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Q & A: Life After Scoring an 80% and Joining Boring Clubs to Impress Grad Schools

October 17th, 2008 · 11 comments

I recently received an e-mail from an Ivy League freshman that I think captures a lot of common concerns about starting college and finding your niche. Below I’ve reproduced my answers to his exceedingly common questions.

Reader question #1:Questions and Answers

I did very poorly on my first test (an 80%)…is it easy or common to rebound from such a grade and eventually end up with a satisfactory grade, like an A?

Cal responds:

We’ll start with some tactical advice then move on to something more philosophical.

Tactical Advice:

You’re used to numeric grades being synced to a letter grade scale. Therefore, you see an 80% and think “I got a B-“, and then conclude that you are now a low B student who will never get into graduate school.

Not true.

Numeric grades at college do not match letter grades. They match, instead, what percent of the points you got right. Your final grade will be relative to the class. It’s possible that 80% is at the top of the class, or maybe the bottom. It just depends on the test. It has nothing to do, at this point, with A’s or B’s.

I once got, for example, the highest overall grade in my discrete math class at Dartmouth after scoring a 50% on the midterm. It turned out that for that particular exam, 50% of the points was pretty damn good. I’ve also had scores in the 90’s deemed average due to the fact that so many students got every single point right. Again: it depends on the test.

To sum up the tactical advice, don’t sweat specific scores. Just keep working to get as many points as possible in each exam. The final grade will reward you.

Philosophical Advice:

Now it’s time for some tough love. I think there’s a bigger issue at stake here. It seems you’re approaching college the same way you approached high school. You fear that if you make any mistake — e.g., missing an ‘A’ in any class — that you won’t succeed after graduation.

Here’s the most important piece of advice I can give you: college is not high school. There is no college admissions officer in your future who is going pour over your transcript looking for an excuse to reject you. That’s not the way people get jobs. That’s not the way medical schools choose students. That’s definitely not the way graduate schools choose students.

So chill out…

I suggest the following freshman year starter advice:

  1. Don’t obsess over your grades.
  2. Experiment with different study habits. It will take you most of this first year to figure out what works for you.
  3. Keep your course load light and interesting so you have the time needed to get into the material. You’re new to college-level academics, so, for now, it will take you longer than you might like to learn stuff. Maybe much longer.

To put things in perspective: My first grade at Dartmouth was a ‘C’. It was a paper for my freshman English seminar. It sucked.

During my second semester, I had to change one of my courses to pass/fail because I was doing so poorly. I was still figuring out how to take notes, and write a paper, and prepare for a blue book exam (a real mystery to me at first). It was not until midterms of my sophomore fall that I started to get the hang of studying at this level.

And I ended up doing pretty well for myself…

Reader question #2:

Extracurricular-wise, I love to play basketball, I enjoy math, and I enjoy the sciences. However, it feels as though I’m being sucked into all these leadership and culture organizations that have no relevance to my true interests. The qualm I have about devoting time to basketball is that graduate schools or med schools won’t look so impressed by my efforts with that.

Cal responds:

Graduate schools and medical school won’t care about any of the clubs you mentioned — be it the cultural organization or a basketball club. So, for the love of God, stop joining clubs that don’t interest you! I know, I know, you are still in this college admissions mindset that somehow you needs lots of hard activities to get “accepted,” blah, blah, blah.

You need to forget this mentality.

Let me put your mind at ease with a reality check…

Here is what graduate schools care about: your grades in the relevant subjects and your research experience. Nothing else matters. They really could not care less that you’re the president of the Aleutian Irish Eskimo Cultural Heritage Club. (See this article for more information on graduate school admissions.)

Here is what medical schools care about: your grades, your MCATs, and some sign that you understand the reality of life in medicine and have a real interest. As with grad school, the fact that you spend 30 hours a week chairing different cultural organizations, or whatever, doesn’t matter to them. (See this article for more information on medical school admissions.)

Here’s my advice to you: Drop the clubs you don’t like. No one cares about them. I don’t mean to be harsh, but when I see an Ivy League student who is the president of a bunch of cultural clubs, I think: here is someone who is just blindly trying to do stuff to impress people. Translation: someone who is boring and uninspired.

Instead, do two things. First, choose something that really interests you; something that will help you make friends and provide social opportunities and a sense of community. This will make you happy, which is important. It has nothing to do with post-grad opportunities.

Second, if you want to go to medical school or graduate school, tack on the appropriate research or interest in medicine activity that they require. Read the two articles I linked to above for a specific game plan on what sort of activities matter in this context.

If you need extra convincing, read this open letter I wrote last spring to new college students. It’s message: “Your temptation will be to treat college like another admissions process…here’s the thing, it’s not like that at all.”

Accept this idea and a lot of your worries will be alleviated.

