Grades Don’t Matter

by ursavoice

Elizabeth Levy
J.D. Candidate 2012, UCI Law

I got a C+ in high school chemistry. I will admit that at the time, it felt like my life had shattered into a thousand (carbon-based) smithereens. Crying, I broke the news to my mother, who simply said, “I think you’re brave for taking chemistry at all. You’ll still get into college. And the good news is that it’s over, and you won’t have to study it anymore.”

My mother was wrong about that last part. Driven by an insatiable curiosity and a gluttony for punishment, I would go on to take courses in things like organic chemistry, biochemistry, immunochemistry, neurochemistry, and pharmaceutical chemistry. I emerged alive each time, with a deepened appreciation for the physical elegance of our cosmos, swearing that I’d never open a chemistry book again.

In retrospect, the lasting lesson of my high school chemistry class has been this: grades don’t matter. At least, they do not matter nearly as much as I thought they did at the time. If I could talk to my high school self on the day I received that report card, I would happily share the good news—and then implore myself to get some sleep.

Our existence is like a divine bar exam, a ceaseless fact pattern framed by the prompt, “What, if anything in life, actually matters? Discuss.” Our efforts to do well in school are part of our attempt to answer this question. We strive for grades because we believe they matter: we wish to be excellent, we want others to think we are excellent, and we are told that grades are highly relevant to securing the futures we badly want for ourselves. We may be stardust contemplating stardust, but a spotless transcript is still essential for landing the interviews that will get us the jobs that will nourish our souls and fund our iPhone data plans, right?

Well…maybe. This question assumes a simplified reality, a frictionless vacuum in which our futures are predictable like chemical equations, and good grades are the limiting reagents. In reality, the grades we get are like rocket blasts: their purpose is to launch us, and good ones will set us on courses for bright stars. But once we are in orbit, our experiences, priorities, and character will keep us going. We may learn that the stars that sparkled from afar lose their luster up close, or we may find ourselves having to change paths for reasons we could have never imagined. We may even go on to discover other galaxies, with stars more luminous than the ones we left behind.

If you remember nothing else during finals week, remember this: the questions of whether or not grades have meaning to our futures as legal professionals, and whether they are meaningful in the grand scheme of everything, are at their core the same question. And when you get your grades, regardless of whether you feel thrilled or sucker-punched, take a deep breath. Resolve to stay focused. Hold your work close to you and your loved ones closer. Remember to rekindle your romance with the universe every day.

And get some sleep.