"What? But they are so important!"

"I need to do well in school to get good grades, good grades will get me into a good graduate school, which gets a swanky job, etc etc etc."

Let us address the opposite argument first; grades are in fact very important. Students should care about their grades because it shows effort and determination. Excelling in a subject usually signifies hard work and sacrifice went in to studying and preparing for the course, which reflects well on the work ethic of the student.

However, what if you have tried your best and the class grade does not display your true potential? This aspect of student evaluation is often a pain point. "It's not fair," might be a phrase repeated in these situations.

Students should use less than ideal turnouts as lessons:

1.) Find optimal situations where you can thrive

(Example: if organic chemistry isn't your strong suit, avoid taking it with a majority of Chemistry majors who might skew a class curve, or if possible opt for the professor you would rather learn from.)

2.) change your approach to do better next time

(Example: if organic chemistry really isn't your thing, change your approach to studying early on, or reach out and ask for more help where it is needed.)

Summary: position yourself more effectively by optimizing your chances to succeed and limiting your chances to fall behind.

If you only focus on grades, you are cheated out of what an educational environment can offer. You are a (inevitably 3D) complex human being, so why tie yourself down to a singular (2D) facet of school?

Think about it this way; well beyond grades, you have experiences, insights, thoughts, skills, relationships, and talents that transcend the power of a GPA. These aspects are cultivated best by prioritizing them: making new friends, joining meaningful organizations, sharing your knowledge with others, and showcasing your potential in fitting environments.

 If you are pursuing a degree, be mindful of what your goals are after obtaining it. Studious sought insight from Bill Burnett, Executive Director of the d.school Design Program at Stanford University. He also co-teaches a course called “Designing Your Life” for undergraduates. We asked him how students should approach school in their lives; he made an important note about academic assessments, goals, and life decisions.

"You can always find ‘merit badges.’ There’s always a merit badge. If you like jumping hurdles, everybody has a system of hurdles." (1)

@@Don’t let your grades be merit badges for your satisfaction and self worth.@@

Focus on innovating yourself and your own passions. Burnett likes to focus on the portfolio of experiences that are a byproduct of academic exploration: by going out and changing something rather than waiting for pieces to fall into place. Burnett considers exploration a type of prototyping; when you try new activities you gather data on what you find interesting. He emphasizes that only 20% of college students know what they want to do in life, so building a portfolio of experiences actually informs decisions on designing the career you want. By prototyping careers as if they were physical objects, you refine your sense of self and craft a life that is meaningful to you.

So, beyond scoring well on tests and homework, what are you doing that excites you? Prioritizing grades for their own sake is an easy way to seek validation, but classes will always end and GPAs will fade away into the history of your academia. What matters is the fruits of your labor: how your intellect grew because of it, and what you can now do, change, or create to improve the world.

Thank you to Bill Burnett for his Studious contributions this week!


1. Burnett, Bill. Studious Interview. 17 September 2015.

Cover image original photo by Alberto G. via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.


Comment