Ashley Zhang: Making peace with imperfection

Monday, January 9, 2017 - 10:17am

My AP teachers in high school loved to brag that we were undoubtedly prepared for college, that our educations had ingrained in us superb study habits and learning skills that would put us far beyond our college peers. Yet, while I do believe that my high school did a good job of preparing me and my classmates for higher education, college was not the walk in the park that I’d been promised; most of my new peers came just as prepared as me, if not more.

I still remember my second day of freshman orientation, when the College of Engineering and School of Music, Theatre & Dance students were shuttled on a bus to the mysterious North Campus that I now call home. A histogram of the grade point averages of the members of the incoming class was projected on the screen, heavily skewed right — the median was a whopping 3.9. Then, the graph changed to display the GPAs of engineering students after a few semesters at the University. The difference between the two histograms was drastic: The graph of engineering students' GPAs after a few semesters at the University showed a much larger spread with a much lower median GPA.

“Most of you breezed through high school with a 4.0,” stated the adviser, and I looked around the room to see a sea of nodding heads, my own included. “But many of you will find it much more difficult to maintain in college, and that’s OK.” 

The reaction was not as obvious this time, but I suspect that many of my new schoolmates shared my feelings: I believed the statistics, but there was no way that I would fall victim to them. High school had, frankly, been a piece of cake for me, and I was confident that college would be no different.

How naive I was. Now here I am, a mere half-year later with a semester under my belt and a less-than-perfect GPA, eating my own words. I had come to expect my grade earlier in the semester as the possibility of earning an A diminished with each passing exam, but there was still something crushing about seeing it officially mar my transcript: B+. B stands for bad. B is a blemish. Bs don’t get you into med school (this is a common misconception, by the way).

Now, I hadn’t cried about my grades since the first test I’d failed in AP Chemistry way back when, but my voice was still tinged with dismay when I told my parents about my first B. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting, but I was surprised when they responded without a trace of negativity. They understood that college was a different playing field from high school, and a B+ was a perfectly acceptable grade.

It took me a while longer to come to the same understanding. In a way, I felt like I’d let myself down. I’d always excelled at school, and some time along the way, I’d tied my self-worth to it. When I suddenly had to work my ass off for the first time and it still wasn’t enough, I felt like I’d lost something integral to my identity.

Winter break was a time for reflection, a coming-to-terms with the past semester. If I could describe my first semester here in one word, I would call it “humbling.” I have met some of the best and brightest people here, and they have taught me so much about chemistry, math and modesty. I’ve learned that even the smartest people I know have stumbled academically at times, and that a single letter should not — and cannot — define me. I’ve realized that, although academics should be a priority, there is so much more to the college experience, and it would be a shame to waste these four short years in the library, worrying about maintaining a 4.0.

Though I was disappointed to earn a B so early in my college career, in a way, I’m glad it came this way. The Band-Aid has been ripped off, the perfection shattered, and now I’m free. Rather than view my GPA as something that’s been broken beyond repair, I see it as a burden off my back. There is freedom, now, to be adventurous with my curriculum and dive into classes that interest me without worrying about their difficulty or curve.

As I think back to the adviser’s words at freshman orientation that I had such contempt for a mere six months ago, I realize how they resonate the truth. Though an imperfect GPA had once felt like a death sentence for any future I had in mind, I’ve come to peace with it, and I am — just like the adviser predicted — OK.

Ashley Zhang can be reached at ashleyzh@umich.edu.