How to deal with the heartbreak over a bad grade?
September 25, 2008 12:31 PM   Subscribe

How to deal with the heartbreak over a bad grade?

I am a first year masters students at a reasonably good university doing engineering. I have never been extremely smart, and my grades have been always good, but not spectacular. What has gotten me through all these years has been hard work and I mean REALLY hard work. Yet, despite the fact that I work harder than everyone else I know (no exaggeration), I always end up getting average grades. This especially hurts when I help someone else with the same course work, and they end up doing better than I, for example, in assignments or studying for the midterm. I have more or less come to peace with the fact that I am an average student, but why does it hurt SO bad when I can't get good grades in my courses, and does anyone have any advice on how to deal with the heartbreak? It's basically crippling to the point that for a day after I get my grades back I can't concentrate, though I know I would be much better off working instead of dwelling. This has also been going for as long as I remember, so I don't think I am ever going to get used to my average grades - it always hurts just as bad as the last time. I also end up eating chocolate and comfort food, which is pretty ridiculous. Please help!
posted by shamble to Education (24 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
it's O.K., engineering's tough. having a solid work ethic, being reliable goes a really long way in real life. school is just school. the world is different.

it'll be O.K.
posted by matteo at 12:34 PM on September 25, 2008

I know this is not flashy advice, but it's good. now you might be too stressed out to see that.
posted by matteo at 12:35 PM on September 25, 2008

Sometimes poetry helps me deal with sadness, so I offer you some Yeats:

To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing

Now all the truth is out,
Be secret and take defeat
From any brazen throat
For how can you compete,
Being honour bred, with one
Who, were it proved he lies,
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbours' eyes?
Bred to a harder thing
Than Triumph, turn away
And like a laughing string
Whereon mad fingers play
Amid a place of stone,
Be secret and exult,
Because of all things known
That is most difficult.
posted by onlyconnect at 12:42 PM on September 25, 2008 [10 favorites]

Following matteo, I'd say, take a deep breath, get distracted by other things. NOT things related to work or school. Watch a comedy. Talk a walk in the park (seriously). Hang out with your friends and drink the night away. Read a great book. Laugh laugh laugh. I'm not sure how much grades matter for graduate school (I assume you're in graduate school since you said you're a masters student, but hey, I'm just an undergrad, I don't know shit), but realize: grades are just numbers. In the real world, like matteo said, work ethic, social skills, personal traits - those matter so much more.

I too do get fussy over average grades. I get a B, I grumble. But you'll have to genuinely accept that hey, you did your best, and some people will be better than you. Don't think of others' accomplishments, just your own, and pat yourself on the back.
posted by curagea at 12:51 PM on September 25, 2008

I meant "Take a walk...". Damn rhyming got to my head.
posted by curagea at 12:53 PM on September 25, 2008

Think about how in 10 years none of those grades will matter.
posted by Airhen at 12:59 PM on September 25, 2008

You didn't mention if you've asked your instructor to explain what you could have done for a better grade---have you tried this? It's quite okay to be an average student---but you sound like you would be willing to makes changes that would lead to a better grade if you could be told what to do. Any instructor worth their salt should be able to show you your mistakes and give you advice on what to watch out for next time.

If you've done this over the years/with this assignment and/or you're just spent, do your best to focus on your achievements. You work very hard! I have met fewer hard workers than those who "just got it" and have always been incredibly impressed by them (I'm a teacher.) Be sure to seek validation from those friends and family members you trust.
posted by lacedback at 1:03 PM on September 25, 2008

Think about what you want to do AFTER graduation. In reality, the only thing your grades will matter for is getting your foot in the door. After that it's all your other qualities that will get you ahead.
posted by sid at 1:05 PM on September 25, 2008

