It shouldn’t really come as a surprise, but I need to admit something all the same. I don’t quite get how grades and grading works in the United States — much less in college. Since growing up in Hong Kong and having gone to a British international school throughout all my life, I had grown up with a constant, but completely different, set of academic rules to live by.
Growing up, I was used to “top marks,” assessment objectives, “A*s” (read as A-stars) and 9-1, Edexcel and Cambridge Center for International Education exam boards. Nothing like grade point averages and Advanced Placement. The terminology was different, but I thought the way that grading and school actually functioned would be on the similar side of things. I was quite wrong on that end.
I had and still do have a wildly different academic mindset and perspective compared to the average college student who has grown up with GPAs and AP classes. Getting a “70” grading mark was incredibly common and often celebrated, considering that in A-Levels a “70” would earn you a B.
It only hit me that the same attitude was not afforded in the United States when a friend was lamenting their 70 on a test we had both recently taken. I was shocked and earnestly told her that 70 was amazing and she shouldn’t beat herself up about it at all. My comfort did little to ease the look of despair in her eyes. I was so perplexed at that moment, not realizing that 70 meant essential failure to some people — especially those at UC Berkeley.
While attributing 70 as a “failing grade” in the United States is a little hyperbolic, it was nonetheless a passing grade. Many students seem to take it as the end of the world. I only realized the hardships that 70s could bring much later into the semester when midterm grades were released and I saw how much scores of 70 actually stacked up in the grading range.
I didn’t understand why a 4.0 was considered such a magical number. Why do we all strive to attain it? International A Levels was a rigorous course, with a demanding workload and even more imposing exams. I will be the first to say it was exceedingly hard — one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life.
But then, when coming to college in the United States, I had been lulled into what seemed like a false sense of security. All of the classes I was taking seemed like a regression from the level that I was obliged to perform at during high school.
The content was intense, and the exams all bordering on 3-4 hours long with ardent proctoring had met the astronomically high academic bar that I had set for myself.
The idea that grading and GPA scores are so immensely stringent and regimented that anything other than perfect marks would ruin you just did not make sense to me.
It’s interesting what stories of another culture we bring to various countries. In my mind, I believed the United States and its elite higher education, and UC Berkeley of all places, was a place of academic rigor. And it is, for the most part.
I think, since coming to Berkeley, I’ve had to adjust and adapt to a lot of different things.
One of the most prevalent ones was surrounding academics and academic pressure here at Berkeley and college life in general. The academic expectations I had put on myself during A Levels were so intense that I developed a nasty streak of perfectionism. So much that, at times, it became brutal to my self-worth. I told myself that this kind of pressure to perform is not going to fly in Berkeley — college was going to be hard. And I accepted this, to an extent.
It’s hard to not be distraught and overly discouraged by seeing a “bad” grade. It’s demoralizing and to most students at UC Berkeley, it’s completely foreign. I like to think, if I can get out of my own spiral of self-disappointment, that if it was easy, then everyone would be doing it.
Because it’s true, UC Berkeley is a rigorous school, with demanding class loads and a workaholic attitude that permeates the student body. But being here means we’re not ones to take the easy route, which is admirable all on its own.
Perhaps it’s me missing a grading system that I actually understand and can decipher to obtain the best possible grade. Perhaps, this introspection is prompted by the looming dates of finals and midterms galore. Or perhaps it’s me missing the student that I used to be in secondary school, the diligent and driven girl who strived for excellence. And more often than not, I was rewarded for the intensive work that I put into my A Levels.
I feel her slowly coming back: the competitive edge to be the best, to grasp at perfection.
If only that girl could figure out how to understand how grading works outside the classroom. If only grading could not be the be-all and end-all decider of a student’s self-worth. I know my life back in secondary school, and in education in general, would have been incredibly less taxing if I could heed my own advice.
There is so much more to the “college experience” than academics: Explore yourself outside of GPAs and midterm scores — go out of your way to say “yes” to things you normally wouldn’t have. Take advantage of all of the opportunities (academic or not) we’re presented with and remember that grades don’t define who we are.
Who knows, maybe you’ll end up writing for The Daily Californian while you’re at it.