If you’ve ever found yourself grieving over a C+ or struggling to push a B to an A (or considering dropping out of college after a D or an F) this blog post is for you.
Because on one had, grades matter, and on another, much gentler hand, they don’t matter at all.
Today I’m going to share with you just what grades really say about you, when grades matter, and when they don’t.
The truth about Grades
You don’t need stellar grades to be a massive success. Look to all the people who dropped out of college to pursue a career outside of academics (think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah…)
Even yours truly has a pauper to prince tale to tell.
Middle school was a massive struggle. I’d gone from a small, private elementary school to a sprawling public middle school with few people around to call friend. My mom literally had to push me out of her car some mornings. I would cry as we pulled into the parking lot. I became really good at faking being sick so I could just stay on the couch and not face what middle school was to me: unmanageable.
My grades were all over the place. A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s, and F’s all graced my report card at one time or another.
My parents took away the television so I wouldn’t be distracted. But the problem was fundamental.
I didn’t know how this new school worked, I didn’t know how I fit in, and I didn’t know how to cope with the struggle (or why I should be struggling anyway).
All this uncertainty followed me to high school where I spent more time trying to get out of school than go to it.
By the time sophomore year came around I had failed so badly in all of my classes I was sent to a continuation school (if you’re unfamiliar with continuation schools, it’s where you get sent when you mess up too badly to continue at the “real school”).
This school was full of the “bad” kids. The kids who misbehaved, who treated school as something unnecessary, who didn’t gaf.
I felt both like I belonged there, and like I didn’t -- not at all.
Because I was a learner at heart. I loved reading, I loved learning, I just hated the institution of school. Mandatory classes, lame teachers, and this push to get “good grades,” as if grades were somehow a measure of my intelligence.
Surprisingly, I thrived at the continuation school. I had a really low bar to live up to.
Succeeding was pretty simple: show up, pay attention just a little bit more than others, act out just a little bit less, do the homework, and voila: you get an A.
Pretty soon, I finished all the available classes at the continuation school and was moved to independent study, so that I could take more advanced classes.
After leaving high school with a 0.00 GPA (believe me folks, you have to try pretty darn hard to fail that badly), I graduated from independent study with a 4.01.
And this isn’t a story where the taste of success fueled me to stardom.
Three years of community college meant decent, but not incredible grades.
It wasn’t until I went to UC Berkeley that I really kicked things into high gear.
Because I felt like before that, grades didn’t really matter that much. And I was right.
What Grades are NOT:
A Measure of your Intelligence
Grades, SAT scores, and other ways of measuring “how intelligent you are” are never actually measuring how intelligent you are.
The only thing the SAT and other tests measure is how well you can take the test.
The only thing grades measure is how well you can take a class.
Grades are as dependent on your teacher’s temperament as they are on your intelligence. Notice how sometimes it feels like you can get an “easy A” and other times you have to work your butt off just to eke out a B-?
If you had the perfect formula for every class, you could get A’s without much difficulty. The formula may look something like this:
Show up on time (does this require intelligence? no.)
Actively listen in class (does this require intelligence? no.)
Participate (does this require intelligence? A tiny bit. This makes it easier.)
Do your homework (does this require intelligence? Again, only a little bit. If you’re struggling to understanding a concept you were supposed to learned in class, ask a tutor, classmate, a teacher, or your parents for help.)
Perform well on tests (tests measure how well you understand the concepts you’ve learned. It’s not a measure of intelligence, but knowledge. If you’re struggling to understand concepts, get a tutor, meet with your teacher for extra practice, or use a secondary source like Kahn Academy or Crash Course so you can better understand hard concepts.)
An indicator of how well you’ll succeed
Grades are no indicator of how well you’ll succeed in life, or in later schooling. Again, think about the people who dropped out of college to be massively successful. I went from that 0.00 GPA to a 3.94 at UC Berkeley.
Plenty of students who are star high schoolers enter college and crash and burn. Plenty of students who struggled through high school crush at college.
If you want to have a sense of how well you’ll succeed later in life, you need to evaluate your ability to perform at a high level.
I say perform because it’s helpful to think of college as a game. If you learn how to play, you can choose to follow the rules that will lead to success (note that how you define success will change what rules you’re going to follow).
A test for whether or not you’ll be a good worker
An employer wants to hire someone who is capable of doing hard work. There’s the idea that grades are supposed to indicate how hard you can work, but in reality, your track record at other jobs is a stronger indicator of this.
If you want to build an impressive resume, build up areas outside of your classes. This can be clubs, volunteer work, internships, or other jobs.
Many employers won’t even have a space on the application for your GPA, and it’s not required on your resume.
