Exam Grades

Just last night, I was sitting in a coffee shop in Union Square for a meeting. I was saying how I taught myself how to do something by watching a Youtube video. Then I said… “They did not teach me this in school.”
My voice had a hint of defiance and also a bit of marvel.
I was ridiculously lucky to go to both elementary and middle schools with the best teachers and the smartest kids. I’ve always gone to public schools, but the education I received was insanely amazing. The things we learned in math and science were high-level and engaging. The books we read and discussed opened up new worlds. We were pushed, not pulled.
But there was always “the system.” Getting that “A” was more important than what you actually learned. If that meant memorizing useless pneumonics or cramming six minutes before walking through the door.. or learning shortcuts on your TI-89… then sometimes you might feel like that was what you had to do.
If you were considered “smart” or “gifted,” grades on subjective essays tended to be higher. I saw some of my best friends who were not labeled for a certain track be failed by the system, especially in high school. My friends who were the most eager and most caring and most creative would fail because they didn’t fit into that box. A, B, C, D, and E (no error) didn’t work for them. But did that change her intelligence? Her drive? Her passion?
Eventually, I came to understand that education was more about the grade and much less so about the learning. If I was expected to read seven books, continue training for the sport that I loved, and complete my physical education requirements (so I could squeeze one more AP class into my schedule) during the summer… then sometimes I had to read Sparknotes to pass the summer reading test.
When I went to college, I really struggled. I can’t even put it into words how difficult my freshman year was. Of course, it was also such a defining moment in my life for a handful of reasons that I wouldn’t change it for the world. I would do it again. Exactly the same way, as painful as it was at the time.
I was struggling with intense and frequent panic attacks which were very much affecting my schoolwork. As hard as I was finding studying, I was simply struggling with leaving my dorm room every morning.
And then I bombed my first ever college exam.
I wouldn’t even consider it failing… It was worse. I couldn’t finish the test because I was in such a terrible panic. I received a 12%. Twelve.
What I learned over the next few months, and then years, was that that 1-2 on the top of my blue book meant absolutely nothing in terms of my self worth… unless I let it.
It made me realize that the grade was less important than what you do. Can you get “Straight A’s” and be successful? Absolutely. But do you need “Straight A’s” to be successful? Absolutely not.
Failing that exam and then squeaking by with a just-barely-passing grade in the class was the reason why I started blogging in the first place. Blogging was my creative outlet. If I wanted to talk about shoes, I could talk about shoes. If I wanted to learn about real-life marketing (think: case studies in real life), then I could teach myself. I read books (for fun) on branding. I watched hours of Youtube to teach myself programs like Photoshop. I went to conferences to speak on panels and listen to experts. I met amazing people who helped me pry open the doors to my dreams.
I thought that the 12% was the end of the world, but what I’ve realized is that it was simply just the beginning.

I saw this on HuffPo this morning and I was really moved by it. I find that I was trapped in the “Straight A” mindset for far too long. I’m so thankful to have broken free in 2008 and the things I accomplished were far more meaningful, educational, and impactful as a result… and even fun.
I know a lot of you are gearing up for finals. Late nights. Lots of coffee. And, of course, lots of stress. Do your best. Study in the way that works for you. Work with friends and meet with professors.
But don’t beat down your own spirit in the process.
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This is fantastic! I've had two panic attacks this week over schoolwork and I'm happy to have this inspiration as I gear up for exam week.


Love this post! I agree school often times becomes about the letter you receive not actually learning the information. In college, this changes a little but I feel like our minds have been trained for the past thirteen years to obsess over the letter grades that it is hard to forget about them. As a future teacher, I hope to change this some how. I also feel that now days education is becoming more about the standardized tests than actually teaching the children, which is also not okay in my book.


Please tell your parents, the next time you speak with them, thank you. Thank you for raising such an insightful, caring, beautiful daughter. If we could have more young women such as yourself in our world (I'm sure we do), just think how much better this world could be. Very insightful words that you share on a daily basis!

The Yuppie Files

For teachers too this is frustrating. The school system is set up this way- standardized tests, SATS, etc. I understand grades are important but its hard to get through to students that learning the material really is so much more important and if you truly learn/understand the lessons, the grades will come. Instead of focusing on why did you get 5 points off of something, it should be what do you need to do to improve?

Such a good post- you pretty much hit what all the teachers are frustrated with themselves!


the system is so frustrating. and my parents bought into the whole thing. my brother got the grades so they paid for his college (6 years and three schools because he couldn't make up his mind. even giving him my college fund) but i didn't get the grades they wanted so i didn't get to go to college. my counselor kept telling them i was smart but bored and should be in a different school.


Michelle, I am so sorry that this happened. If college is something that you think is right for you and will help you achieve your goals, then I have faith that you will find a way to get there. Maybe even consider going to a university in another country, foreign student fees in Europe are often less than going to an American school and the debt might be worth your while 🙂 Good luck!

