Two years out of college and I have one thing that I’m proud of: graduating with accolades. That’s it. I’m not boasting about each exam grade. I’ve long forgotten my GPA and class ranking. I could care even less about all the A’s and B’s I’ve accumulated over the course of my education.
Take it from someone who not only worked hard in school -- and who also once really, really valued the numbers and letters above -- the scores we receive on our standardized tests are not nearly as important as we’re conditioned to believe. Someday in the very near future, these arbitrary markings will mean absolutely nothing to you, despite presently feeling like they are the end-all-be-all life-changing indicators of success.
I’m not telling you this because I think it’s cool to be apathetic. Just a few years ago I desperately cared about my test scores, even though I wanted to come across like I didn’t. I’m telling you this because if you put all your energy into grades, it’ll be your greatest disappointment. You’ll miss out on all the things that matter when you’re no longer a student.
No one remembers or even thinks about their SAT or ACT scores after freshman year of college, and the people who do likely go on to become friendless and debate the weather. Your math percentile will mean as little to you as the cosine similarity of two vectors at 90 degrees (whoa, we used to be really smart!). And though our rankings might seem like the difference between a job at J.P. Morgan and a job at JCPenney, the reality is that it doesn’t. It’s merely a number for bragging rights for those at the very top, and no one else gives a number 2 pencil.
What counts is your unrelenting diligence, what you put your hands on in this world -- your contributions to things that are tangible which cannot be measured solely by pieces of paper. Heed this advice from someone who passionately played into the game of getting good grades and put all her trust in the system: It doesn’t matter if you have the A’s to show it, it’s the person behind letters that counts.
This is not to discredit the more traditional fields like medicine and law that do place emphasis on a professional’s educational career. These careers do require a certain caliber of expertise and testing a candidate is an effective means of determining his/her level. You’d rather have a brain surgeon who flawlessly aced “Brain Anatomy 101” than one who had to retake the course several times. But, do you really care if this brain surgeon scored above 700 on his/her Verbal SAT section?
The test culture itself has gotten completely out of control. There are diagnostics for the diagnostics (aka the “experimental” section of the SAT). And it’s important to remember that all of these Collegeboards and Educational Testing Services and Graduate Management Admission Councils are all a business. In turn, they spew other businesses like the Princeton Reviews and Kaplans, whose sole job is to make you feel like you need these tests (their product) more than anything else in the world -- even more than afterschool television! It’s one faceless corporation setting the standards for students they don’t even teach.
But we buy the books and spend tons on extra test prep because grades and scores in school feel even more significant than actually attending school. And fierce competition amongst other students makes us feel like we need to be doing everything in our power to one-up each other. We experience more FOMO from skipping a Sunday practice test than we do from skipping a charity event.
Which is funny because when I try and remember the top students in my class the only one who comes to mind is the mouth-breathing kid who lost the spelling bee in seventh grade and then totally threw a desk at the teacher. The only people who can recall their GPA are the very few who achieved the highest, but boasting about your average is the verbal equivalent of peaking in high school.
I will give this to the exams in general, though: They are great in place of actual school. I might not remember what I scored, but I do remember loving not having to sit and listen to another lesson plan. You got to essentially skip class on test days, and then reward yourself with a huge cookie from the lunch room. Not a bad life.
What’s even more crucial than grades is being self-motivated and committed. By the time you graduate, you don’t come out with A’s; you come out of it with greater knowledge to help shape your perspective of this world. It’s what you do with this knowledge that matters most.
By the time I graduated from college, I thought I had the process down to a science. I thought I understood what I had to do to "beat the system" and so streamlined my education that I finished in under four years. In return, I felt that the very society that constructed the idea of testing in the first place owed me a job and salary and lifelong happiness. I was wrong. The 16-plus years of high marks and good scores do not jump off a page like an experienced (or well-connected) person does.
So for all the non-student students, all the high schoolers stressing over college applications, and all the nerds missing out on another Friday night: Please, please try to remember, it’s not the value of the number; it’s the value of the person.
Photo credit: We Heart It