I don't know how helpful this will be, but here goes. I've always been the kind of person who can put very little effort into school related things and come out with good grades. I'm not saying that this is a bad thing or that I have it worse than you, but I've envied people who do have to work hard. I've never really put a lot of effort into something for school, I have little work ethic and put things off until the last minute, and I don't feel I've ever reached my full potential- I'm not sure I have more potential than being a slacker who pulls it off. I think, when grades are over and done with and we're all out in the real world, people like you are better off than people like me. Think grasshopper and ant, here. Sometimes my lack of work ethic and study habits hurts me. It's a lazy way to live and a way of doing work that at some point, I'm going to have to change- probably with difficulty and pain. I feel guilty about my achievements because I feel I don't deserve them, because I didn't put in as much effort as others. In my not-so-learned opinion, having the ability to do work when you don't like it and don't want to do it and put your full self into it is a fantastic skill. Don't be so hard on yourself- you've worked to the fullness of your potential and a number doesn't reflect the full value your work has for you.
posted by MadamM at 1:12 PM on September 25, 2008 [5 favorites]

Your grades aren't going to mean as much as your degree does to a future employer. If you're not failing, and you know you're doing your best, then you're in good shape.

As someone who always made good grades without doing much work at all, I can say with some confidence that you're going to be better off than I am. Work counts for a lot more than natural ability or sheer intellect in most cases once you're out of school. I have a lot of trouble motivating myself to do anything that requires real effort, and I don't accomplish what I'd like to. School was a breeze but I wish it hadn't been. I envy you.
posted by Nattie at 1:14 PM on September 25, 2008

Unfortunately this one may only resolve itself in hindsight. But maybe you can borrow against hindsight if it seems inevitable enough. Perspective is the key. Five years from now, the grade you just made won't matter in the slightest bit. Probably much sooner, in fact. Since it won't wind up being significant, and you know that it won't, then in a way you could say that it's not in fact significant now. In the grand scheme of your life, it's not now and never will be. So let it go.

Also, it sounds like you are pinning your self worth on getting good grades, as in "good people get good grades. If I don't get good grades, I'm not good. I'm a failure." It may just be because you are a student and don't yet have many other measures of success, but it sounds like you are investing your whole identity into this, which is really unhealthy now and will only cause you more problems in the future. You've got to figure out a way to derive your self worth internally rather than externally. Anyone who knows and likes you and values you likes/values you for other reasons than your grades. So already there's a head start. Start with those things as the core of the new definition of yourself that you are going to build.

For example, we already know that you are a hard worker. Once you get past the bullshit hurdle of your degree and start working, your work ethic will matter so much more than your ability to score well on tests. People will value that. Why do your friends and family like you? Those are the things that are your real value. Start collecting things like that, and allow yourself to build a new set of reasons to say "I'm great."

Also, I heard an anecdote once. There was some conference and the speaker said something like. "Everyone who made A's in school, please stand up." And they did. Then he said, "OK sit down. Now all the C students please stand." And they did. Then he said, "A students, look around. These will be your bosses." The premise, IIRC, was that A students were often so rigidly fixated on being perfect that they did not develop the kind of flexibility that the C students, who applied themselves more broadly in their lives instead of just to schoolwork, did. Leaders know that nothing is perfect, and that perfection is rarely possible. They have to find a way to make imperfect situations work even when smarts or fairness or what they "deserve" are disregarded. The more rigid personality can't do this, and so can't lead as well. Who knows if any of this story is backed up by any real data, but it's something to think about and to begin to observe in the workplace. In my own life I saw my buddy who scraped all the way through high school and college with a 2.0 by the skin of his teeth vault very quickly past me after college, leaving me in the dust with a handful of useless A's and a confused look on my face.

Grades don't matter.

Being an average student is one aspect of you, but only one of very many. Another of your labels, I bet, is "not an Olympic sprinter". Loser! Kidding, kidding. You see the point though. Don't let "I'm not an excellent student" be your label and your definition and your shame. Raise that chin, buster! Life awaits!
posted by kookoobirdz at 1:17 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ooh, another thing. Life usually teaches you in ways you weren't looking for. You went to school to learn engineering but have instead been learning how to work very hard. Score! As others in the thread have noted, many people never learn that. Take this as a gift and start keeping an eye out for other unlooked-for education you get from your various challenges in life - that'll be the really valuable stuff in your growth as a person.

