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The Unconventional Scholar: Ignore Your GPA

This is the first entry in a new semi-regular series I’m calling: The Unconventional Scholar. In the style of my first book, How to Win at College, this series features unexpected (but surprisingly effective) tips for getting more out of college.

The Mystery NumberIgnore Your GPA

In my last couple years as a college student, I looked up my GPA on only two occasions that I can remember. The first was in the fall of my senior year. I had to put it down on my grad school applications. The second was in the late spring. I wanted to see if I was in the running to be Salutatorian. (Fortunately, I wasn’t — my GPA remained a healthy 0.025 points away from being competitive — so I was saved the stress of thinking about giving a speech.)

Outside of these isolated occurrences, me and my cumulative GPA lived separate lives. We had no interest in knowing about each other. I suggest you do the same.

Here’s why…

GPA Breeds Stress

There is no good reason to know your cumulative GPA. It can only serve one purpose: stress. If you’re a GPA addict, then as you study for exams, you can’t help but think about how different grades in the class will affect your overall standing. This makes you nervous. It makes you more upset when you score lower than you wanted. And it shifts your focus away from discovering the most efficient possible way to embrace the material and toward a paranoia about avoiding GPA-busting mistakes.

Ignorance is Bliss

Here’s what you should do instead: ignore your GPA. In most classes, your professor will tell you your grade at the end of the semester. There is no reason to look at the grade report that arrives in the mail, and comes emblazoned with your GPA. Do what I did, and simply throw out this envelope without opening it.

(In fact, earlier this year I ordered a copy of my transcript for use in a promotion for Straight-A, and was shocked to find a collection of citations from professors that I never knew about; I had missed them at the time because I never read the grade reports in which they were originally sent.)

Focus On Performance, Not GPA

Smart students treat each class like an individual challenge. Your goal should be to find the most efficient possible way to really learn the material. You might not always get this right. Sometimes, you’ll make stupid mistakes on a test or bet on the wrong thesis, but that’s okay. So long as you’re getting better at being a student, over time, most (not all) of your grades will be great. By ignoring your GPA, you’re simply cutting out a lot of stress along this journey.

31 thoughts on “The Unconventional Scholar: Ignore Your GPA”

  1. Oh, bless you for this! As a professor, my least favorite thing is grading, not because it’s all that hard but because I know that for so many students it’s the only measure of value they care about. It’s so depressing. Listen: grades are bunk! They are, at best, a measure of how approximately your understanding of the material matches a professor’s or book author’s conception of what your understanding should be. Good grades tend to flow naturally from understanding and effort; it doesn’t happen the other way around though (that is, understanding doesn’t flow from good grades).

    I was lucky enough to finish my undergraduate education at a school that didn’t give grades, only narrative evaluations (UC Santa Cruz). I recently came across my 12-year old transcript, and could vividly remember each class and my work in each class based on the descriptions — and found it was still a useful document, in a way that a list of A
    s and B’s could never be. If only we could adopt that standard throughout higher education…

  2. great article Cal, I just actually finished reading your second book (planning on getting the first one which I have not read yet), but this article just placed the cream on top of the writing from your straight-A book.

  3. Cal, sorry to post again but I forgot to ask you in my previous post on what you noticed among straight-A students during lecture note-taking. Did any of them recommend printing out the lecture slides (if professor supplies) and then taking notes on these slides or did they all just take very effective notes during lecture?

    Thanks for the insight.

  4. Thank you Dustin.

    In researching Straight-A, I talked with around 50 straight-A students. I would estimate that a significant majority were process-focused. Interestingly, the students who obsess over grade tactics — getting the professor to like you, dropping courses before they impact the GPA — tend not to be in the upper echelon of scorers.

    – Cal

  5. Ilham,

    If the professor provides Power Point slides, don’t print the slides, instead, keep them open on your laptop and annotate them using the notes window in Power Point. For Word Docs, similar annotation tricks work better than printing. (As you know, I’m not a big fan of hand writing notes.)

    You’re not the first to ask about this. I’m planning on doing a MMC on the topic next Monday. Stay tuned…


  6. I really wish I can ignore it, but this is only possible for smart students. I give in the effort, but because of the circumstances or whatever, my GPA is below the school’s satisfactory. They outlined it right in there catalog that thou shall not get below this or else they kick you out. With that kind of pressure, you have to be GPA obsessive.

