Chasing grades
May 24, 2007 6:51 PM   Subscribe

Chasing grades is no longer working for me. I feel terrible when I get less than perfect grade, even if I have put in a great effort, even if I get the next best grade.

Yesterday I got an award for having the highest GPA in my cohort last year. I felt great. Today I got a Distinction on an assignment instead of a High Distinction. I'm miserable. That's stupid. I have no intention of going to grad school. My future career will depend on a decent portfolio rather than a GPA. I'm still afraid I won't be good enough to compete against young designers but that's a bridge to cross 18 months from now. I just don't know what's reasonable to aim for, to be happy with. Suggestions? Websites?

Details: Australia, distance education & mature age student, university, multimedia design, female, email in profile. Grading system as follows: Fail (>50%), pass (50-65%), credit(65-75%), distinction(75-85%), high distinction (85-100%)
posted by b33j to Education (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know what the convention is in Australia, but in the United States employers never ask for your GPA. It only matters when you want to go to grad school or apply for scholarships and such. When it comes to the professional world, it's all about work experience, who you know, and what you can do. A good portfolio more that makes up for less-than-perfect grades. Don't worry about a perfect GPA. If you feel like you don't want to kill yourself over grades but you also worry that you won't be good enough in a competitive job market, redirect some of your energy away from grades and toward improving your portfolio and skills. You'll be glad you did.
posted by HotPatatta at 6:57 PM on May 24, 2007

As we used to say; 51% - wasted effort. 49% - wasted year.

You state you got an award for having the highest GPA last year - this means that relative to everyone else, relative to the people you are competing against, you're still the best there is. Be happy with that. Be very happy with that.

Although not completely relevant to your exact situation, take a look at this. In my final year of highschool, in my year 12 exam, I only got 59% for Biology. In university, in my Aquatic Biology subject, I got 54%.

I'm now working as an ecologist in coastal wetland systems at an Australian university, having submitted my PhD thesis a few months ago. Grades don't mean shit - and I would imagine that's even more the case in fields like design.
posted by Jimbob at 7:02 PM on May 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

I live in the US, and have been asked to give my GPA many times. Just sayin, to clear that up.
posted by sweetkid at 7:03 PM on May 24, 2007

HotPattatta is not correct. I've been asked for my GPA here in the United States by employers on more than one occasion. I've been out of college for 7 years now and I was just asked for it a couple of months ago when applying to a place. More often than not I'm not asked, but I'd say that fresh out of college you're almost always asked here in the states. Later on you're asked much less.

Anyway, to the poster's original concern: Every smart person runs into this at some point. You realize that grades and marks are not your life, and that they don't necessarily make you a better person than the guy/girl who got all C's.

Just think about what you want out of life. What makes you happy. Does getting a design job sound like it'd make you happy? Then work on a portfolio and come up with some artwork you're happy with, be proud of it, and present it and get yourself that job.

Your goals don't need to be numbers. They can be achievements, lifestyle choices, or anything you want them to be.

You're obviously competitive, and you can't just "shut off" your disappointment over the numbers you get overnight... but rest assured you'll learn to live with it, and even if you don't - you stop getting numerical grades once you're done with school.
posted by twiggy at 7:03 PM on May 24, 2007

I should add that in my experience, mature-entry students tend to be much more concerned about grades than the students straight out of high school. I imagine this is because mature-entry students haven't been judged with numbers for a long, long while, while the students out of highschool have been putting up with it for a long time, and are used to the dissapointment, or are better at understanding the often arbitrary and inequitable way in which marks are assigned.
posted by Jimbob at 7:12 PM on May 24, 2007

Extreme perfectionism is very common among high achievers. It's a vicious cycle that repeats itself and generally leaves a person exhausted and feeling less than satisfied. Yet, it's very difficult to break out of. I've always dealt with perfectionism but experienced similar feelings regarding my work. I achieved much but didn't think about it logically. I'd dismiss compliments, accolades, even high honors, and not count their actual significance because I felt I could have done better.

Doing everything with honors wasn't enough, I'd feel stupid and not good enough.

Today, I know those thoughts and can catch them before they wreck my self esteem, but for many years, I fought a similar problem.

As for solutions, it's very individual. Breaking perfectionism lies in breaking the thought patterns associated with perfectionism. That's not easy. Anything from working on your self-esteem in various ways to cognitive behavior therapy can help.

This is one website I used for a little while.

The most important thing is to realize you have a problem (and it seems you have), and then commit yourself to working hard to catch those self-poisoning negative thoughts. Tell others you're working on this particular problem (if you're comfortable). That adds accountability, but also support. A loved one actually brought to my attention how much I was devaluing my own achievements and qualities.

It's a struggle, but I promise it's worth it. Good luck.
posted by cmgonzalez at 7:12 PM on May 24, 2007

You exist because you exist. Good grades are not the reason that you have signifcance in life.

That said, there should be a separation between doing well at work or school and being happy. You work hard and study hard because it is good to do your best. Good for society and for you. But if you look for work or grades to be the cause of your happiness, you will find that you will be let down (as you are finding now). Even a streetsweeper should do their best at work and knows that there is societal significance and personal significance (paycheck). But the family at home that gives him happiness has nothing to do with his streetsweeping (except that they benefit from his streetsweeping as well--paycheck).

