March 15, 2020

JONES | Dear Cornellians, Stop Taking Easy Classes for a GPA Boost

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My junior year, one of my closest friends and I discussed our winter plans at the dinner table. I mentioned the possibility of taking an online course to complete a graduation requirement and relieve some of my academic coursework during the spring semester.

He also mentioned that he, a biology major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, was taking an Introduction to Economics course during the winter session. When I asked about his anomalous course choice, he mentioned it was to hopefully experience a relatively easy course and earn a GPA boost.

I was flabbergasted. Being a pre-med myself, I understood that my friend, a pre-grad student, needed a high GPA to impress grad school interviewers and admission committees. But something about his course choice just seemed inherently futile, even detrimental. Why invest money, time and energy into something that doesn’t provide any personal fulfillment? If one has no intellectual curiosity while taking a course, does true learning ever occur?

I’ve seen this GPA-centric mindset overrule love for learning time and again. I’ve also seen it fail to meet the student’s desires each time. My friend who took Introduction to Economics ended the course with an A-, which I know he was not overly pleased with.

Another one of my closest friends, a pre-law student majoring in mathematics, dropped an honors math course she was taking, not because the course was overly difficult or because the curriculum or teaching style was poor, but because she was afraid of earning the median, which she guessed would be an A- or A.

The sad and ironic part though, is that after the course ended, she conversed with some students who stayed in the class, only to be disappointed to hear that the course was curved to an A+.

Aside from the fact that my friends failed to meet their expectations, they ultimately sacrificed a possibly memorable experience with their classes. Devaluing learning for one’s GPA can also be a detriment to other students in the class. It fosters competition, rather than collaboration. If a course is curved — usually implying a fixed percentage of students can earn a certain grade — and people are taking a course for the primary purpose of a good grade, why should they cooperate if they know they are effectively helping their competitors?

Moreover, this mindset can easily hinder a student’s academic potential through other means, such as fostering a lack of willingness to take optional, challenging classes. My sophomore year, I attended a gap year seminar held by a pre-health counselor at Cornell. The counselor emphasized the importance of high GPA, recommending an avoidance of hard classes like Honors Physical Chemistry to preserve GPA.

I’m sorry, but why? It’s one thing to intentionally opt in to courses because they seem easy, but it’s another to refrain from even attempting a course because you believe it will lower your GPA, even if you met the prerequisites for the course. It’s much easier said than done, but students should opt to take optional difficult courses for a productive learning experience.

As a pre-med student, I also have dealt with the all-too-common imposter syndrome, taking the standard premedical courses as a sophomore and dropping honors classes when I knew I would perform worse than desired. The turning point in my Cornell career came in my junior year though, when I chose to take Honors Physical Chemistry out of curiosity, opposing the counselor’s advice.

The course did not fail to meet expectations. I pulled a few all-nighters working on problem sets. And I did earn a lower grade than I desired. But the benefits far outweighed the drawbacks. I learned how to better ask for help and collaborate with my peers. I made lots of friends and ended up developing an unexpected passion for chemistry.

Best of all, though, people cared that I took this course when it wasn’t necessary for me. From my own personal journey as a senior hunting for gap year positions in research labs, my interviewers asked me not about my GPA or extracurriculars, but what I learned in my classes. They were impressed by the fact that I was a premedical student capable of using Mathematica and solving Schrodinger’s Equation, skills I learned in p-chem, even if they weren’t needed for their lab.

This is unsurprising —  choosing from a pool of brilliant pre-grad Cornellians with likely similar GPAs, majors and core coursework, admission committees and interviewers are looking for any reason to distinguish applicants. What’s the purpose of taking an easy course for the sake of GPA if it doesn’t confer anything meaningful to talk about? And at the same time, why stay away from difficult classes when they could possibly be the deciding factor between you and another student with a similar background?

Cornellians, now is the time to pursue the class you’ve always wanted to indulge in. Forget GPA — just take the class for fun. Make mistakes. Meet new people. And never be afraid to learn.

Nile Jones is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at nnj9@cornell.edu. Rivers of Consciousness runs every other Monday this semester.