11 thoughts on “Q & A: Life After Scoring an 80% and Joining Boring Clubs to Impress Grad Schools

  1. Danielle says:

    I wish this blog around when I was a freshman (okay, who am I kidding? “blog” wasn’t even a word when I was a freshman). You give some great advice – I got a fellowship to the top graduate program in my field by doing well in classes in my sub-field (including grad level ones) and doing summer research, despite having a mediocre 2.5 GPA my freshman year. Having professors willing to vouch for you means so much more than being in ten kabillion clubs! Hmm, since you have the getting into grad school part covered, have any tips for getting out of grad school? :-)

  2. Jess says:

    Would you say that “extracurriculars are meaningless” goes for master’s degree programs as well? Just curious. I know for PhD programs, it’s really just research that matters.

  3. Bonnie says:

    You say that numerical grades have nothing to do with the letter grade at the end of the semester and that instead your letter grade is relative to the rest of the class. That may have been true at your school, but that’s not the way it is everywhere.

    For example, I know a certain professor at my university who gave, in one class, one B, five C’s, and the rest F’s. The B student had taken the class before. It depends on the school’s policy and on the professor’s policy. Here’s the advice you need to be giving: read your syllabus. It’s the only way to know the grading policy for sure.

  4. Study Hacks says:

    Would you say that “extracurriculars are meaningless” goes for master’s degree programs as well?

    I would guess that grades in your major, research experience, and, when relevant, test scores would still dominate.

    For example, I know a certain professor at my university who gave, in one class, one B, five C’s, and the rest F’s. The B student had taken the class before

    This is rare. But I’m glad you brought it up. I think maybe the real lesson here is the importance of verifying how the grades work so you won’t stress out when no stress is necessary.

  5. David says:

    I find it hard to believe that this student considers 80% bad. But than again, coming out of high school, He/she considered

    For example, I know a certain professor at my university who gave, in one class, one B, five C’s, and the rest F’s. The B student had taken the class before

    I strongly object to this. This does happen, but anyone who does this is writing his ticket out of academia EVEN if he is an emeritus/tenured (not all professors are fully tenured). You have to report grade distributions in nearly ALL cases and they can’t be suspiciously off in any way (i.e. 10% students get A’s in a class that normally has 20%). It indicates in most cases that in comparison with other people, you’re a bad teacher. I have NEVER been in a class where NOBODY got an A.

    In fact, here’s a case where somebody lost their job for too many F’s: http://hamptonroads.com/2008/05/nsu-professor-loses-job-dispute-over-grades?page=2

    I think maybe the real lesson here is the importance of verifying how the grades work so you won’t stress out when no stress is necessary.

    Exactly. A syllabus is like a contract. Not having a syllabus or not specifying how grades are given out in many cases should warrant not taking the class.

  6. David says:

    Sorry…I meant to say that coming out of high school, I probably would have thought the same thing if I cared as much as this student did as a freshman. Also, hopefully this student realizes that in most classes, it is quite possible to rebound from this grade and still get an A. More importantly, I hope this student doesn’t make the same mistakes that many of us made as freshman and concentrate on his passions/interests and that grades often do follow from doing this. The further I go in college, the more I’m realizing this.

  7. gwinne says:

    I strongly disagree here. I’m a college prof. An 80% in my class is an 80%. There’s no curve. That goes for everyone in my department, as far as I know. That said, an 80% on an assignment worth 10% of the final course grade isn’t going to matter so much, whereas an 80% on an assignment woth 50% of the final course grade matters a whole lot…

  8. Anne says:

    Happy Homecoming!

    (During my second semester(?!)lol)

  9. Jason says:

    Thanks for posting this incredibly helpful post. It’ll be easier to refer people to it in the future.

    I had an interesting experience in my freshman seminar, too. Everyone in the class had likely gotten mostly As throughout high school, and they had all placed out of the writing 5 requirement, meaning they had scored 760 or higher on the Reading portion of the SAT. On our first paper, out of 16 students, one got an A-, another an A-/B+, and the rest were in the B range. Suffice to say, people, myself included, were surprised.

    [Note: The SAT detail is just to give context to the surprise, I don’t think the SATs are effective indicators of anything important or that students with lower scores on the Reading section would be less surprised.]

  10. Study Hacks says:

    I had an interesting experience in my freshman seminar, too. Everyone in the class had likely gotten mostly As throughout high school, and they had all placed out of the writing 5 requirement, meaning they had scored 760 or higher on the Reading portion of the SAT. On our first paper, out of 16 students, one got an A-, another an A-/B+, and the rest were in the B range. Suffice to say, people, myself included, were surprised.

    Right, this is exactly what happened to me. I placed out of Writing 5 at Dartmouth because I had a really high verbal SAT score (and AP literature scores). My first paper for that class — evocatively titled “Silicon Valley” — scored a nice big ‘C’.

  11. Molly says:

    There aren’t any classes at my school that are graded on a curve. A couple of my teachers use a 94-100 = A, 86-93 = B, etc. grading scale but most of the time they use a normal grading scale with no curve. Like you said, read the syllabus. It’ll explain exactly how the grading works. Most schools require teachers to give their students them now anyway.

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