  7. How could you know where you stand as far as academic success without looking at the results? A bit hard for me to swallow that over achievers don’t bother looking at their GPA. Not even once just to for the sake of it? I understand your life shouldn’t revolve around it…probably going to take some time for this to digest since it’s my first year in University.

  8. What about engineers?

    I’d love to follow that philosophy. In fact, I did last year. I’m working on my B.S. in mechanical engineering and have a 2.8 GPA. The reason I know this is because when I talked to the employer-of-my-dreams at a career fair, they seemed pretty much set to ask me for an interview… until they asked about my GPA.

    Turns out they, like the overwhelming majority of employers looking to hire engineers, have a minimum GPA requirement, usually of 3.0 or higher.

    I know 2.8 isn’t spectacular, but at Cornell University – which has one of the most demanding courseloads of any engineering school and where all grades are CURVED- it’s not something I haven’t worked for. I’m definately not the kid from Hong Kong who has no social life and has pretty much taken every class before and is just repeating it to get a great GPA.

    And I feel like I’ve been killing myself this semester to get a GPA above a 3.0, because what else can I do? If I want to work for GE when I graduate, and no matter how enthusiastic they are about me they won’t look at me because my GPA is below standard, what’s a girl to do?

    Any wisdom or advice would be hugely appreciated. Thanks!!!

  9. What about engineers?

    I don’t claim that your G.P.A. doesn’t matter. I claim that you shouldn’t pay attention to it. If you instead focus on each test as a separate challenge, you’ll do just as well but with less stress.

    It sounds like what you need is some advice on how to be a better student. A good starting place is the “Popular Articles” sidebar on this blog…

  10. Being a High School student, doesn’t a GPA matter the most to a student?
    So, is going for extra credit in a class worth it if the GPA doesn’t even matter?
    How can I just enjoy my classes without all the GPA-driven pressure I put on myself?

    Sorry to be baraging you with questions, but any of your academic wisdom would be greatly appreciated!!

  11. So, is going for extra credit in a class worth it if the GPA doesn’t even matter?
    How can I just enjoy my classes without all the GPA-driven pressure I put on myself?

    Forget your G.P.A. In each class, focus on perfecting your mechanics (how you take notes; how you review; how your write papers) with the goal of minimizing the time while maximizing understanding. For each test, aim to do really well without the need for cramming. If a test goes bad, perform a post-mortem to figure out why, then adjust your tactics for the next go around. Avoid, however, your particular G.P.A. number. It will come along just fine if you’re tackling your courses in this manner.

  12. Cal,excellent advice. I continually try to remind myself to focus on the process, not the results, in all my endeavours. However you reminded me that I am guilty of focusing on grades excessively. John Wooden the legendary basketball coach from UCLA with the greatest college basketball winning record of all time,would always stress to his players not to focus on winning, but rather on performance. This is my first post at your blog, however I have been reading your articles for the past 8 months. You have been a great source of motivation to me. Thank you

  13. This is my first post at your blog, however I have been reading your articles for the past 8 months.

    Bill, I look forward to hearing more from you. Thanks for the Wooden reference, that might become an important part of my repertoire!

  14. Wow, this article was a light bulb moment for me. After deciding to go into pre-med, GPA has been at the forefront of my thoughts for the past 2 months and believe me, It did not help me on my exams. Ignoring the GPA is hard I know, but I am trying my hardest not to think about it! This is my first post on your blog and definitely not the last :P.

    BTW, your postmortem article actually got me out of a weeks depression about 2 exams (organic chem and bio chem) I BOMBED hardcore not because I didn’t study (I studied a lot for those exams), It’s because I didn’t study the way my prof was testing.

    Thanks for all the help, Spencer Martens.

  15. Great blog! I love reading your articles and gain a lot of insight from them. It’s too bad that my first post is a negative one, however, I kind of disagree with this article.

    I agree that the learning process is more important than one’s GPA. But when one is applying to professional schools, attempting to get the best scholarships, and so on, the cumulative GPA really matters and it is definitely something I am concerned about.

    I am a 3.97 GPA student at the University of Toronto and I’m aiming for early acceptance to medical school after my third year. I find that my GPA highly motivates me to study before exams… and not just to study for the curriculum, but also to study past exams, and study how the tests are written so that I can achieve the highest possible score. Because of this extra motivation, I always end up doing very well – above 90s.

