The Tyranny of GPA


Tyranny: “an absolute ruler, unrestrained by law or constitution” (

There’s a tyrannical ruler roaming the halls of higher education. This ruler has exerted so much control over students that many spend a large chunk of their waking hours fearing its effects. In fact, some students fear this ruler so much that they are willing to compromise their personal integrity in exchange for its leniency.

What is this tyrannical ruler?

I’ll get to that in a minute (or you can simply look at the title of this post and figure it out for yourself).

First, though, I want to start off by telling you four stories—three about students and one about my wife.

Story #1. A few weeks ago, while looking at Facebook, I noticed a post from one of my students. He was lamenting the fact that people judge how “smart” he is based on his college exams. He was really stressed out about having to “prove” to everyone that he was worthy of good grades.

Story #2. Last year, I was talking to a student who had taken several classes with me. He had already been accepted into a top-rate graduate program and was going to be graduating summa cum laude in a few weeks. This student was stressed out over an upcoming exam he had in a general history class—a class that would have absolutely no effect on his future endeavors. But instead of enjoying his last few weeks of college, he was planning on holing up in his apartment and studying all weekend.

Story #3. A student was in my office and was talking about what classes she wanted to take the following semester. She told me she really wanted to take a biopsychology course because she heard it was interesting and because it covered topics that she found fascinating. But she also heard it was hard. She ultimately chose not to take it. She didn’t want to get a bad grade and screw up her chances of getting a job.

Story #4. While writing this post, my wife told me about a decision she made in high school. She had the chance to take a statistics class but decided not to. The class wasn’t “weighted” for honors, which meant it would’ve actually lowered her grade point average slightly and taken her out of contention to be class valedictorian. Although having a statistics class would’ve benefitted her as she went off to college, she decided against it. (Ironically, she now is a college professor and teaches a statistics class nearly every semester.)

So let’s get back to the question I posed near the beginning of the article:

Q: What is this tyrannical ruler that threatens so many students?

A: It’s GPA—the almighty grade point average.

I want to take some time to discuss what happens to students when GPA becomes the ruler that dictates their academic lives.

GPA: It Starts Early

baby report cardFirst, it’s important to note that emphasis on grades starts early. When I was in kindergarten, I remember being asked each day what I had learned in school. I usually mentioned something about squares or how I had learned to spell “banana.” (It’s really easy by the way: You just say “B-A… N-A… N-A.”)

But at some point, the questions changed. Instead, I was asked: “What grade did you get on your spelling test?”

I quickly learned that “Good job” came with a report card full of A’s. Some of my friends even got money for their good grades.

Eventually, people used grades to judge my intelligence: “Look at those A’s. You’re so smart!” I rarely got compliments for getting B’s. Or for working hard. Or for being curious. Or for showing creativity.

GPA1All that mattered was my GPA. Eventually, it got to the point where, when I got good grades, I felt good; otherwise, I felt bad (something I frequently see in my college students).

This continued throughout high school, college, and even, to some extent, graduate school.

Unfortunately, there are, in my opinion, numerous problems with placing such so much emphasis on the almighty GPA.

Some Problems with GPA

problemsThe first problem—as many students can tell you—is that GPA is often not a good indicator of what you know or what you can do. I frequently got good grades in college and yet remembered little of what I had studied. I was nevertheless judged based on my GPA, as if it accurately represented what I knew or could do.

Second, it causes students to focus on a performance marker—getting an A or a B—rather than on trying to truly learn the material or on acquiring a set of skills. Rather than focusing on mastery, students instead identify (a) what grade they want and (b) the least amount of effort they have to expend to get that grade. If you doubt this, grab 20 students on a college campus and ask them if they’ve ever calculated the number of points they need to “get an A” on the final exam. I’ll bet most of them have (I know I did).

Third, it causes students to engage in way too much social comparison. Rather than trying to be the best they can be, students judge themselves based on whether they did better or worse than someone else. But here’s the deal: We’re all good at some things and bad at others. I’m a good teacher (I think) but a bad Olympic sprinter. We’ve all had vastly different experiences in our lives; we all learn at different rates. Why should I be able to do the exact same things you can? Why should our performances be compared? Why should you compare yourself to me?

The final problem—and this is a dirty little secret about GPA—is that it often matters less than people think it does. A 2013 report, for example, asked employers what they look for in potential employees. Nowhere was “high GPA” listed. (Other reports do mention GPA, but it’s usually down the list.) Instead, employers mentioned things like the ability to work in a team, think critically, and organize effectively. Depending on your field, internships—where you learn a specific set of skills—may be important, too.

Now, I’m not saying that GPA doesn’t matter at all. Students with a 3.30 GPA may get more initial interviews than someone with a 2.30 GPA. Similarly, getting into a top-notch PhD program in clinical psychology, for example, probably requires a high(er) GPA, simply because there are so many applicants, and admissions committees need some way to pare down the bunch. But if you have a high GPA and no other skills, you’re probably not going to get the job or a spot in that graduate program you so desire.

“So, are you saying that I can slide by with a 2.00 GPA and still get an awesome job?”

Well, possibly. But let me clarify this a little bit.

In most cases, students who get to college are intelligent enough do well in their classes. In my experience, the difference between people with a 2.00 and a 3.00 GPA often comes down to other factors: things like interest in one’s major, work ethic, whether a student is working 40 hours per week, and so on.

So, What Can We Do About It?

The first thought might be to get rid of grades altogether. Unfortunately, the educational system in which we operate is one that, for the last 100 years, has been based largely on grades. As a result, by the time students get to college, many have bought into the idea that grades are all that matters. If we were to do away with grades, I suspect that students’ motivation for doing things like attending class and reading their textbooks would also greatly diminish.

So, given that the system is unlikely to change any time soon, what can we do to escape the tyranny of GPA?

Ultimately, I think the change has to start with students (with support from parents, teachers, and important others).

The first thing you can do is to realize that your GPA does not define you. Think of all the things you do in your life, all of the roles you play: daughter, son, sibling, friend, basketball player, fraternity member, wake boarder, and so on. Yes, “student” might be an important role for you at this point in your life, but it’s not (and shouldn’t be) the only one. Remembering that you are more than just a student will make it easier for you to remember that you are also more than just a grade or a GPA.

The second thing you can do is remember that employers and graduate schools ultimately want someone with a particular set of skills—some (or many) of which are not assessed very well on traditional exams. As I like to tell my students, “Writing a great essay answer on how to ride a bike is not the same as actually riding a bike.” At some point, someone is going to put a bike in front of you and ask you to ride it. If you focus on acquiring skills during your time in college, you’ll be able to “ride the bike.”

Finally, stop comparing yourself to others. Instead, focus on “mastery goals” and self-improvement. If you focus on learning as much as you can (as opposed to simply getting a particular grade or doing better than your roommate), there’s a good chance you’ll do the things that result in good grades: going to class, asking questions, seeking out additional help, and so on.


Unfortunately, the tyranny of GPA has taken hold of students. But with a change in mindset and a realization that GPA may not matter quite as much as people think, students can break free from the chains that hold them down. Once free of GPA’s grasp, they can pursue their education with a freedom that will not only improve their performance, but will also improve their psychological well-being.


If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment below, and please share it with others (by clicking one of the icons below). Thanks!


2 thoughts on “The Tyranny of GPA”

    1. Christian, we talk about what they’ve learned rather than what grade they got. We tell them that if they learn as much as possible and give their best effort, the grade will take care of itself. We tell them that no one will care about their grades if they haven’t truly learned and remembered the material. In short, we emphasis the process of learning rather than the outcome of getting a good grade.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *