Why Grades Are Causing a Culture of Unhappiness Among College Students

During finals week, my roommate and I noticed a couple Northwestern University emails in our inboxes bearing one strong theme. "Why am I getting so many 'don't kill yourself' emails?" she asked off-handedly.

One read:

"Maybe your time at Northwestern is the first time that some of you have struggled to master the content of your classes or -- and this is less good -- meet the incredibly high standards you have set for yourself.

This is normal.

In fact, these challenges are actually one of the most valuable parts of (an) education."


"It is normal, at times, to struggle with academic work, find balance among competing priorities, and meet our own -- or even others' -- expectations. I want to assure you that you are not alone. There are many people at NU who are committed to your success and well being."

While it seemed like a nice (and new) gesture, it did little to soothe anyone's stress. Instead, it came off exactly as my roommate put it -- a message from the University acknowledging the pressure on students, but reminding us to not react drastically. The email ended with a reference to counseling services.

The next day, as I studied for my Chinese final exam, I received another similarly titled "Best wishes" email from the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures:

"The end of this quarter is drawing near, and we know stress levels have gotten high with studying, taking exams, and submitting papers. Still, be sure to take time to enjoy this point in your life. Breathe. Drink Water. Smile at a friend."

I think most of my peers glanced over these emails and return right back to their books and caffeine. But while the last email at least asked students to relax, it made me even angrier than the first.

My Chinese professor had told us that the department was expanding, and that they didn't want professors giving all A's. If too many students received A's in a class, the department would start asking questions. This made me wonder: why was our school actively trying to lower students' grades and aggravate an already stressful environment? And on top of that, why would they then expect us to relax?

Many students have experienced similar frustration with classes at Northwestern. On one econ test, my 94 percent translated into a B+. These classes actively curve grades down, so students have to work even harder to receive their ideal grade, or sometimes even just to pass. While Harvard has been criticized for grade inflation, grade deflation isn't necessarily a recommended option either. Because when percentages and points are first priority, sometimes learning takes a back seat.

While I am by no means advocating for looser academic standards or less learning, I don't think stricter grading scales necessarily enforce a higher level of learning. I begin every quarter excited for classes, but near the end of six weeks I'm already burnt out, tired and struggling to just get through, without any concern for what knowledge sticks, and what knowledge fades the moment I walk out of the exam room.

And I'm already luckier than many. While I intrinsically strive for high grades, my future career doesn't necessarily depend on my GPA. I've been told by professionals that in journalism, experience matters most. But what about students applying to graduate school or management and consulting jobs, where GPA is crucial? It's no wonder then that students sacrifice their sleep, health and happiness for even a couple more points.

In the past year, Northwestern University lost two current students and two former students to suicide. Many students take quarters off after experiencing extreme stress, depression or other mental health issues. But does the administration really think that an email is the answer to fixing the intensely detrimental culture at Northwestern, or among high-achieving college students in general?

These emails are weak support at best, and a slap in the face when it's the University setting the grading scales. But I don't mean to place all the blame on universities. College students themselves perpetuate their own harmful habits. They compare themselves to one another, they compete over who sleeps less and they fight to keep that extracurricular or minor that barely fits into their schedules.

I'm growing frustrated with students who think it's admirable to work themselves to the bone, who scoff at the idea of a full eight hours of sleep. We're already opening up dialogues about socioeconomic class and sexual assault at Northwestern. But why haven't we opened a dialogue about the simplest and most sacrificed part of our college experience: our happiness? Along with not wanting to talk about sensitive, controversial issues that permeate college campuses, we are just as unwilling to talk about or admit when we are unhappy.

I'm not saying Northwestern students are exclusively unhappy; we have plenty of good days too. But the culture of unhappiness at Northwestern is also recognized in other schools. A friend of mine at another college has a professor who attended Northwestern, who said it was the worst four years of her life.

But who says it has to be this way? I've sat in my room, counting all the good things in my life, and wondering why the hell I felt so unhappy. Yet this seemed like something I couldn't quite fix or mention, just a tacit given that this was how things were supposed to be.

No matter the problem with the institution, change also needs to come from students themselves, in stopping to think about what truly is a priority and what isn't. In ten years, will you remember that A- , or will you remember the feeling of stress, desperation and loneliness? There are always paths to get to where you want to go. But hurting yourself to take the most obvious route isn't going to be worth it.

Whatever I need to change, whatever the students here need to change, it certainly isn't any emails from the University telling us to just breathe.