What I’ve realized about reaching for a ridiculous GPA

Written on October 19th, 2017

Ever since early high school I’ve been bleating that “learning is more important than grades.” I mean, it sounds good — teachers like to hear it, parents like to hear it, and so does pretty much everyone else.

Since I’ve never actually diminished my view of someone else’s value as a human being because of their GPA, it naturally seemed like a great mantra to have.

But although those words rang true inside my heart, they didn’t manifest in my actions.

Over my last two years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I’ve upheld a 3.95 GPA. I’ve gotten only two less-than-A grades in my entire college career, a difference of a few percentage points at most.

While I knew deep down that this GPA didn’t define me, while I preached to my friends not to stress themselves to the point of illness, while I understood how many more important things there are in the world… I still started focusing entirely too much on maintaining this number.

Instead of devoting my efforts to just understanding course concepts like I did for my previous semesters on campus, I found myself this fall worrying about how to get the A. I wasn’t excited to crack the code of activity based costing or achieve a design breakthrough — I just wanted to do what I needed to keep my GPA as high as possible. I became afraid to take risks. I began to stress about slightly less-than-perfect scores.

I became someone who I didn’t want to be — someone I had been professing to avoid for years.

Then, as I was applying for full-time jobs and envisioning my post-graduation future, I immersed myself in articles about how to succeed out of college. You know the ones: tips to land your dream position, how to stand out to recruiters, etc.

And guess what I realized?

Pretty much none of those articles gave any mention to a GPA.

Sure, a few recruiters have congratulated me for my high grades at career fairs, but they’ve been few and far between; usually they ask about my most recent experience or what I’m looking for in a company or a time I overcame adversity.

My GPA doesn’t define me… but my personality and willingness to learn do.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m proud of my 3.95. I’ve worked extremely hard for it under the weight of 17-credit semesters and extracurriculars, and you best bet I’m going to own it; there’s nothing wrong with that. But I’m much more proud of the other things I’ve achieved on this campus.

College isn’t about just getting a diploma — it’s about growing as a person as you figure out who you are and become who you want. Education should always extend beyond the classroom. When I graduate, I want to leave this university with so much more than a number.

I want to leave with people skills. I want to walk away bursting with emotional intelligence, the ability to communicate clearly, a yearning to be kind. I want to leave with relationships I’ll always treasure. I want to walk away side-by-side with people who have my back and memories that will serve as fuel in the inevitable trials to come.

I want to leave with curiosity, the kind that burns inside you, forever insatiable. I want to leave with the ability to confront failure and the perseverance to get back up again.

I want to leave with knowledge about how the world works — not how my GPA is calculated, but how people think and love and hope, how we push each other as humans, how we can keep growing better.

I want to know how to use a power drill and how to cook a good meal and how to smile professionally even when you’ve just spilled tea all down your shirt. I want to know how to be authentic, how to encourage those around me, how to politely disagree and have a purposeful dialogue.

There are a plethora of things I want to take with me when I leave. A diploma with a nice GPA is one of them… but it’s not the heart of the package. And while a multitude of these things can and do come out of my classes, they originate in the process of learning, not necessarily the result.

My GPA won’t make me a good person or even a stellar job candidate. But the work that goes into building that GPA — and the work that goes into prioritizing and honing all these other parts of myself — is what will.

It’s time to stop reaching for a ridiculous number and to start reaching for the best, most holistic version of myself. And you know what? Maybe that’s a version who gets a few Bs but has deeper relationships, or who puts more time into her passions and less into her perfectionism, or who simply achieves greater impact because she’s happier.

I will always be searching for this ideal me. While I may not know right now exactly who she is, I’m confident that she’d rather be meaningful with a 3.0 than washed out with a 4.0.