects in the industry averaged a B in school. In classes that interested these students, they earned As, but in less interesting classes, they were less motivated to do well. He suggests that the ability to prioritize what is interesting will serve students well in their careers. This anecdote ties into Grant’s claim that getting As requires conformity to a particular system and that straight-A students will rarely become the visionaries of their fields.

 

 

I do agree that getting As requires a certain ability to “play the game.” I know how to study. I know how to give professors what they want. I’m good at following instructions. I can manage my time. However, I bristle a little at the suggestion that these skills aren’t valuable in the workplace. I don’t think that giving up on something that isn’t immediately interesting is a good idea. Just because an assignment or class seems boring or irrelevant to one’s future goals, doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. I have found, throughout my school career, that the more effort I put into an assignment (though, yes, this effort usually comes from wanting a good grade), the more I learn from it. Furthermore, I doubt that I will enter a career in which I immediately have unlimited freedom to choose the problems that I want to solve. I don’t think that having the ability to complete mundane tasks well is a bad thing. They might just be the stepping stones to more responsibility and more interesting projects.

I also think that Grant is correct to say that the desire for a 4.0 leads students to stay within their comfort zones, keeping them from taking challenging classes in diverse subject areas. He writes that “if you’re willing to tolerate the occasional B, you can learn to program in Python while struggling to decipher Finnegan’s Wake.” Isn’t this, however, what a liberal arts education calls upon students to do, anyway? This semester, I’m taking a challenging Spanish class full of students who have just returned from studying abroad in Spanish-speaking countries, while I have only taken one other Spanish class at Kenyon. Of course I would like to be successful in this class: to me that means leaning and engaging with the material thoroughly. Perhaps I can accomplish those goals without getting an A, but I would also never resign myself to getting a B just because I’m not comfortable with the syllabus at the outset of the class. An A is something tangible that I can strive for. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to challenge myself and wanting to do as well as I can.

 

Grant also argues that straight-A students have subpar social lives because they spend so much time in the library studying. What if, to me, time spent studying above and beyond what would be required to pass the class isn’t wasted time? What if I like learning? A Kenyon education is expensive, and I want to get as much academic value out of it as I can. If I am capable of getting As, why would I want to sell myself short? I have plenty of friends, and I spend plenty of time with them. I haven’t, as Grant says some students do, sacrificed my health in pursuit of a 4.0.

In high school, I was obsessed with getting a 4.0. I would check the online gradebook many, many times a day. I did the bare minimum to get an A and then collapsed in bed every night, exhausted. When I came to college, I was glad to listen to my internal motivation again, to do things for me rather than to get into college. I simply wanted to do the best I could and learn the most I could, regardless of my grade. I started writing papers that actually meant something to me. This doesn’t mean that I’m never stressed out anymore or that I never worry about my grades. I know I’m a perfectionist, and I know that’s something I’ll continue to work on for the rest of my life. What Grant gets right in the article are the solutions he suggests that would make students less fixated on their grades. He calls on schools to do away with the plus/minus system, so that a GPA of 3.7 or above is an A. He suggests that this would also help reduce grade inflation, which is closely tied to students’ desperate need for perfection. But until someone overhauls the system (that someone, according to Grant, probably won’t have gotten a 4.0), I will continue to do the very best I can. Without sacrificing sleep.

 

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