Stephanie Bartolomé

I went to community college and transferred to a state school before having to take a break. It wasn't so bad in Miami where tons of high powered professionals have gone the same route. It's a bit different moving to NYC where people seem to think I'm not as intelligent because I didn't go to a top school. I payed my own way through a double A.A. and will pay my way through the remainder of my studies when I pick up where I left off.

You definitely come out with a chip on your shoulder when you do this. By balancing the ivory tower and the real world, you definitely get so much more out of it. If you want it, you go after it.


There is so much truth in this post. I am a firm believer that grades aren't always indicative of retained knowledge. Thanks for posting!


I honestly don't feel I learned anything in school. Everything I learned for my job has been on the job training.


Thank you so much for posting such an important message. I am the mother of an intelligent and curious 11 year old with a learning disability. He is probably never going to ace a test. I am raising him to pursue and learn about the things he loves, and not worry about his grades. Grades do not determine your success in life.

Pamela (not pam)

Thanks for writing this! Sometimes a B in nursing school is a failure and sometimes I'm happy with a B. Right now, I'm happy to survive this semester.

Stephanie Bartolomé

My advisers tell me all the time that I don't have the grades to get into medical school. I have a decent GPA, but I'd classify myself as a lot smarter when it comes to real-world applications of science than my peers. You can sit and memorize DSM disorders for abnormal psych, but I can throughly explain them in my own words.

You'll learn more from an internship or a job than from sitting in a lecture hall, that's for sure.

Zoe Diaz-McLeese

I completely agree Stephanie! I'm in a leadership program at college, and I find that I learn a lot more by actively engaging my community, working and volunteering than sitting behind a desk and regurgitating facts and figures.


This is an absolutely fantastic post. College was a major life-changing experience for me, especially attending a huge state school with 40,000+ people. Failing tests…oh I've had so many in college! The biggest lesson I learned was to trust myself, my knowledge, and to forgive myself in the event that I get a bad grade. I was trapped in the 'straight A' mentality all through college until graduation though – it was worth it but I left school with extreme anxiety and felt completely drained.


Ms. Harris

I teach junior and senior International Baccalaureate English literature. High stakes exams start NEXT Thursday. The kids are anxious. I am anxious. We are all feeling the pressure. I needed this today. I needed this reminder that we are not defined by arbitrary numbers on a page. My kids needed this today. They needed to be reminded that they are not arbitrary numbers on a page. This is a powerful message about how broken our education system is. This is a powerful message that convicts ME about my own teaching practice. I can't say "thank you" enough! I was moved to tears in front of my students…


Oh my, I love your cute preppy posts, bought an UP bracelet because of your recommendation and now this. I am literally surrounded by stressful mandatory testing. I am an public school art teacher. I thank god the students have the ability to enjoy one class in their day. I am sending my daughter off to college next fall after a tortured Junior year in HS filled with anxiety and stress. Hopefully the college she chose (one of the seven sisters) is nurturing for her. I am sharing this video with my colleagues. Thank you!

Sam (Savvy City Chic)

I'm so grateful the both my parents and teachers for the most part realized I did not fit the mold of what was expected in public schools. They let me be me and embraced my more creative side to things.

Zoe Diaz-McLeese

Thank you so much Carly. I am in my first year in college too, and I consistently find myself stuck in a grade-centric rut. I have learned this year that grades are not a measure of importance or worth, and it is something that I will continue to struggle with.

It is important to have a creative outlet, which I use blogging for too. Anyways, I found this post particularly inspirational, especially as I gear up for midterms and large papers (#quartersystemproblems).

Maire Emily

I really needed to read this; having entered my post-grad vet degree this year, and having the volume and speed of study increase so suddenly I am really struggling to adjust. I have always been a straight A student and am now seeing my grades fall down to B's and C's, It's hard not to let self cofidence and self worth fall too.
Final's are fast approaching and it's difficult to escape the feeling of panic. I'm not quite sure how I'll get through it yet…but little by little I'm hoping I can make it.
Thanks for the post and all the advice! xoxo


Love this times a million! And it is soooo true! Believe me I'm that straight A kid, but it's not your grades that define your life.

Sugar Snap Pearls

i was just catching up on your blog (i need a break from finals studying!) and I cannot tell you how much this post meant to me. I started blogging this semester just to get my thoughts out there, especially because I transferred and the adjustment was rough so I needed an outlet. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I completely failed an exam that I absolutely couldn't afford to fail and then I checked my Instagram and someone had left the sweetest comment about my outfit that day…just a reminder that I am bigger than that grade reflects!


Jessie Lynn

I completely agree with you. The only difference is that it took two full semesters in school, dropping out of one semester, and then taking the next one off to realize what would work best for me.

Ali AliM

Unfortunately, I can’t say that my education was insanely amazing. The only good thing I remember about my school was my English Arts teacher and History teacher. Thanx to them I do know a little about worldwide history. Also I love reading and writing (check this university papers company). But I wish my schools could give me so much more. And yes, I 100% agree with you!