--> divine angst: grades

Thursday, December 09, 2004


Last night Mr. Angst and I sat at one of our favorite local restaurants and did math. We were trying to figure out how it was that he needed to get an 88 on yesterday's final exam to get an A in that class. He didn't—it turns out he did his math wrong and only needed a 72, which means his post-BA 4.0 streak is probably holding—but I think our waiter was startled by the page of numbers I was scribbling on when he came to take our orders.

At any rate, it got me thinking about grades. Mr. Angst had what I would consider the typical undergraduate experience at a big state university. He enjoyed himself and did the bare minimum for a while, only realizing in his last few semesters that grades do matter. His final degree GPA is not stellar, but it's not awful. It's...average. He, however, is not average, and has spent a lot of time since then proving it. Hence the 4.0 streak since he got his BA.

Last night, when he thought he was going to end up with a B in this one class because the exam was stupid (it was, believe me), he was really bummed. And on one level, I get that. But another part of me was thinking, hey, a B isn't bad.

I have a lot of ambivalence about grades. On the one hand, I am intensely competitive and hate to do poorly. But on the other hand, if I don't do as well as everyone else because everyone else is just plain smarter than I am, I can handle it. This explains my own GPA trend. I started out OK. Everyone told me that I would leave my rather small high school, where I was a big fish in a little pond, and get into college and discover that I was now in the middle of a pond with a bunch of other fish exactly as big as me, and some that were bigger. I took that to heart and wasn't really upset with myself for not acing my freshman year. My relative mediocrity was fine with me—everyone else was just better at those subjects than I was, or smarter, or a better writer. As I meandered through my major coursework, though, my GPA went up and up and up, proving to me that I had found my niche. My instincts were spot on: at some things I was better than others, and I just happened to be good enough at many things to end up with what I thought was a really amazing GPA.

Of course now, with applying to law school, I wish I had aced my freshman year. And my sophomore year, too. My GPA is good, and in fact remarkable for my school which has absolutely no grade inflation, thanks guys. But compared to the competition, it's just OK again. And I have a problem with that. Because I know my GPA is probably better than it looks. I'm not getting shunted down the admissions ladder because everyone else is better than me, or smarter, or a better writer. I'm getting shunted down because GPAs, despite LSACs claims, are NOT normalized. And that really bothers me. It hurts. It sucks. I admit it, I'm pissed about it.

(I'm even more pissed when people with my same GPA apologize for their grades, like it's something to be ashamed of. Seriously? Look around you and be thankful for your abilities.)

All I can do is hope and pray that when my apps get reviewed, the readers take the time to actually look up my alma mater and see what kind of place it is, and put my grades in perspective. Because I really believe that, everytime some prof on the admissions committee tosses my stuff in the "ding" pile for no other reason than my numbers, her law school loses something. (No, not just me as a student.) The "numbers game" is absurd—particularly because it's driven by the "rankings game"—and the eventual losers aren't the schools who drop in rank, it's the schools that give up good students because their numbers don't fit the model.