A measure for whether or not your life is successful
The worst thing about believing too much in grades is that it puts a lot of overwhelming pressure on you to achieve high grades.
If you have a lot of anxiety over your grades, you may actually be hurting your performance.
I don’t hear many students complaining that they aren’t quite getting all of the skills they need to succeed in their field, which is actually way more pressing and important than grades, yet we place a lot of weight on these little letters next to the classes we’ve taken.
A pass or fail can shift our feelings of self worth dramatically.
But passing or failing doesn’t actually mean much in the real world. If you’re skill-focused, you can fail a class while still understanding that you gained some skills from that class.
If you have no new understanding about a particular topic after a class, that’s when you’re in real trouble.
Stop feeling like it’s the end of the world if you get a B, C, or D. Because it’s not. The world keeps going. You can keep growing.
And you can crush in more ways than you ever imagined if you stopped worrying about your grade.
What IS More Important than Grades
Learning how to manage the school system
Most students who are successful in college have learned how to manage the school system.
They’ve figured out how to prioritize so that the important things get done, and the fluff isn’t bothered with.
They know that school is more than classes: it’s your relationship with your professors (I’ll come back to this shortly), your outside activities, the skills you’re building up like you would a video game character.
They know how to deal with the administration when there’s an issue or when they need something.
They know how to show up on time, participate, and do the hard work.
They know why they are doing the work assigned to them.
The purpose of writing an essay isn’t the 20 points toward your final grade. The purpose is to learn how to communicate ideas, how to have ideas worth communicating, how to write clearly and concisely, how to present an issue, how to discuss a topic that matters to you so that you can shape the way other people see the topic.
There are a hundred different reasons for writing an essay. You get to pick what’s important to you and that supercharges your ability to learn. This is true of every aspect of school.
The students who manage the system well are those that are attuned to those skills that will help them later in life.
If you’re not sure what those are, or what you need in order to be successful, book a quick coaching call with me and let’s figure out your ideal plan together! You’ll come away with a formula you can use for your personal definition of success that lets you achieve your highest goals.
Engaging with your professors
Your professors are your golden ticket to success in college. They’re the ones in control of those little things called grades, and they’re the ones that are helping you understand the valuable skills that will make you an asset in the world.
Instead of being just another body in the classroom, talk to your professors so they get to know you.
They can offer you opportunities like scholarships, volunteer positions, extra projects, and internships that will help you supercharge your post-collegiate success.
Skills / Knowledge / Application
What skills you’ve learned, what knowledge you’ve really assimilated, and your ability to apply what you’ve learned out there in the world is the heart of what college is about.
College does not exist so you can get the degree that will let you be a doctor/lawyer/painter. College exists so you can develop the skills you need to be a successful doctor/lawyer/painter.
If you went through college studying political science with a focus in international relations because you wanted to become a lobbyist, but then changed your mind about wanting to be a lobbyist and instead want to go into design, you’re pretty much stuck with a useless degree.
However, if you went through college gaining skills in poli sci and international relations, you may be able to see how you can use principles of anarchy or constructivism in your desired design career.
In fact, you may now be better equipped than designers who studied design because you can bring fresh new principles into your practice that come from a completely different perspective.
(side note: the ability to translate your knowledge to another field is called creative idea brokering, and it’s an incredibly powerful way to make breakthroughs in your work.)
YOU are more important that your grades. That means your mental and physical health. If college is giving you anxiety or depression you need to take a huge step back and make changes that prioritize your health over your grades.
Even though college seems like the most important thing in your stepping stone to success, it’s not.
You can absolutely develop all of the skills you need to be successful outside of college.
College is just a tool to help you get those skills.
You wouldn’t cry and curse the hammer you’re using to build a birdhouse just because you bent a few nails. So don’t let college become this all consuming make-or-break-your-soul kind of institution.
It’s just a hammer. And you can totally build a birdhouse with a few bent nails.
Understanding what’s important and what isn’t
All of this post is really to help you gain a better sense of what is important and what isn’t.
You can use these alternatives to grades as a measure of how successful you feel you’re doing in college.
When Grades Matter
Applying to college/grad school
Pretty much the only time grades are going to have a major impact on your life is when you apply to college or graduate school, or apply for scholarships and fellowships.
Grades matter when you want to get into a competitive college or graduate program. To find out strategies that won’t break your brain for how to get those awesome grades, enroll in my free Straight A’s in 10 days email course >>
Certain job applications
Maaayybbe you’ll come across a job application that asks you to enter your GPA. If your GPA is less than impressive, include a cover letter that explains why you should be assessed on achievements other than your GPA.
In these situations GPA is still somewhat negotiable.
Hopefully now you’re feeling like skills are more important than grades, and YOU are the most precious piece of the equation.
Go out there and crush it!