I'll also add that I was that guy in school that you envied. Like MadameM and Nattie, I never really had to try, just skated through easily. I defined myself by that. The unconscious assumption was that school = world and therefore I will cruise through life because I'm that good. Turns out school /= world at all and I instead fell flat on my face in it and have been crawling and limping since then. It's not that every A student will suck at life and every C student will be a CEO, but start right now rejecting the idea that academic performance will determine your course in life. Once you do that, the test scores will sting much much less.
posted by kookoobirdz at 1:28 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I agree with everyone above that your grades are not, in the long run, going to matter at all compared with your track record as a dedicated and self-motivated learner.

One suggestion I have, however, is to talk to your professors and make sure they know how much effort you're putting into the learning process. I'm *not* suggesting that you tell them how hard you work and express dissatisfaction with your grades. Instead, make appointments to talk to them about a particular topic you're studying in the class that you find interesting, make sure you're asking good questions in class, et cetera. Your professors know which students are putting in thoughtful effort and those who are doing the minimum for X grade, and you'll be getting the vastly superior recommendation letters.

And unlike grades, recommendations definitely matter.
posted by amelioration at 1:29 PM on September 25, 2008

You got dealt a brain with a given capacity, a body with a given capacity, looks, etc. Accepting your limitations will make your life easier. You also got a certain temperament, in your case, the ability to focus on a goal and work hard. Lots of people don't have that. You do. Define whatever else you have that's great, and whenever you're tempted to think "Poor old shamble me, I have to work harder" substitute "I'm really good at getting the job done, overcoming adversity, and I'm a killer mini-golf champ."
posted by theora55 at 2:25 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Leaving college is like going through a prism. In school, everyone's trying, in a sense, to do the same thing, accomplish the same thing, impress the same people - good grades, good papers, recommendations. White light, all the same, going in the same direction.

After that, though, people go in all different directions, and will be more or less suited to the directions they go in. You'll really shine then. You'll be vivid, you'll go in a direction that really suits you. The hard work and just plain doggedness that you've exhibited so far will serve you so much better than test scores ever served anyone.

A few years of that, and you should be able to relax; everyone will like you as long as you don't get smug about beating out all the smarty-pants you secretly resented in college.
posted by amtho at 2:35 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

This especially hurts when I help someone else with the same course work, and they end up doing better than I

It sounds like you have a great talent for explaining things to people and maintaining your social network. I wish I was better at these things. These skills will be much more helpful over the course of your lifetime than good grades would be.
posted by yohko at 3:04 PM on September 25, 2008

I'm a lot like you -- I worked really hard when I was in engineering school for average grades, while people around me worked way less and did better. It hurt the whole time I was in school. One professor somehow got the idea that I was pretty bright and treated me that way -- even wrote me letters of recommendation when I graduated. I knew I was kind of slow, though. And so when those nice letters got me a nice job I felt like it was a fluke. But I actually did pretty well.

Here's where I may not be like you, but I will throw out what I have come to realize a long, long time after graduating. In engineering school (and in a lot of other pursuits) it's possible to focus on doing well by learning how to get answers without actually understanding much. It becomes a game, and some people are really good at that game. I was trying to understand things, and that really does take hard work for most people. And as a broad generalization, the kinds of exams that are written for engineering courses are meant to test for short-term recall and algorithmic solution.

Again, this may not be what the issue is for you -- I don't know you. But is it possible that you are studying for understanding (and this is why you can explain things to others) while they are studying for test success? If this is the case, I think you'll find that once you start working (or doing work in a lab as a graduate student) the work you have put in to actually figuring things out and the work ethic you have developed make you much better qualified to succeed (and to enjoy what you are doing). Ultimately, the skill of getting answers for the kinds of canned problems that often show up on exams isn't great preparation for working on real engineering problems in real work environments.
posted by Killick at 3:54 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Grades don't matter. Well... not in the way that you think they will. What matters is your effort and your work ethic. You obviously seem to work hard. Which will be the only thing that matters when you get an actual job.

You'll be fine buddy.

