Don’t focus too hard on your grades

Academic performance doesn't necessarily measure success out of school

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An angry-looking person, ostensibly a professor, is throwing a “C-” at someone. The person is distracted, looking at some flowers, and does not seem bothered by the grade bouncing off their head.
Grades can have huge impacts on the way we perceive ourselves, but is it warranted? Illustration: Maple Sukontasukkul / The Peak

By: Ira Rishi, SFU Student

Albert Einstein, the physicist widely regarded for his scientific and philosophical contributions, is quoted to have said: “Try not to be a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.” This has been a critical lesson I’ve learnt throughout my degree. Importantly, it distinguishes between success and value. While success can be defined as achievement by others’ standards, it is not always identical to value; the achievement of one’s own standards.

Taking classes at a university, finishing a degree, and staying on top of it all by having great grades is a sign of a successful student. It follows that people tend to associate success with self-worth and their value in society. In all, it’s a very unfortunate comparison that we as a society have learned to make. Though measuring ourselves by a university’s metric of success can be easy, it is not necessarily the most constructive way to develop ourselves.

Straight-A high school students come into university programs with a reasonable expectation of dominating their classes like they’re used to, but it’s common that we fail to live up to our own expectations. When I see I’ve earned a bad grade on an exam, it shakes me to my core. The way I’ve been conditioned is that a poor grade means I’m not successful, which in turn lowers my self-worth. Lowered confidence, from whatever cause, is a source of decreased academic performance — and this risks a self-destructive feedback loop. When we fall into this downward cycle, we tend to forget that grades are simply a result of a particular moment in time and space. They’re not constant and they don’t determine your worth.

Sure, having passable grades is essential to graduate, and a high GPA can open avenues for other opportunities like admission into different programs. But in no way do these markers determine how successful you’re going to be outside of academia.

Academic validation meant a lot to me during my initial years at university and I ended up getting so roped into it that I paid no attention to the realities of what I was learning. For many of us, one of the most important things about being in university is getting ready for the real world — a life with more meticulous responsibilities and far less structure. And you get ready for the real world not by simply studying for and taking exams, but by putting yourself out there! It takes experimentation, and so much failure — something disallowed under university’s grading schemes.

So don’t be afraid to take that step and move beyond your studies, because growth happens outside our comfort zones. Explore what drives you and motivates you to give your best. Volunteering is typically a great place to start and you can build your way to gaining the skills and experience that might not fit into a class’ traditional curriculum.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in the four years I’ve spent here is that you shouldn’t just work on your grades — it’s important that you also work on yourself.