Do grades really matter?

Do grades really matter?

We live in a culture that’s obsessed with grades! From young kids who cry when they get a B, to annoying students at uni who complain about only getting a D (‘Distinction’) on their latest test.

If you haven’t guessed it already, I was/still am that annoying person.

Cultural stereotypes aside, we have a real problem. We have kids as young as 8 (if not younger), crying about grades from their latest science report. We have countless students at uni, who are losing sleep, spending less time with friends, and are suffering from severe bouts of depression and anxiety — thanks to an education system that’s rigged against them.

A system that doesn’t actually care about our “absolute intelligence“, creativity, nor REAL “critical thinking” — but rather, our relative performance against a bell curve made up of our peers. How often have you asked, “Will that be on the final exam?”, or thought, “No that’s stupid, I’ll get marked down for saying that!”? Our fear of constantly getting things “wrong”, has paralysed our creativity, courage, and inner desires to question the world around us.

If grades are so bad, why do we even have them in the first place? To understand this, we must first understand the concept of “signalling”:[i]

High Grades = High Ability?

In a nutshell, universities and firms use grades (or ATARs) to help differentiate a student’s innate abilities. The theory goes, if you’re “smart”, you’ll most likely put in the right amount of effort to score an HD, because studying is relatively easier for you. Once you nab that elusive HD, you’ll get paid more (or will receive some fancy scholarship) — because you clearly have more “ability” than your peers, and are therefore considered more “valuable” to hire! (or so the theory goes…)

But what if you’re NOT more valuable to hire? What if you’re just a robot, tragically trapped inside a system, that has its values all wrong?

I’m sorry to burst your bubble this close to exam time — I truly am! But I really do believe there are so many more important things in life! (other than some arbitrary number on your transcript).

The opportunity costs of getting an HD:

Note that studying and learning isn’t the problem, it’s the way we’re being measured. How many of you have wasted hours fixing up your references; or have gone and re-watched lectures just to get the exact “perfect wording” that your lecturer likes to use.

We waste hours on trivial things like formatting that have nothing to do with what we’ve actually learned (or the quality of our unique ideas!) — but everything to do with that big, shiny letter that appears on our transcript. It’s stifling our creativity, stopping us from learning, and encouraging us to be more fearful.

We think about the obvious opportunity costs of studying all the time! From less Netflix, to less shifts at work. But we often don’t think about the less obvious ones! Like learning something new and fun on Youtube, taking 10 minutes out of your busy day to figure out what you really want to do in life! — or even asking “silly questions” in class — not because you desperately want to score an HD or earn some “participation points”, but because you’re genuinely interested and curious!

Our lying minds are constantly leading us astray”.[ii] Instead of picking subjects we’re genuinely interested in — we often pick ones we know we’ll score well in (or that look good on our resume!) Instead of going to some random uni event and potentially meeting some cool new people, we decide to stay home and work tirelessly on our essay.

These are supposed to be the BEST years of our lives! — yet we often find ourselves stressed out thinking about grades, or not being good enough for that amazing, “great-soundingjob! We wind up feeling more isolated and alone than ever before — leading to further feelings of unhappiness and inadequacy!

Scoring a HD, or topping a subject, won’t make you happy. It won’t solve your problems and certainly won’t live up to your high expectations.

So what’s the solution? Do we just all give up and stop trying? Did I just waste 18 years of my life on something that means NOTHING?!

The Solution:

I knew you would ask! Because we’re constantly obsessed with finding the “right answer”. The problem is, there is no right answer. There never has, and there never will.

Instead of “lecturing” you on what I think you should do. I decided to write you an open letter!

(Also, I figured you probably have enough lectures to catch up on already!) So, here goes…


Dear reader, you are so special!

You are so talented in so many different ways! You have so many gifts to offer the world! (ones that our archaic education system will truly never understand).

Please never be defined by your grades (or external validation for that matter). You are enough. Who cares about what some fancy lecturer thinks your work is worth? (no offence to my favourite lecturers out there, I still love you <3). The fact that you just read an ENTIRE non-uni related article (out of pure interest alone!) — speaks volumes on the type of person you are already.

The beauty of having “no right answer”, is that you get to decide (entirely for yourself) — how you want your uni years to be defined! If you want to spend more time with friends, or learn things that you’re actually interested in — then just do it! No one’s stopping you! :)

If you do decide to chase those HD’s — don’t feel bad about it, there’s nothing wrong with doing that because it’s completely your choice! Just remember, that “it takes what it takes”, and there are no shortcuts to the hard work that you’ll have to put in.

There’s always going to be sacrifices one way or another. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get slightly creative with our answer.

Perhaps I’ll leave you with this. If you’re worried about “signalling”, just remember authenticity is the best signal of all. If you’re worried about “opportunity costs”, just remember the choices you make today don’t define you forever.

After all, isn’t the beauty of learning — so that we all know a little better next time?

Until then,


Image Source: Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

[i] Market Signaling. Michael Spence – Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1974(a).

[ii] “The Happiness Lab” podcast. Dr Laurie Santos from Yale University. 2019. [cited 29 May 2020]. Available from: