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:
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?
We’ll start with some tactical advice then move on to something more philosophical.
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.
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.
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:
- Don’t obsess over your grades.
- Experiment with different study habits. It will take you most of this first year to figure out what works for you.
- 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.
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.