Do You Have GPA Anxiety?

Willa Wang, Managing Forum Editor

On the night of Dec. 23, I was a little bit nervous with excitement. I tried to let myself do some other things to get rid of my anxiety. What was I anxious about? My grade point average (GPA). Would I cry if my final grades didn’t meet my expectations? What’s the meaning of these numbers? You might have also had these thoughts. Do you have “GPA anxiety”? 

It can be disappointing when people’s expectations don’t match their abilities. Many of my friends wish they could get a high GPA because they feel it would mean that they are good students. A wonderful GPA means a nice start to your college journey, especially for first-years. However, the essence of GPA has changed these days. It no longer shows how good of a student you are but instead represents what percentage you are in your class; therefore, students not only wish they could do well but also that they are the top student. When the majority of the student body all want to be the top students, they all start to work harder and try to get As, making it more difficult for anyone to be at the top. This is the cause of “GPA anxiety.” 

According to Grade Inflation at American Colleges and Universities, the average student GPA at colleges in the U.S. was about 2.83 in 1983, 2.94 in 1993, 3.06 in 2003 and 3.14 in 2013, which illustrate a steady increase over the past few decades. Similar GPA trends appear in private schools: 2.95 in 1983, 3.07 in 1993, 3.21 in 2003 and 3.3 in 2013. Without a doubt, most colleges in the U.S. have experienced GPA inflation and are continuing to increase their students’ GPAs. This trend also applies to Bates: According to The Bates Student and College Catalog, Bates students’ average GPA was 3.15 in 1995, 3.34 in 2003 and 3.36 in 2006. Just three years ago in the fall semester of 2018, students whose GPA above 3.77 were named to the Dean’s List. Last semester, students whose GPA was above 3.92 were named to the Dean’s List. This means, at Bates, 25% of students have a GPA of 3.92 or higher!

Why are students nowadays so competitive? I believe there are three reasons: 

First of all, increasing average GPA and intense competition among the student body mirror the intense competition in the job market. GPA is extremely important for students who want to work directly after they graduate from college. Lauren Rivera, an expert on workplace personnel practices, investigated hiring decisions for top-tier investment banks, consulting firms and law firms in 2015. One of her conclusions, “Percent of Evaluator Who Used Each Quality in Resume Screening” in her bookPedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs,” conveys that school prestige is the most important factor in the hiring process; the second factor is extracurricular activities; grades are the third.

The truth behind the “education changes lives” statement is the “Matthew Effect”: Only elite students can get elite jobs. Thus, grades have become the most important factor that students can control after they enroll in colleges that don’t depend on their social and economic background the same way that school prestige and extracurricular involvements do. Besides, increasing the average GPA and the competitive job market have a cyclical impact on each other. When every applicant has a high grade, the job market becomes more competitive; therefore, applicants have to pursue higher grades to be qualified.

Further, GPA inflation might indicate that students nowadays lack intrinsic motivation for learning. They need external motivation in the form of their GPA. The correlation between a high GPA and getting into a good school or a good job has already formed a toxic cycle. Our generation is told that we should work hard and get good grades because perfect grades would guarantee you a spot at a good school in the future. Then, a diploma from a prestigious school on your resume would promise you an elite job.

However, what is the true aim of learning? A lot of high-achieving students never question this — they already achieved excellent academic performance in their first 18 years of life. But when those same students enroll in a college that brings together many excellent straight-A students, they’ve suddenly lost the meaning of learning and even life. They’re no longer the competition winner, they’re just another competitor in a pool of similarly superb students. In this case, students who haven’t found the meaning of their life yet might think a high GPA is the only way to validate the value of their existence. 

How does one inspire these “missing students” to be active in the classroom? This is a hard question for college professors. Grades are the most direct motivation. Among the several factors students use to evaluate their professors on Rate My Professor, one is your final course grade; when they’re determining if this is a “good professor,” most people would also mention if the professor is a hard grader. Would you hesitate to register for a course when you know the professor is a tough grader?

What’s more, GPA has become the chip in the trade between students and schools. Instead of being learners and educators, they both have new roles: consumer and seller. Students pay tuition to schools and expect to get what they want: education, irreplaceable experiences, friends and, most importantly, the keys to success. Schools have to help them. Besides, schools themselves also worry about their future. The effect of a low average GPA is that more and more students quit the school or transfer to another, which would hurt a school’s prestige and financial support. Thus, GPA inflation is a win-win business between these two parties, foreseeing the transition of the purpose of education; schools are no longer “lyceum,” but rather, “market.”

As college students, how should we face GPA anxiety legitimately? GPA is only a tool. Nobody should be defined and limited by a number. My roommate once told me: “School is a bubble that makes me comfortable, but instead of grades and other things inside this bubble, debates make me complete.” For me, I would feel incomplete if I stopped thinking and writing. What makes you, “you”? What makes your life meaningful? Who are you? These are the questions we should think about beyond pursuing a perfect grade.