As for your anxiety with the whole matter, I don't know. It's important to try hard and get decent grades, but you shouldn't tie your self esteem into it. It's just not worth. What else makes you happy? Besides food. And if it is food, learn to cook and make it a productive enterprise. Learning to really, really cook was the most productive thing I've ever done, because it put everything else in my life in perspective.
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 4:51 PM on September 25, 2008

I am not an engineer or engineering student, but I know a lot of engineers. From what I can tell, the main purpose of engineering school is to weed out people who don't want to work hard or figure things out. The fact that you know how and are willing [this is key] to do both these things means you have the makings of a great engineer, whatever your grades. Stop worrying and go buy yourself a beer.
posted by Commander Rachek at 5:25 PM on September 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

I have no idea what grade I got in any class ever. That information has fallen right out my brain, despite not being old or senile, despite taking grades very (overly) seriously at one point in my life.

I guarantee you 100% and bet you the rest of the money I will make in this life that it will happen to you too, and not too long from now.
posted by Ookseer at 6:05 PM on September 25, 2008

I'm not very good at chess. I mean, there are millions of people around the world who can crush my game with their eye closed.

I still enjoy the game though. It is a beautiful game, it is worth playing, and I like the feeling that my efforts are rewarded, and that I am better now than I used to be.
posted by gmarceau at 8:07 PM on September 25, 2008 [3 favorites]'s possible to focus on doing well by learning how to get answers without actually understanding much. It becomes a game, and some people are really good at that game. I was trying to understand things, and that really does take hard work for most people.

Excellent point. I want to highlight this, since I think it is too often overlooked.

I love to learn, think, delve into theory, and solve problems - I find the process of it intrinsically satisfying. I enjoy studying and challenging myself intellectually, and I give it my best effort. Sometimes I get high grades, and other times I don't. I try not to sweat it too much. If I've done my best, then that's really all I can (and should) expect of myself.

The "game the system/get the right answers" approach may result in good grades, but it doesn't always result in understanding of the material. You are focusing on real learning, which will serve you better in the long run, regardless of grades. You're also developing steady work habits, which - as you've already seen - will also serve you well in life.

It's easy to get caught up in the idea that grades are a straightforward, accurate measure of a person's abilities, but that's not always the case. All kinds of factors come into play in determining a final grade: the abilities and temperament of the instructor, the "fit" between the instructor's teaching style and the student's learning style, suitability of the classroom atmosphere, difficulty of exams and projects, the student's life circumstances outside of class (health, work schedule, family commitments, etc.) Smart employers know this, and will take it into consideration when hiring.

Also, as others have said, GPA rapidly becomes a non-issue once you've proven your abilities in the work world.

In the meantime, you could try to build friendships or start study groups with other motivated students who approach learning the same way you do (but don't necessarily get the highest grades). Perhaps that would help to get your focus off of the people who seem to get good grades effortlessly.
posted by velvet winter at 8:34 PM on September 25, 2008

Chances are that a lot of these people learn to pass the exam (including exam technique) rather than learning engineering. Now from my experience exam technique goes very far in getting you a pass with very little preparation and allows you to do very well with moderate preparation (no egineering experience here mind).

You could now spend the rest of your course worrying about changing that or you could enjoy the time left before you have to join the rat race and remember that nobody cares about your exam results once you've got a job in the real world...
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:14 PM on September 26, 2008

I know this is a late response, but...

I'm in the same boat as you. I'm an undergrad engineering student. I agonize and stress out leading up to the test, then after I take the test I start thinking about mistakes I could have made and dwell on them. I go to a study group and explain things to my peers, who don't seem to understand nearly as well as I do, and then they do better on the exam than I. When I study, I really try to understand the material, rather than just memorize how to do problems. I've found I do better in labs and classes that require you to think, but don't force you to do it in a testing situation. In engineering, everyone has their strengths and their weaknesses. It really seems to average out in the end, making everyone "average." Sure, there are students that get good grades all throughout college, but they aren't going to be nearly as successful in the long-run unless they possess other traits besides "good test taker."

Essentially, I think you and I have been suffering from the same problem. We identify with our grades. If you're the same as me, deep down you know you are really smart, and the fact that you aren't doing as well as other people is what is getting you down. Try not to compare yourself to everyone else because it will just make you crazy. Just think, you've already gotten into graduate school. Once you get a job, these grades will all be behind you and you won't have to think about them or dwell on them ever again!
posted by nel at 5:10 PM on October 29, 2008

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