The 4.0 Curse: How The Pursuit Of Perfection Isn’t Going To Help You In The Real World

by Kristen Roedel

I will be entering the final semester of my undergraduate career this spring, and I now understand that the occasional blemish on my transcript (as in, anything lower than an “A” – not an “A-minus” – an “A”) gives me an edge over everyone else. An immaculate grade point average conveys an undying dedication to education, but it may also indicate a serious character flaw: the inability to accept imperfection.

After spending over a decade in the grade school system, where a high portion of your grade may have been determined by how many hours you spent working on a project, or how many extra help sessions you attended, many students feel blindsided. Students enter college under the impression that effort should lead to a high grade.

Research shows that many of us believe that we are better than other people. This inflated sense of one’s own ability hinders students’ judgment of their work. If students believe they are better than average, then their mediocre effort should always render an “A,” right?

Wrong. At the college level, no professor wants to hear how many hours you spent on a paper for their class; the professor grades the product that sits before him or her, at face value. Assignments are stand-alone pieces that aren’t meant to be qualified with excuses.

St. Joseph’s College Psychology Professor Diane Sherlip agrees that student entitlement correlates to self-esteem in public schools. We, the members of Generation-Y, are often condemned for our sense of entitlement, and education is no exception. Somehow, the emphasis on self-esteem has rendered many of us bratty, selfish and entitled.

Regarding the link between entitlement and GPA: because our parents think we are great and we think we are great, you should also think we are great. When students disagree with a grade, students often default to measures of self-preservation: “the professor didn’t actually read my paper,” “the professor didn’t like my topic,” “the professor doesn’t like me, and everybody likes me,” “the professor has no idea what he or she’s doing or talking about.”

If you are a student who uses any of these excuses, shame on you.

Poor grades result from lack of ability, poorly forged work and oftentimes, poor time-management. Grades relate to the quality of how an assignment fulfilled its requirements. Entitled students believe a poor grade is a character attack or an indication of whether or not a professor likes them. They refuse to recognize their work is anything other than exceptional. This confusion often results in grade disputes, arguments and nagging on the student’s part. It’s unclear whether it’s more appalling that so many students have the audacity to contest their grades or that so many professors have “bumped up” grades for students who complain.

Nothing makes my blood boil more than when students don’t read assigned text and subsequently complain about poor grades they earn on papers. Too many students believe their wit and intelligence is enough to get them by on anything and everything. News flash: breathing does not qualify you for an “A” in Chaucer.

Even more horrendous is the fact that some students feel that they are above the rules. They may alter assignments to fit their needs, rather than fulfilling the requirements of the actual assignment. The other day, I heard a student justify his failure to fulfill the requirements of his assignment (his senior thesis, I might add) to his friend. He said the requirements “felt forced” and that the way he completed the assignment (by writing fewer pages and including half the sources required) was superior to what everyone else chose to do.

Although his concerns and criticisms with the required thesis program were thoughtful, they were also inappropriate and irrelevant. I don’t know what’s more disrespectful: flat-out refusing to do an assignment, lying one’s way out of one or disregarding established guidelines for a non-negotiable, degree-dependent program requirement.

Unfortunately, the “A” no longer means what it once did. It may indicate that your chosen undergraduate program was too easy; you may be that pain-in-the-ass student who professors detest. You might even be a hard-working student. But who knows? There is no proof. Your 4.0 just means you know how to work the school system.

When I earned a 4.0 in my first semester of college, someone said to me, “oh, that college must be easy.” I was more than annoyed. I knew I worked so hard, but this person didn’t care. After losing my perfect GPA in my second semester, I was sorely disappointed; however, I soon understood my lesser result (a 3.90 at the time) to be a blessing. I no longer felt the pressure to be perfect and I was free to enjoy my education.

Two of my very best friends (who happen to be two subsequent valedictorians) had a 4.0 until the bitter end of their educations: an “A-minus” destroyed them. Between working so hard for so long to maintain their GPAs and the anxiety of appearing less than “perfect,” the one “low” grade deeply irked them. Even though their resumes are littered with extracurricular activities, leadership roles, service, publications and undergraduate research that proved that their abilities extend beyond the classroom, they still dwelled on that hint of imperfection.

They saw it as a flaw, when in fact their 3.999 GPAs simply proved that they can handle criticism. Although their GPAs set them apart from other grad school candidates, their single “A-minuses” gave them character, making them more valuable candidates than the other [anal-retentive] competitors.

Although the idea of self-esteem was instilled in Generation-Y at a young age, not all of us march around with a strong sense of entitlement. So, who is to blame? Parents? Relatives? America? We may never know, but one thing is certain: entitlement makes us all look bad.

So, think twice when you work so hard to protect your precious 4.0, because grad schools virtually have no way of setting you apart from those with the Grand Perfectionist Affliction.

Photo credit: BCD Tumblr