“What did you get on the mid-term?” A question that few ever ask at Wellesley. People feel that asking about grades could hurt pride or friendships. Talking about exam grades, paper grades, GPAs, or other career-related questions regularly makes students seem uncomfortable at Wellesley. It is a taboo here.
Nevertheless, it is natural on some level to want to know other people’s grades. Perhaps, this is due to primal human curiosity or an urgent desire for one to know more about her relative standing on the grading curve. However, some may argue that talking about grades more openly amongst friends at Wellesley is meaningless, as the desire to improve should be imposed by the need to be the best version of oneself. But it is difficult to pretend that students here are only comparing themselves to their own previous achievements, as the yardstick of “success,” or at least the grade point average, is fundamentally based upon relative academic performance. Almost everything here is graded on a curve and grades are deflated so that the average can be no higher than a B+. Thus, Wellesley is already an inherently competitive environment by nature. Not talking about grades certainly doesn’t decrease the level of competition by any means; it just covers it up more. It provides an illusion that people aren’t striving to be the best they can, which results in a weaker driving force to succeed.
We can’t be squeamish about talking about grades and competition in the need to protect the self-esteem of low-performing students. That is not to say that the academic atmosphere should be cutthroat by any means, where other students are targets and grade ammunitions. But by knowing more about how our friends are doing in the classroom, we can gauge our own strengths and pitfalls, become challenged, and work harder to succeed. That is how improvement occurs ultimately, by learning from friends that have shared their grades who are in immediate surroundings. After all, Bandura’s observation theory has shown that people learn best through observation, imitation, and modelling.
Grade comparison could even solidify friendships. Imagine, you recently had a midterm, and you didn’t fare as well as you would have hoped. Your friend, sitting next to you, asked how you coped, and you find that she performed better than you did. As a result, you might be feeling a little conflicted—over the moon for her success, but slightly despondent, or embarrassed, because of your failure to perform up to your own expectations. However, that “failure” often leads to self-motivation to improve. A study by psychologist Möoller emphasized the importance of social comparison, as students improve their academic performance when compared with others. And so, the conflicted thought you have may spark some healthy competition between the two of you. But in the Wellesley bubble, often that competitive approach leads to collaboration. You two study together, you improve, and you become better friends as a result. And knowing how someone else is doing allows you to be there for her in her ups and downs, making the two of you ultimately better friends in the long run.
As for comparing career-related opportunities with other students, some of us have vastly different goals and aspirations anyways. But even if not, as long as you remember that the success of your friends doesn’t determine your failure, comparing yourself to the achievements of another person is actually healthy. It makes you more motivated to self-improve and productive on your way to success.
Reducing the taboo against sharing grades would help motivate people to improve themselves by providing them with a better understanding on how to improve through imitation and strengthen friendships through collaborative approaches. Also, it would help students prepare for the competitive nature of the real world.