A Good Story About Bad Grades
My first year of college was an exercise in humility. I arrived with my type A personality and perfectionism in tow, a living high school overachiever stereotype, eager to sign up for the most difficult classes available. And, despite the warnings of my adviser, I did just that.
By the time third week–and with it, exams–rolled around, I was falling apart. I was constantly behind, staying up till 3 a.m. to finish an assignment then sleeping for 12 hours the next day. I didn’t eat well. I cried every two or three days. I was miserable: physically, emotionally, and academically.
This collapse persisted for the duration of the year. While my schedule and habits improved somewhat, the year concluded with rather abysmal grades–the kind that result in your adviser telling you you’re not going straight from undergrad to med school. When I saw the B- in Gen Chem, my second of the year, I went for an hour-long drive. I thought about transferring. I thought about dropping the bio major. I thought about letting go of medicine.
Over the summer, I decided to do whatever it took to continue with medicine. I changed my habits (pro tip: make sleep a priority) in studying, socializing, and taking care of myself. I promised to work harder.
However, I was sure that OChem would destroy me. With my background in chemistry, I believed OChem was something to be survived, not something in which to succeed. So when I got a 43 on my first midterm, over two standard deviations below average, it just confirmed my conclusions: I wasn’t that smart, but I would suffer through.
I was committed to that suffering: I took my exam to my TA’s office hours, desperate to scrape a passing grade. Sheepishly, I flipped through the pages, expecting the furrowed-brow frown that read “how could you not understand this?” to appear on my TA’s face at any moment. But it didn’t.
“This was a difficult exam,” he said.
“It was more difficult for me than most.” I mumbled. “I didn’t do so well in Gen Chem either.”
“That’s okay. How you did in Gen Chem doesn’t mean you’ll do the same in OChem.”
I was shocked to not be treated as the stupid student. I had regained my motivation over the summer, and now I was regaining my confidence. I threw myself into studying for my next midterm.
63. Just below average. Every insecurity returned: how could I study this hard and still barely brush average? If this is how hard I have to work for this grade, maybe I’m just not good enough. Maybe I just can’t cut it.
Still, I wasn’t ready to give up. When the final came around, I studied for a full week beforehand.
I got an 85 on that final, two standard deviations above average. I didn’t think it was possible for me to do that well in OChem. I couldn’t believe it–but I began to.
After that, my grades rose across the board. Soon, I didn’t need a week to study, because I had worked so hard and continuously that I developed an instinct for the subject. I began to love OChem–I even tutor in it now.
My last midterm of the year I received a 95, moving from a bottom scorer to top five in my class. My second year GPA was 0.63 higher than my first year GPA. I had done what seemed impossible.
For any struggling student who’s reading this, I hope I can do for you what my TA did for me: believe in yourself. You can overcome bad grades. You are smart enough, and you are hardworking enough. Intelligence is elastic: you can make yourself smarter. There is no point at which you are doomed to fail. So keep trying: you may discover you’re capable of more than you ever dreamed.