Article Image
Jaime Danies / Senior Staff Photographer

As an educator, ethicist, and attorney, and in the decades since graduating from the magnificent Barnard College and the majestic Columbia Law School, I have come to several essential truths. Primarily, you are not your grades.

Few exams appreciate that intelligence is multidimensional. Most leave out of the calculation an entire range of acuities—including emotional intelligence—that assure success and significance in actual settings. I have had the privilege of working and practicing with some brilliant game-changers whose grades, in their words, were terrible.

A final grade tends most often to be the product of how well one happened to fare on a particular day in a particular setting fraught with unrealistic constraints. The letter ascribed to one’s performance is both subjective and relative.

Yet, in contexts where there can be little feedback, some construe their grades as the final word on their abilities and opportunities. That is an unfortunate deceit. Your grades, whatever they happen to be, are an indication of how well you fared in applying your learning to a narrow, often peculiar format, as determined by intrinsically imperfect metrics. People who studied hard may not do as well as they should or could have. People who hardly studied may excel. The course that you thought you aced becomes your worst grade. The exam that you thought you bombed comes back as your best grade. And so on.

Still, this is a competitive campus. You will have to work to keep matters in perspective. When self-limiting thoughts come up‚ as invariably they will, tell yourself emphatically, “These feelings are not facts.” Your emotional mind will lie to you. To return to your reason-based faculties, challenge the thought by recalling a past accomplishment or source of pride. Remind yourself, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, that you contain multitudes. You are not one thing and every stride, however seemingly small, matters. The race is long, and just to finish the race is to win the race.

Whatever you do, focus less on grades and more on being of service. The surest way out of your own pain is to help others out of theirs. Wake up to the sea of need right here, in this great city. Look up from the distractions of the computer screen. Pull out the ear buds. Have the courage to cultivate real face time. Facelessness is the portent of indifference.

Seek proximity to the “other,” whatever you perceive that to be. Step away from the lures of affirmation bias to learn about opinions and worldviews different from your own. Resist labels and avoid snap judgments. Søren Kierkegaard got it right when he noted, “If you label me, you negate me.”

Be humble enough to recognize that the burdens of your own struggles do not relieve you of the responsibility to see and to acknowledge others in theirs. Everyone has a story to tell and something to teach you. Everyone’s heart has broken places.

Make what happens less about you and more about how you might wield your emerging expertise to be an instigator for the good. Work to ease the suffering of others. There is much to be done. Too many are without even a decent place to live. Others will never see the inside of a classroom, let alone have access to the inside of a courtroom to see their liberties vindicated.

Spend a few hours at a local soup kitchen or homeless intake center. Volunteer to teach a civics component to the social studies curriculum at a nearby middle or high school. Practice and teach media literacy. Most essentially, do not underestimate your power, right now, to be a mentor and exemplar by all that you say and all that you do.

Decide to stand for the realization of equal access to justice. I have found that there is more power in standing for something than against some other thing. Instead of decrying injustice, stand for decency, fairness, and equity. Rather than call out the wrong-headed, call in people of good conscience.

Remember the power of your words. Stay above the fray to avoid the bottom-feeders and traffickers of human frailty. Let your words and social media imprint advance the cause of progress. Be less harsh in your estimations of yourself and others. Admire excellence when it is practiced with compassion.

Let your words and actions shake people out of their cynicism and prompt them to question whether they are right about their unforgiving judgments of the world. When they try to convict humanity, be their basis for reasonable doubt.

The assiduous commitment to the good of others will make your own life good. You get to be a witness to the birth of hope. As a lawyer, I have had the privilege of watching as hope has sprung from the most desolate places. My life has never been the same.

You are not your grades, or, for that matter, your standardized test scores, your resumé, or your summer job. Those things will not have the power to define you unless you give them that power. Do not surrender your song to any teacher, employer, colleague, or classmate. That song is yours alone to sing. The world needs your voice, especially now. 

The author is an alumna of Barnard College and Columbia Law School and a current professor of political science at Barnard. She is also the author of A Short and Happy Guide to Being a College Student.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact

grades stress culture emotional intelligence election