Note on this post: I wrote this about a year ago and have gone back and forth on whether to run it or not since then. After some recent edits, it’s as timely as ever with college application results really starting to flow in for current high school seniors, so here goes nothing.
Like Matt’s wonderful “Tollbooths”, this post is going to get a little personal. If you’d prefer more humorous, light pieces where I mercilessly go after innocent people, I’d suggest you go here, here, or here instead.
Since I reached the point in school where I started getting grades (this was in seventh grade), my parents had certain expectations for what my grades should be. Let’s just say they were a little different than what I wanted to put into school. They had both done extremely well in high school and attended prestigious institutions for their college years, where they both finished very high in their respective class and expected no differently from me. These expectations weren’t unreasonable; if I had put the effort into high school classes that they had, similar results probably would have followed.
But I didn’t. I received a few C’s. I turned in some papers late. I did poorly on some tests because I didn’t study. At the end of the day, I ended up with a pretty good GPA instead of a great one. In many ways throughout high school, I felt like I had failed. It wasn’t just the expectations of those around me that instilled this feeling; every college I visited proudly trumpeted things like their average GPA, ACT/SAT score, and class rank of their admitted students.
Why didn’t anyone care about anything besides my performance in high school classes? The only thing on earth that seemed to matter or say anything about me as a person were the three digits and one decimal point that comprised my weighted GPA. While it absolutely mattered that I had become one of the editors-in-chief of the New Trier newspaper, no one seemed to care. It also didn’t seem like it mattered that I was a good kid that had never been in any trouble aside from when I talked too much for a teacher’s liking in fourth grade and when I was pulled over during a failed late night IHOP run when my parents thought I was sound asleep (an epic story, but one we’ll have to save for another time). Why didn’t any of this stuff matter?
Thankfully, I have a little more perspective after completing high school and nearly a year of college and here’s the thing I’ve come to realize: in the end, those statistics are rendered trivial the minute the process of applying to and selecting a university or college to attend is completed. Sure, they are most likely the reason you end up where you do (with obvious exceptions being athletes, musicians, and the like), but once you’re there they could not be any more meaningless.
While it’s not at all the point of the post, many would suggest that the college where these stats plant someone does matter in life. So, as a necessary digression, let me say that the college one attends doesn’t matter either. An extensive study done by Alan B. Krueger at Princeton and Stacey Dale at Mathematica Policy Research showed that there is virtually no difference between the career earnings of students that graduated from Ivy League schools and students that got into an Ivy League school, but chose to go to a less prestigious institution. Taking the focus away from the specificity of the Ivy League and looking at the larger picture, this shows that monetary success in life has nothing to do with where you went to college, but how driven you are to succeed. It’s absolutely true that students in the Ivy League tend to be more driven than those that are not, but I’m saying that someone’s intelligence and work ethic determine their success in life, not their alma mater.
Additionally, it’s common knowledge that a graduate degree matters more to employers anyway. While it’s undoubtedly easier to get into a great grad school from MIT than Michigan State, it can be done from anywhere with hard work. I’m going to get back to my main point before a Princeton alumnus starts giving me an entitled and patronizing retort about alumni networks. Every single university has an alumni network and chances are there are some very successful people in each one.
As a high school student, it’s very hard to see the big picture when you have all the pressure of applying to college bearing down on you, whether it’s coming from your parents, what you read, or even just yourself. But what really matters isn’t your GPA or your ACT/SAT score. In the end, what’s really important is your relationships with others. Life is temporary and at the end of yours, no one is going to hold up your high school report card and remark, “Susan was a great person because she had a perfect 4.00 GPA in high school seventy years ago!” Anyone that thinks that their sterling SAT score matters when they’re 30 will have their character seriously questioned if they brag about it to others.
Our society forces high school students to constantly ask, “What is my GPA and what can I do to raise it?” over everything else. While this isn’t a bad question and students should always strive to succeed in school, we should be asking more important questions like, “Did I tell my family that I love them today?” Instead of worrying about an SAT score, ask yourself, “Did I show my best friend how much I appreciate all that he’s done for me throughout my life?” People are and should be defined by how they treat others, not by their GPAs.
If you’re in the middle of high school, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. I know from experience how easy it is to lose perspective on what’s truly important. But what should rise above all else in your life isn’t your GPA. It’s your parents, your brothers, your sisters, your grandparents, your aunts and uncles, your cousins, your friends, your boyfriend, your girlfriend. In ten years, no one will care what grade you received on your US History final. Chances are no one will even care in 10 days. People will remember what you did to make them happy and their lives better.
You can’t drive until you’re 16, vote until you’re 18, or drink until you’re 21 (well, legally). But it’s never too early to start making a difference in the lives of those you care about.