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On the Role of Study Advice in the Age of Grade Inflation

June 13th, 2008 · 6 comments

Dartmouth’s Three ValedictoriansGraduation

Earlier this week I was surprised to read that Dartmouth College, my alma mater, graduated three valedictorians this year; all three students having earned perfect 4.0’s.

There was a time, not too long past, when this would have been unprecedented. My class’s valedictorian, for example, did not have a 4.0. In the years leading up to my graduation, records indicate that a student achieved a 4.0, at most, one out of every two or three years.

Now we have three such students all at once.

Grade Inflation

Chatting recently with a Dartmouth Professor, I suggested that perhaps the three simultaneous valedictorians were due to an exceptionally smart class. He was sad to report that, in fact, it was much more likely attributed to grade inflation.

In recent years, he noted, the median grade of Dartmouth classes had risen to an A-. A 4.0 G.P.A. — once the hallmark of exceptional academic achievement — has been reduced to just slightly above average.

This observation sparked a natural question: as more and more schools fall under the thrall of grade inflation, what role does study advice play? That is, if everyone can get an A, why sweat the details?

Beyond the G.P.A. Metric

After some reflection, I have an answer to propose. First, however, I should note that grade inflation, in its most severe forms, is still somewhat confined to the Ivy League and comparable schools. (Or so I hear, correct me if this is no longer true.) As several professors have told me, the rise in grades at these institutions is not, as many curmudgeons love to declare, due to increased complaining by over-ambitious kids. It’s caused more by a lack of meaningful differentiation among students’ performance.

At the risk of oversimplification: slackers don’t get into Dartmouth. Everyone works hard (enough). Everyone does pretty well. (Even the most hardcore frat rats these days are kept on task by their fear of the Lehman Brother’s resume screen.) Professors get nervous dividing up the class into A’s, B’s, and C’s, because, honestly, there just isn’t all that much difference between many of the ‘A’ kids and those in the ‘C’ bin.

My point is that the problem I’m addressing here might not be a problem for you. If it is, however, I propose the following:

Make lifestyle quality a more important metric than grades.

If the median grade in your classes is an ‘A-‘, your grades no longer serve as a useful measure of your performance as a student: work reasonably hard and you’ll get the highest possible score — even if your habits are less than optimal.

Good study advice, however, can still have a profound impact on another, arguably equally important metric: your lifestyle quality. Though you may be able to consistently knock out ‘A’ papers through marathon writing sessions and ace exams with all-night cramming, that is still a lousy, stressful existence.

My modest proposal is that for the grade inflated among you, turn your attention to making your student life as enjoyable as impossible. Try, for example, to maximize:

  • Your free time.
  • Your intellectual engagement.
  • Your adventures.
  • Your relationships.
  • Your time spent doing things that ten years from now you’ll never ever admit having done.
  • Your general enjoyment of life.

Here is where good studying hacking still plays an important role — even when top grades don’t require top effort. The difference between a few targeted hours of work most days, and a hectic, over-scheduled, always late, up all night work schedule, is worth more than just the grades your receive at the end of each term.

In other words: improve your study habits not just so you can score higher, but, in addition, to construct a life your happy to live.

6 thoughts on “On the Role of Study Advice in the Age of Grade Inflation

  1. Jackie says:

    I wonder how it is important to gain GPA. Exams mean a lot?For applying Ivy league universities?

  2. Jackie says:

    I read your blog regularly, because I found it very useful, the posts related to productivity,especially, but I got confused, really, working hard, I can not say I’m most working hard, but when I discovered so many cheatings,,,hooray…..and How can such a subjective thing decide some result? And I can not control the cheating by others, but how can I reduce the influence on me, to feel better, a little bit more fair…..Thank you…..

  3. Jen says:

    “I should note that grade inflation, in its most severe forms, is still somewhat confined to the Ivy League and comparable schools. (Or so I hear, correct me if this is no longer true.)”

    A lot of people attribute the roots of grade inflation to the Vietnam war and was/is not contained merely within the Ivy League system.

    Check out http://www.gradeinflation.com/ which has some pretty detailed numbers that show that grade inflation has grown at a higher rate among private schools, but that the trends between private and public is quite comparable.

  4. Mark says:

    I’m an ivy league student. This post speaks to me. Right on, Cal.

  5. Ralph says:

    Great tips and insightful writing… one thing though – “you’re” is quite different from “your” 🙂 think the former was what you were going for in the last sentence of your post.

  6. Thai says:

    My modest proposal is that for the grade inflated among you, turn your attention to making your student life as enjoyable as impossible.

    Making my life as enjoyable as impossible… actually that inspires me. ;]

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