In the end these posts are just opinions. Think and feel it through. You will be fine.
posted by boots77 at 7:23 PM on May 24, 2007

Sigh, I could have written this. I graduate magna cum laude in three weeks and have been beating myself up all quarter for not hitting summa. I know it's incredibly stupid. You do too. But we haven't figured out good ways to measure ourselves that don't involve these sometimes arbitrary outside opinions. GPA is a number that is all too easy to latch onto.

From what I can tell, I feel better if I have something else outside school that I am reasonably good at - or even pretty bad at. Whether it's a project of reading lots of books, or taking a class in a martial art or a craft, having some kind of non-school outlet where nobody's standing over my head with a red pen is a good distraction. Weirdly, if I'm not being graded I find it very easy to accept not being great at something. I always figured that I didn't like it when other people saw me sucking at something, but I think it's actually more that I don't like it when my sucking at something is recorded for posterity.
posted by crinklebat at 7:28 PM on May 24, 2007

Lots of people have commented on the perfectionism part but it sounds like you need some help figure out how you know when you have done well enough. I think there is a two part answer. First, how important is this? How much effort does it deserve? The second question is Do you feel like you did Judge yourself based on effort (did you do your best within the limited time you could reasonably spend on that project or subject.) and results (did you learn anything in that class? Are you happy with your work?). Sometimes a mediocre grade in a hard class can be a major accomplishment. Sometimes you can get A with no real effort or deep learning. Develop own sense of how you feel about what you did rather than relying on the outside number.
posted by metahawk at 8:16 PM on May 24, 2007

Perfectionism will destroy you. Take a sheet of paper and write down the advantages of believing that your worth equals your grades. Repeat as necessary.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:36 PM on May 24, 2007

metahawk has it. You are really good at school. This has caused you to set your own self-expectations really high and set yourself up for failure and disappointment.

What things do you enjoy doing but are not naturally good at? Pick one and focus your energy away from grades and on getting better at whatever that thing is. Doing this will have two benefits: you will feel better about yourself, and will make yourself a more well-rounded person at the same time.

Perfect example: Michael Jordan, arguably the best basketball player ever to play the game, quit playing basketball and took up baseball. If MJ can walk away from basketball, you can ease up on the classroom stuff for awhile.
posted by jtfowl0 at 8:51 PM on May 24, 2007

Sorry I forgot to indicate you should put on the other side of the paper the disadvantages.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:54 PM on May 24, 2007

I'm a recovering perfectionist who has lived with perfectionists all my life. I will put in the obligatory AskMe word for the behavioral therapy book Feeling Good, which addresses exactly these kinds of cognitive "distortions." Also, therapy and, if necessary, especially if this accompanies other problems - temporary medication (IANAD). These things can help you learn to walk yourself through irrational (and yes, they are irrational) thoughts and get on with your life. Perfectionism can ruin your life, so take your problem seriously. I've seen it many times - high achievers so paralyzed with fear of not continuing to be perfect that they can't get anything done at all. Good luck.
posted by walla at 5:44 AM on May 25, 2007

Carol Dweck has done fantastic research on the effect of having performance goals versus the effect of having learning goals. In short, having performance goals leads to the kinds of crushing, disempowering feelings that you're having, and ultimately it leads to underperformance relative to similarly able people who have learning goals.

You can read about this in the effort effect, or in one of the all-time most favorited ever posts on Metafilter. According to Dweck, it mostly boils down to your belief about human intelligence: is it a fixed quantity, or something that can be developed. (Hint: the latter belief leads to higher achievement and more happiness.)
posted by alms at 6:45 AM on May 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yeah, sometimes a U.S. employer will ask what your GPA was years ago in high school or college, but it appears to me they do it not because it's important, or even relevant, but because "we've always done it that way."

After a sufficient number of years have passed, you will realize that the actual grades you earned in college aren't all that important, compared to the fact that you completed all those courses, learned all that material, and graduated.

Grades matter to us when we're in school because they're feedback about how well we're doing in our courses, and that's good. But to take it further, and hang our self-worth on getting really good/excellent/superb grades, isn't.

Ever considered getting some personal counselling? Now might be a good time. Talking with a professional could help you understand why you're so grade-conscious and help you decide what you want to do about it.
posted by exphysicist345 at 7:47 PM on May 25, 2007

I remember you mentioning you were in Queensland. Are you in QUT by any chance? Sounds like you're in my faculty...

I have similar issues to you. I haven't been one for grades (I'd usually do well in school without trying, which just made me more apathetic about grades) but now I'm in uni with a scholarship, and that's actually stressing me out more. I'm battling a strong bout of depression, which is affecting my work quality, which is just making me more depressed. I sometimes feel that if I didn't have this scholarship, I'd be better off - at least I don't have to hit an established standard of work. I can still pass anyway, but with this scholarship I have to do better than just pass, which is stressful.

I don't have many answers, but I suppose one way is to just do it anyway and hope for the best. It's better to do SOMETHING even if it's a low pass, rather than doing NOTHING and definitely failing because you haven't handed anything in.

Good luck, you're not alone.
posted by divabat at 4:15 PM on May 26, 2007

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