The Arbitrary Nature of College Grades

Hello, World.

In light of school starting soon, I wanted to share my thoughts on college grades. For you just beginning college, you’ve likely heard mixed reviews, either college is way harder than high school or that college grades are different, slightly more arbitrary.What do I mean by arbitrary? Rarely do you ever see a final breakdown of your grade. Yes, the professors put percentages and weighted assignments and whatnot on their syllabus, but it becomes kind of unnecessary because you can use those percentages to guesstimate what your grade will be, but know that you will likely not have your final returned to you, so that grade will be unclear. There are many areas that may remain unclear, but just have faith that your professor will give you a grade close to the one you think you deserve based on your performance. One of the reasons I wanted to share the arbitrary nature of college grads is because there were a few instances in my college years where my final grade was confusing to me. Most of the time I was pretty good at inferring what grade would be on “report card” if you will. Sometimes, though, I was utterly confused.

One example? When I had to take a science, I took geology thinking it’d be an easy A. When everyone basically failed the midterm, though, I started to sweat. There were a lot of moments where I accepted a Bt would probably appear next to Geology at the end of the semester. But I made a point to arrive on time, attend every single class, and talk to my professor a lot during lab and field trips. This was the largest class I had in college, as many of us were simply trying to fulfill our science requirement with something not as intense as biochemistry or O-Chem, stuff science majors even struggled with. So, I studied for hours, more than I usually would to be honest, for the geology final, went in, and nearly cried by the end because the test was far more challenging than I imagined. The girl in front of my actually stood up and exclaimed, “well that was fun to fail.” Nobody felt great about the final, but I did my best and hoped my grade would be a Bt or higher. Final grades came out, and an A- appeared on my transcript. I texted my then-roommate, who literally responded with “HOW?” because she saw me after the final, and probably assumed what I also assumed: that I was getting a B at most. But, I think my apparent dedication to the course, and my interactions with my professor helped him bump me up since no one was doing stellar work, at least in my section. So, thus concludes the first example where my work didn’t necessarily reflect my grade, but I took the grade and smiled and moved on.

The next two examples are grades where I thought I had the A in the bag, and was blind sighted by a Bt. I cried the first time this happened, and was utterly irritated the second time. Being a Type-A student who works her butt off, I know when grades don’t add up, and I take it seriously. This is also a lesson in advocating for yourself! So, the first time my grade came back lower than expected was my junior year when I took a legal theory class. I was so excited, it was an elective class that I took for fun, and figured I would do well in. So, I knew the breakdown of how grades were formed in the class, and going into the final I had not received below a 94% on any assignment, paper, or quiz. So, I was feeling confident, especially because in the syllabus, 89% was the cut off for an A-. The final was open book, open note. I didn’t study as much as I should have, and definitely relied too heavily on the open aspect of the test, but I still felt I did well, probably a B- range. So, when final grades came out and I had a Bt in the course, I immediately broke down in tears and freaked out. I was so confused and felt like the grade wasn’t right. After talking to my parents, I decided it wouldn’t hurt to ask my professor for a grade breakdown. When she returned the breakdown, my grade was a 89.5%, which according to the syllabus, was an A-. I emailed the professor back, and explained that I appreciated the breakdown, but also referred to the grading the syllabus outlined. She emailed me back really quickly, explaining I was right and she would change my grade! Relief set in, and I felt SO happy. This was hugely important because had I never advocated for myself, I would still have a Bt in the class, and a lower GPA (when applying to law schools).

Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 11.17.27 AM.png

The final example I have of explaining why grades are somewhat arbitrary comes in the fall of my senior year, right when I was applying to law school. I was taking a seminar class, which is a special program my college offered where everyone is required to read the great books of our world, and talk about them in meaningful ways. I’m not going to lie, the program is better in theory than practice, or at least I felt it didn’t really accomplish what I thought it would. I had one good experience, which was during my junior year, and the rest felt like mediocre English classes where no oner read and everyone basically regurgitated SparkNotes. However, many of my friends had great experiences, so it really just depends on the professor, the class, etc. But ANYWAY, I had a professor who had been recommended to me, and I kind of realized a few weeks in that this seminar wasn’t going to go well. For one thing, I was having trouble getting into the conversations, and the professor would talk for a huge portion of class, which is basically anti-seminar (there should be no lecture, and minimal participation from the professor). So, I went through the motions, but at the end of the semester, I had to meet with the professor to talk about my grade and final paper idea. During the conversation, he said my grade was really close between an A- and a Bt because I didn’t talk enough (keep in mind no one really talked, and those who did were kind of all over the place with their thoughts and didn’t really leave the topic open). I felt a little defeated, but I tried to improve my participation for the last few weeks, and my writing grade was over 100%. When grades came, I had a Bt. I was upset. I wasn’t sure what grade I deserved because the dynamic of the class was so weird, but I wanted to see a breakdown. So, I emailed the professor. He was like, I’m traveling but will get back to you in a week. I was stressing for the week, hoping my grade was wrong, or at least that I would see a clearer explanation about the Bt. Finally, he got back to me, and realized he miscalculated my grade by ten points. The difference? An A- instead of a Bt. So, he apologized for the confusion, and changed the grade. I’m not trying to sound whiney in this story, or that I fight for grades I don’t deserve. I actually get horrible anxiety about asking for grade breakdowns, but sometimes they are totally worth it!

All of this is to say that sometimes professors miscalculate, sometimes they give you a little boost because you put in a lot of effort and never missed class. Most professors retain about a 10% participation grade, which can really affect where your final grade falls. If you attend class 90%+ of the time, and do your best, they will often bump you a bit up, at least from a minus to a solid letter or from a solid letter to a plus. Do good work, and don’t count on getting higher grades than you deserve. But, if you feel something isn’t right, ask about it. If you’re struggling, go to office hours and show you’re invested in the class. Also, recognize that your professor probably has 100 or so grades to keep track of, where you only have one, so your calculation could be more accurate. In the end, college grades are more arbitrary than you expect, it’s not like high school, so prepare to keep track of your grades, know your scores on assignments, and ask questions if something doesn’t feel right. If the grade seems a little higher than expected, you can either ask about it, or assume the participation grade saved you! But in the end, enjoy college and only stress about grades when you feel something is wrong.

Callie leigh

4 thoughts on “The Arbitrary Nature of College Grades

  1. I stumbled on your blog after finding it on Pinterest and it has been a HUGE help in the pre-college process!! Thank you so much for all of your wonderful tips! I especially love your dorm and fashion posts! (BTW, I will be a freshman at SMC in the fall and I was so excited to find out you went there too! I can’t wait for college although I’m a little bit nervous…Any SMC advice/tips?) And good luck in law school! :)

    1. Hi! So glad you enjoy reading! I’m glad you find my posts helpful. Also so glad to hear you’ll be attending SMC, it’s an amazing school. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, and wouldn’t trade it for the world. I would recommend joining a club, getting involved in whatever way is best for you, attend class regularly, talk to professors, and explore the surrounding area (SF, Berkeley, Oakland, etc.). I would also say you MUST go to a basketball game, especially the Gonzaga vs. SMC game. But please let me know how you like SMC, and if you have any questions throughout your years. :)

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s