Comparing GPAs is a recipe for dissatisfaction and unnecessary stress

There will always be someone doing better than you, so why not set personal measures of success?

GPA-envy doesn’t have to define your university experience. Illustration: Ashley Yien/The Peak

By: Lubaba Mahmud, Staff Writer

Success in university shouldn’t be interpreted as a zero-sum game where students are indirectly encouraged to compare grades. Extreme academic competitiveness is evident in some departments more than others, but wherever it goes it creates an unnecessarily harmful competitive atmosphere, which can lead to student stress. Instead of comparing GPAs with peers, students should recognise that there are other, equally valid ways of measuring success.

Before disregarding this somewhat obvious stance that students are stressed about their grades, hear me out: I’m not going to spew some nonsense on how grades don’t matter. They absolutely do. What I’m saying is comparing grades with peers shouldn’t be the only way students measure success. Success has many layers to it, but by insisting on comparing GPAs, one is limiting oneself to a narrow definition of it.

My department has a policy of curving grades, which means that only a fixed percentage of students can get As, Bs, and so on. This can make it especially hard to not be competitive, because the grade one gets is essentially also based on others’ performances. While competition is not inherently unhealthy, this form of direct comparison can be discouraging. It’s important to remember that students have different levels of capabilities, and different strengths and weaknesses. This grading system shifts the focus from trying to do the best one can, to trying to do better than one’s peers. In classes like these, I found myself worrying too much about how my classmates were doing in their exams, which ended up negatively impacting my mental health. 

I had to remind myself that success cannot possibly boil down to just my GPA. There are a range of other measures of success that a university student can look to, in order to be satisfied with their experience at SFU. Learning new skills, trying something new, learning to set realistic goals, learning to be kinder to oneself, etc. are also equally valuable take-aways from university.

One of my personal goals has been to step outside of my comfort zone and make use of the many opportunities that SFU provides. For example, I opted for some electives that seemed really interesting to me, even though I could have taken the easy path of choosing “GPA boosters” that would play to my strengths. I don’t know a great deal about Canadian history since I’m an international student, so last year I took a Canadian labour studies elective to learn more about it. It was a little daunting as I saw other students quickly connect the dots, while I had to spend more time doing some research on my own to fully understand the content. It turned out to be a great learning experience — one that encouraged me to challenge myself more often, rather than give into the GPA rat-race.

Even though grades are an important part of the whole university experience, it is not the only worthwhile aspect of it. GPA isn’t the be-all end-all of your post-secondary journey. That’s why students should consider making a personalised list of goals that are more meaningful to them than a simple grade comparison — or at least find meaning in their own grades and not others. In the end, your success at university cannot and should not be defined by other people.