    I guess I don’t have the experience you have, but I cannot imagine ignoring my cumulative GPA completely as a pre-med.

  16. It is so hard for me. I just looked up my grade for my second exam of a class that is hard, but I walked away so confident, only to find I got an 86%. I know a B is a good grade, but I was sure I was going to get an A, and I’m so scared I won’t get straight A’s, even though I know college is a bunch of BS. I just want to stop beating myself up!! How can I have two parts of my brain right now, one side being so obsessive that I’m in tears, and the other screaming “Stop it!! It isn’t the end of the world!! You got an A on the first exam! You are still in the game for an A at the end of the semester, and even if you get a B, who cares??? It isn’t the end of the world and it doesn’t define you and the journey of your life still to come!!” Ya, I hear you other side of the brain, but I can’t stop crying. I hate this! It makes me want to give up. I studied so damn hard, memorized everything, and just because she didn’t like my essay portion and a few points (of my perception from the cases we had to contrast) and the fact that didn’t end it with a solid conclusion, she docked me 7 points. Kind of saying, “Oh, I see you are very well memorized on the cases, you have learned the lessons, but on a mere technical point, you went from an A to a B, sorry…” Fuck it!! Fuck it all! And the worst part, is that that is totally how life is. The greatest opportunities in life can slip from your fingers for the slightest technical errors. Oh and even better, sometimes no matter how hard you try, just based on your looks, opportunities will be denied. I hope I get cancer and die soon, I fucking hope a random asteroid lands on me and I can leave this stupid world. Over it!!!!

    • Calm down, Jaleh. This is only the second exam. You can still bring up your grade. Perform a post-exam post-morgen and you should be able to figure out exactly why you messed up.

      On another note, if you really believe college is a bunch of BS, then you might want to consider switching to a different major, college, or not going to college at all. College might not be for you.

      I think you should listen to that first side that’s saying that this isn’t the end. Pace off the negative energy, get your mind off of things. AFTER you perform the post-mortem.

      This comment is most definitely late, but I hope it helps anyhow.

  17. We have a percentage system in my university and I have an aggregate of 69%. Many reserach programs set 75% as their eligibility criteria, so I am unable to apply for them. I have always ignored my marks but it seems now that it should be improved, and here we have write boring assignment and cram couses(not actually learning). I want to learn some new technology and continue my studies in that but I am getting depressed looking at my current situation. What should I do?

  18. Hmm, how does this apply when a certain GPA (either 3.25 or 3.5 in all honesty I’m not sure, ha) I’d required to keep your scholarships? I completely agree that understanding is more important than GPA, but…. not losing 15k+ a year is also pretty important, so I don’t know if I want to ignore my GPA.

    • He is not telling to not look at your GPA but trying to mean that we should not put focus onto it to a point where we will forget learning the material and becoming curious. Putting focus on study material and trying to really understand and writing well on papers will automatically raise GPA. If we think about GPA all the time, we will be nervous and therefore cannot improve.
      Be confident and think that you can do well in this course no matter how much you are pressurized. Keep your head cool

  19. I study mechanical engineering, and in my university we have a system that consider even your faults, so when you don’t pass on a discipline, it keeps your bad grade in your “GPA” even when you achieve to pass on it and get a better grade.
    For a place in researchs, languages classes, even in some Master and Doc programs, or to be and exchange student, you have to get a good “GPA”. That’s really sad, I guess it would be good with no GPA at all but almost in everything we could do before graduation and after we will need it. And after all that we hear teachers saying “you have to do things to learn, and not just because your grade”, that’s cool and I guess it’s right, but it’s deeper than that, you are not talking just with people that don’t even try to study.
    But I guess it is a good advice, because your GPA depends on your grades and it’s about them you should work to improve, and to improve them you need to learn just not understand everything. But I guess at least you have to work to improve your understanding in your field, with a plan to work with something and the results will come.

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  21. I seriously needed to read this post. As a student surrounded by competitive classmates that try to determine their own ranks in terms of their GPA, I also get caught in this whirlpool about how my GPA needs to be perfect. I think by caring too much about my GPA, I lose focus about what the purpose of learning is. Learning becomes superficial and extrinsic. Learning isn’t about getting a 5.0 GPA, but learning how to be a more effective student and wiser.


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