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Harvard’s Pervasive Culture of the ‘A’

Harvard Law School. 3.9. Harvard Medical School. 3.9. Yale Law School. 3.92. These are the average or median grade point averages amongst applicants to just three of the country’s many sought-after graduate schools. To put things in perspective, a 3.9 GPA roughly correlates to all A’s with two “allowed” B-minuses. Combine this lofty GPA goal with the grind of a Harvard student, and you can easily see how much students at Harvard treasure their GPA.

While setting high academic standards is important, many harmful effects can consequently develop. Students at Harvard may be often stressed if they obsess over each grade they receive, poorly impacting their mental health. In addition, the GPA-obsessed culture at Harvard can detract from students’ learning. Students at Harvard often take easier classes knowing they have higher chances to receive an A or 4.0 in that class. They sometimes opt to take the classes for the sake of their GPA and not for the sake of learning more.

However, Harvard strives for an “intellectual transformation,” not a “numerical transformation.” Harvard’s mission statement is not to get their citizens into graduate school, but instead to “educate the citizens and citizen-leaders of society.” The attachment of many Harvard students to GPA can both result in students being unable to cope with failure, or also cause them to see failure as anything less than perfection.

In high school, many students would often regularly feel satisfied with a much wider variety of grades than an A. Here though, many students might feel they must get an A, and an A only. At a university that is filled with students who were used to receiving A’s in high school, it only seems natural that these students would expect the same grades in college. However, for many students, the rigor at Harvard is far more difficult than the level they were used to in high school. The increased difficulty of college compared to high school frustrates many students who expect to receive an A. These high expectations are at the core of the students’ hyper-stress and worry. The solution? Students should change their expectations.

By changing their expectations from receiving an A in a class to other possible grades — be it an A-minus, B, or any other grade, the frustration and stress of many students is no longer present. They no longer must worry that they have to receive an A, for now they’ve accepted that an A isn’t always attainable. In addition, students can prepare for the case that they do end up doing much more poorly than anticipated. By no longer expecting and relying on their ability to get an A, students can focus on trying their best and be at peace with whatever grade they receive.

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Students changing their expectations, however, does not mean they should care less about their grades and use that as an excuse to achieve lower grades, for their GPAs may still be imperative for them to access future opportunities. I simply suggest a change in mindset to decrease student’s preoccupation with a certain letter grade. While the outcome of the grade may be similar, the stress experienced to achieve that grade is nearly completely mitigated. However, there is a forewarning: Students need to ensure that decreasing their expectations does not translate into decreasing hard work. Instead, students should work their hardest, and therefore, no longer become preoccupied with the grade they’re going to achieve in the end. Ultimately, the most one can do is try their hardest and be satisfied with the result.

I began my year at Harvard wanting to achieve that coveted 4.0. However, after almost a year of being here, I’ve learned that I cannot expect to receive an A in all classes. By expecting a specific high grade, many students can end up majorly disappointed and are often left questioning, “What could I have done better?” However, by working one’s hardest, yet not expecting a grade seemingly equivalent in their minds to hard work, one can ensure they maintain a minimally-stressed mindset while likely achieving similar results to a unhealthy, high-expectation based, stressed mindset.

Alec M. Kennison ’22, an inactive Crimson editorial editor, lives in Thayer Hall.

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