Friday, June 9, 2017

Welcome to Adult Life where Everything’s Made Up and Grades Don’t Matter

(Props to you if you're an improv fan and recognize the quote style.)

“Grades are so important.”

How many times was that said to you over the course of your childhood by parents, teachers, and authority figures? You may have even said it yourself, especially if you have kids or have worked with kids.

And it’s a lie.

Oh, it’s true to a certain point. In order to embark upon a decent career, a student needs to earn decent grades. Grades are gatekeepers to the next level. In order to advance and gain certain privileges, a certain threshold must be met.

How important it is to receive straight As? A 4.0 (or higher!) GPA? Top marks in the class? Valedictorian? Not in the slightest. These accomplishments are heralded as so important to students and their parents and are of no significance at all in the adult working world. None.

Grades are a horribly subjective way to measure a student’s ability to memorize, repeat, conform, and obey authority. A student’s marks bear little resemblance to their intelligence, interest, effort, attitude, enthusiasm, work ethic, creativity, and true learning of subject matter. The latter traits matter far more in a person’s career.

I was always a good student. But I was never a straight-A student, usually As and Bs with the rare C. I have a poor memory. Some lucky people have excellent memories which produce excellent grades with little effort. I extended a large amount of effort with mixed results.

Almost all tests I took in math and science courses required extensive memorization. This is an outdated model of teaching that presumes students won’t have access to information, calculators, or peers when they work in their careers. With information, calculators, and peers with us at all times in our pockets, it’s hard to see how traditional testing methods assesses a student’s true ability to perform in their future science careers.

In my case, they didn’t. I remember being so frustrated with this contradiction in undergraduate physics that I decided to program a few physical constants and basic equations in my calculator, essentially cheating. Because I knew never in my life would it be important for me to know a physical constant off the top of my head. Instead I focused on knowing when and how to use which constants and equations to solve physics problems.

Grades are also highly subjective. I’ve always been an okay writer, but in tenth grade, an English teacher disagreed with me. She disliked my writing style, graded me harshly, and wanted to prevent me from advancing to honors English. And yet my eleventh grade honors English and twelfth grade AP English teachers graded me well. I highly doubt my writing quality improved significantly in such a short time. More likely, my English teachers were human and my grades were a reflection of their own biases rather than my true writing ability.

Even STEM fields fall victim to this subjective evaluation. Some teachers expect one result and are close-minded to alternate solutions. I once got into a disagreement with a physics professor who wrote a lab question ambiguously. I answered it in a way he didn’t intend. I was correct. But he marked it zero and refused to let me rewrite it. The situation escalated. I had to take my argument all the way to the department head and get transferred out of his lab in order to be graded fairly. My theory is that he was offended I had alternatively interpreted his “perfectly” written question and his pride got in the way of evaluating my work objectively.

College admissions counselors know this concept well. Grade disparity exists not only from teacher to teacher, but from school to school. Some top schools are well known for grade inflation. Students show up to class, do the bare minimum, and earn As because that’s what they and their parents expect. It is very difficult to compare school to school, and sometimes difficult to compare student to student within schools if their teachers differ. Grades become an almost meaningless measure beyond a certain “passing well” threshold, defined differently by each university admissions office.

Within college/university, the pressure to earn good grades within one’s major courses intensifies. Higher education grades are seen as a reflection of a student’s ability to work in their chosen career. Students are “weeded out” or discouraged from continuing in their major if their grades don’t reflect a certain standard set by their advisor or department. Otherwise good students, trying to succeed in their chosen fields, are told that their self-worth as professionals in their careers is determined by the subjective evaluation of a few imperfect individuals.

Some students understandably quit prematurely when they’re told that their grades have damned them to a career of failure. This is almost always untrue, and yet it's so common it's joked about. A poor or even failing grade translates to the mindset of never being able to master the material (in the way the professor expects) and therefore never succeeding in the field, so why continue trying? Combine poor grades with social discouragement (presuming a student will fail because of their sex, ethnicity, background, physical abilities, etc.) drives away many students who would likely succeed with more support.

As I said, grades are only important as a gatekeeper. A certain threshold is needed to advance from grade to grade, to college/university, to advanced degrees, to gain certifications and credentials. A certain threshold is needed for scholarships, fellowships, grants, and awards, sometimes the very funds that allow a student to continue their education. Grades are important only because we as a society have made them important in our education system.

Grades are unimportant overall. Grades are not important in one’s career or job. Grades are not a measure of your professional ability, value, or self-worth.

I’m going to repeat that last statement, because I fell victim to believing it for so long: Grades are not a measure of your professional ability, value, or self-worth.

Because I was never a straight-A student, I suffered from impostor syndrome throughout my 12 years in higher education. I internalized the evaluations as my innate ability to learn and conduct science. I assumed that because my grades were okay but not excellent, I was doomed to be an okay but not excellent scientist. I hesitated to promote and advocate for myself as a student scientist. I mistook my grades for my professional worth. And no one corrected me.

Only my experience working as a professional has taught me how wrong I was and how I wronged myself for so long. In the adult world, no one asks what your grades were. I honestly don’t remember my GPA at any level, nor my SAT, nor my ACT, nor my GRE, etc. I’ve never asked anyone what their grades were, not even during the hiring process. Only browsing resumes will you sometimes see a GPA. I’ve never heard any colleagues ask what anyone else’s grades were. I've never heard a colleague spontaneously offer their grades. Those numbers have no power over us once we leave behind studenthood. 

Because grades don’t matter in the adult world. Yes, some companies require a certain threshold GPA for entry-level positions. But that’s uncommon, and only limited to entry-level positions. Beyond that, no one cares. In your entire adult working life, your grades as a student don't matter.

What matters in the adult world? Competency. Ability. Responsibility. Professionalism. Cooperation. Dedication. Creativity. And so many other traits that are not assessed on student tests. My ability to do great work in the profession I’m passionate about was never represented by the grades I received as a student.

Grades are not important in one’s career. Grades are not a measure of your professional ability, value, or self-worth. You are worth so much more than your GPA.


  1. In my adulthood, in all the times I've applied for jobs, I don't recall ever once being asked for grade transcripts.

    There may be some professions where transcripts are required -- SpaceX wants a minimum GPA of 3.5 -- but I've never been asked. Not once.

    1. I've noticed a lot of engineering companies (and other companies) that get a lot of applicants ask for a minimum GPA to weed out some of their overwhelming applicant pool. This is usually for entry-level positions and don't bar applicants from applying later in their career for higher-level positions. I think this is the wrong approach because many talented potential employees don't have the best grades or may be right under that cut-off. But I understand the need to cull the flood of resumes somehow.

      I've never been asked for grades during a hiring process, either. If I had been asked for transcripts, forget about it, I wouldn't have applied. Transcripts cost money.