Doyle ’18: Grades will not define your identity

Op-Ed Contributer
Tuesday, December 1, 2015

I’ve always found Brown to be a calming environment. The simplified grading system, the guarantee that no F’s will haunt my transcript and the general emphasis on learning over achieving generally keeps my stress level lower than that of students at other universities with atmospheres that encourage competition.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t nights during the semester when I have too much work to even contemplate completing it all. But these nights have largely been manageable, especially with the help of peers.

Unfortunately, Brown’s grading system can cause uncertainty during finals. In some classes, I can get anywhere between an 85 and a 100 on a final exam or paper, and it will still be an A. But this comfort comes with a drawback. If I score an 84.9, I’ll walk away an entire letter grade lower.

So it’s difficult to focus on studying for an important exam knowing that the difference of one point could change the letter I’ll see on my transcript in a few weeks. There’s nothing like being stuck between two multiple choice answers, knowing this one question could decide your fate.

For those applying to graduate or professional schools, the anxiety is worse. As I stare at those two multiple choice answers, I picture the admissions officer at Harvard Law School combing through my transcript with a magnifying glass, circling every B (or C). I decide that if I end up with a B in this class, I’ll need to get straight A’s for the rest of my tenure at Brown if I ever want to get a job.

I think there’s a good chance you feel the same way sometimes. But never fear; you will be okay. At a rigorous school with a peculiar grading system and exceptional students, eight semesters of straight A’s is unrealistic.

Sure, a few students have done it. But in all likelihood, you won’t. And that’s okay. Because straight A’s probably mean you never took a course in which you really struggled. A course in which you were far out of your comfort zone. A course in which you really stretched yourself and grew as a student.

Wear those B’s (or C’s) as a badge of courage. You pushed yourself — and you didn’t drop the class the day before the final exam (even if you wanted to).

You’ve probably heard a thousand times that your grades don’t define you and that you’re more than a number. And I believe that. I know that a difference of one multiple choice question says nothing about me as a student or a person.

Still, this sentiment is likely not entirely comforting. While self esteem is important, we’d all prefer for admissions officers and potential employers to see stellar grades on our transcripts. After all, they won’t truly know us as people.

The good news is that you will get into graduate school, and you will get a job. Statistics show that Brown students graduate with the capacity to succeed, regardless of a few imperfect grades.

About 88 percent of Brown students are accepted to law school, and about 84 percent are accepted to medical school, according to the University’s website. This is well above the national averages of 72 and 45 percent, respectively. And it’s highly improbable that those several hundred students all had straight A’s.

If you’re looking to go straight into the workforce, you’ll be fine too! Approximately 69 percent of Brown students last year graduated with jobs, according to the Center for Careers and Life After Brown. The rest were largely involved with continued education and volunteer work. Fewer than 5 percent were still seeking employment.

It can be easy to get caught up in the jealousy of Facebook friends’ boasts of their perfect GPA’s. Still, choosing to attend Brown means accepting its unique grading system, along with the fact that graduating with a 4.0 is highly unlikely. With many classes graded on a bell curve in which your grade depends on those of your peers, it’s nearly impossible to be the best all the time.

As finals approach, keep in mind that only about half of grades given out at this University are A’s. While that may seem like a high number, it also means about half are B’s, C’s and NC’s. So the odds of getting just one in a semester are pretty high. All that means is you’re not alone.

To be clear, this isn’t an excuse not to try or a promise that success will find you regardless of your own will. Brown students have such successful legacies because they work hard to make them.

So shoot for A’s! But if you miss, you’ll land among the B’s, and that isn’t a bad place to be.

Admissions officers and employers will see the totality of your experience here: your extracurriculars, your volunteer work, your research and whatever else. This final will not change your life. Over the next few weeks, study hard, do your best and then move on.

Allie Doyle ’18 is rereading this op-ed instead of studying for her finals.


  1. Educated and encouraging 🙂

  2. our grading system is dumb. says:

    Gotta say, it’s pretty ironic that Brown is a school obsessed with nuance (#spectrumnotbinary), and yet professors are required to grade in a way that is analogous to doing surgery with a baseball bat.

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