True or False: Straight A’s Are Going Out of Style in College

By Sam Rosensohn

News from the college mountain tops to all high school students: A growing number of prestigious colleges want students to focus less on grades, while other famed institutions want to crack down on grade inflation.

Princeton University is leading a charge on the abundance of A’s. It proposed this month to limit the number of A’s to 35 percent of all course grades.

A Princeton survey concluded last year that just under 50 percent of the undergraduate grades at the eight Ivy League colleges, Stanford, M.I.T., and the University of Chicago were A’s.

“A’s are common as dirt in universities nowadays because it’s almost impossible for a professor to grade honestly. If I sprinkle my classroom with the C’s some students deserve, my class will suffer from declining enrollments in future years,” wrote Duke University professor Stuart Rojstaczer in the Washington Post.

“In the marketplace mentality of higher education, low enrollments are taken as a sign of poor quality instruction. I don’t have any interest in being known as a failure,” noted Rojstaczer, who at the time of publication hadn’t handed out a C in two years.

This ought to let students relax some about whether the crackdown on A’s is around the corner, and it also suggests that the growing number of educators, who’ve been railing against going to college to graduate summa cum laude were spot on.

Harry Lewis, a former Dean of Students at Harvard University, wrote a striking letter to incoming freshmen two summers ago entitled, Slow Down – Getting More Out of Harvard by Doing Less. Replace the word Harvard with the name of the college you’re going to attend, and I think you’ll see that the advice works.

It’s not about graduating with a trophy transcript. It’s about starting college with an “open mind about the possibilities available to you,” Lewis wrote and gradually spending “more of your time on fewer things that you discover you truly love.”

So chase what you love, remember less is more, study hard, make friends, and stick with it for as long as it truly satisfies. Remember, you’re a student, you’re expected to change.

Lewis advised students to carve out a well-balanced life on campus, to participate in activities for fun, and to take time to cultivate strong friendships, because they’re certain to have a stronger influence on their lives than many of the courses they’re about to take.

In short – whether colleges crack down on the abundance of A’s or not – education is about learning how to pursue a rewarding life. How to figure out what’s best for you. What follows is a fast synopsis of what Lewis wrote in an attempt to get students to move away from the hyper-managed lives that got them to college:

Don’t try to get every detail of your academic program nailed down ahead of time. Courses change, and you will change as well; it is wise to recognize from the beginning that you will want to be able to respond to your own shifting interests as well as changes made to the course catalog.

Be cautious about doing a joint concentration. If you are interested in studying two subjects, the sensible course is often to pick one as the field of concentration and to take selected courses in the other.

Don’t be afraid to change concentrations, or to switch to a non-honors program. Students are sometimes inhibited from switching fields because they have “only” a few courses to go in the field they now dislike, or because with a late start they can’t achieve everything that other students will have achieved in the new field … such inhibitions against the change may be unwise.

Don’t think that you’re doing something strange if you take a term or a year off from Harvard before you graduate. If your motivation is flagging, or your grades are not what you think they should be, or you’re just not interested in what you’re studying, take some time off to refresh yourself and get your focus back.

Don’t choose a concentration for reasons of professional preparation. It’s a mistake to think that there’s an optimal course of study leading to a particular postgraduate career.  You gain more from being intellectually engaged with a subject you love than you could acquire in professional training.

Make choices that leave you more choice, more flexibility. Think of your freedom of choice – of what courses to take, of how to spend your Sunday afternoons, whatever – as a commodity that is precious in and of itself. Don’t construct a schedule for yourself that wastes that freedom.

Learn to do constructive things with your time not because you have to but because you want to. For most of the rest of your life you will be reading a book or playing an instrument or going to a lecture in the evening only because it’s interesting and fun.

Look inside yourself for the question you are really asking. Don’t be afraid to raise with your adviser a question of substance, for example, about the importance of wisdom of some intellectual inclination you may have, rather than questions that address only rules and how to satisfy them.

Don’t try to do two major extracurricular activities simultaneously.  If you’re starting on the varsity lacrosse team, you probably shouldn’t accept the lead in the House musical the same term.

Join a student group and work to change it, rather than starting a new one. The skills involved in working with others towards common (even if not identical) goals can be as important in later life as a talent for entrepreneurial innovation.

Don’t ignore your health, physical and emotional. Your mind and body will break down if you don’t relax, exercise, eat well, and most of all, sleep. Give yourself a break – take a few hours just to go to an athletic event, a movie, a theatrical production on campus, a rock concert. Sit outside and read a novel, go to a place of worship, find a pleasant place off-campus where you can be alone with your thoughts. Hang out with your friends, play Frisbee, keep up the dining hall conversation till everyone else has left. It won’t hurt, will probably only help, your academic performance.

Don’t expect yourself to be perfect. Do things that matter most to you as well as you can possibly do them, but don’t be hard on yourself if your best at many things is not as good as someone else’s best. Viewed from the distance of their 25th reunions, most Harvard graduates remember their friends, a few of their teachers, and their coaches, artistic directors, and other mentors better than they remember what they learned in most of their courses.

Finally, don’t treat my advice – or anyone else’s – as rules you must follow! What matters is that you come to understand what you want; the challenge is to give yourself enough breathing room to discover your loves and how to pursue them, your own ambitions and how to achieve them.

To read the full text of this letter, written by Lewis, www.college.harvard.edu/dean/

Sam Rosensohn is the founder of College Planning Partnerships, which offers prep classes for the SAT and helps students to prepare for college and write college essays. He can be reached in Clinton at 860-664-9857 or at sam@satprepct.com