Have you ever thought, “Everyone else is so much smarter than me. Why am I even here?”
Well, I have.
A challenging start marked my adjustment to university: the grade on my first assignment was so much lower than the grades I’d gotten used to in high school that I felt unmoored, unanchored, as lost as Pi in the open Pacific.
Waves of excitement
You entered university with solid grades. Keen to meet new people, explore new places, and develop your passion for learning.
But sometimes setbacks, such as getting a lower grade, might dishearten you, make you feel like you don’t belong—even if you’ve always wanted to be here.
I decided to take summer courses to get ahead. When I entered my first university English class 6 days after graduating, I expected that my high school grades would hold my hand through another year of academics. I came in with high standards, excitement, and the confidence that I could keep on meeting my goals the way I had just a while back.
The stormy self-doubt of Summer Session
But everything changed when the professor handed back my first university assignment.
The grade—a solid 37% drop from my high school English mark—made it seem like the “top student” I was a week ago belonged in a different universe, estranged from who I’d become.
I felt discouraged and impulsive for choosing to take 3 summer courses when it seemed like I wasn’t even ready for university.
Was I not as smart as I was in grade 12? Why wasn’t I doing as well as I once did?
And then the real question socked me hard in the jugular—am I really UBC material?
Ripples of change
Talking to the friends I’d made helped me feel less alone. It helped me understand that I wasn’t the only one who’d ever felt disappointed at getting lower grades. And it helped me see that this can be a common experience for many students.
I began to aim for the best while being prepared for the worst and to avoid being so hard on myself when I didn’t meet my previous standards.
I also learned to attend office hours. Raise questions. Remain diligent. And set expectations that were more attainable and reflective of the new ways I was learning.
With help from the friends I made and the mindset I chose, I completed my summer courses. What surprised me was the result—for all 3 courses, I met my new goals.
The choppy waters of Winter Session
Despite all the lessons I learned from taking summer courses, Winter Session has still been a challenging time, with its own setbacks.
My Calculus midterm is one of my 2018 unfortunate events.
No amount of practice had prepared me for the last set of questions on the exam. I looked, sighed like Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and scribbled down a random physics formula. The end.
That evening, I went into my residence room feeling so deflated that I soon left and knocked on the door to the room of my floormate, who had taken the other version of the exam and was equally upset. We spent the charred remains of our evening talking and listening to music—oh, and binging on Netflix.
In his company, I was reminded of how much support I can get from talking to others. First year doesn’t have to be a solitary journey for any of us. We’re all new to university and we all have the ability to lift each other up.
The evening the Calc midterm grades came out, I took my mark in stride and went out to catch a movie with some friends as I’d planned days ago. I knew I’d given the exam my all, so I wanted to reward myself for at least trying.
But did it hurt? Yes. Yes, it did. Still does.
Sunny pointers for moving forward
I still get disappointed by my grades sometimes. The difference is that I now reflect on the advice that people who've been in our shoes (and who’ve made it to the other side) have given me.
2 such individuals with whom I've spoken recently are Dr. Jay Wickenden, a Chemistry professor, and Emily, a recent English Honours graduate (and a fellow Student Life Writer).
Here are the top 3 things I took away.
1. Grades do not define your intelligence
I’m continually reminded that my academic standing does not equal my intelligence as a person. So, what do grades define?
According to Dr. Wickenden, grades are "a reflection of how well you’re doing at that moment, not a comment on your intelligence, and doesn’t take into account any personal life that is occurring at the same time—there may be something else going on."
Instead, Dr. Wickenden advises, we should use the grade as a piece of information and not so much as a point value.
But getting these marks still made me feel a bit alone.
2. Feelings of not belonging and self-doubt are normal
Dr. Wickenden shared that he didn’t quite feel like he belonged at university at first—he didn’t enter his undergrad right away and instead had worked for a bit:
“I came in, and there were students that were really keen, fresh out of high school. They seemed to know exactly what they were doing and what they needed to focus on. For me, I was just lucky to be there. There were many times that I thought, ‘This isn’t worth it,’ and ‘I can drop out and get a job and make money.’”
“I got more involved with my home department when I did decide to be a chemist. You start joining clubs and interacting more with the faculty. At that point, you see that there’s no difference between faculty on one side and students on the other—it’s more of a team effort. I’d also formed a study group with students that were in my program. So that helped bridge that gap of my feeling of not belonging in the university system versus belonging in it.”
Emily too grappled with self-doubt when she was writing her Honours thesis:
“I felt like I shouldn’t be doing it, that I was not cut out for research. I felt like every other person I talked to about my thesis had such a more defined argument, better opinions, better ideas.”
“I realized at some point that everybody sort of feels that way? Talking to other people and expressing concerns like you don’t belong in a program, or in a class, or at university, you’ll always be able to find someone who has those same feelings.”
What about the setbacks then? What good do they do me?
3. Setbacks can offer a learning experience and opportunities for change
Here are some things that grappling with lower grades can teach us.
Maybe it’s changing your study habits:
Dr. Wickenden: “Students often take it as a personal affront that they are not smart enough to be here. It’s usually that they are not preparing properly for the exams. Alter the way you’re prepping. Make sure that you have adequate time. Seek help immediately if something doesn’t make sense. Don’t leave things to the last minute. Spread the work out over the term."
Or using more resources:
Emily: “Go to office hours. Talk to your professor. Even if it’s too late to fix things on one assignment or in one course, you can always take the things they say into your next academic experience.”
Dr. Wickenden: “If you put the time in and you’re not getting the grade you want, talk to the professor. Go to advising. Make the most out of the free tutoring that we offer. Go to resource centres. Use practice exams. Use other textbooks. Doing practice questions earlier and keeping up with ungraded exercises that are released online are things that you can use to test your knowledge.”
Or engaging more in class:
Dr. Wickenden: “Students that don’t want to be seen or picked on typically sit in the back. Don’t do that. You’re paying a lot of money to be taught by us. So interact with us—that’s why we’re teaching lectures."
(Protip: Dr. Wickenden has a video explaining how where you sit in a lecture hall matters.)
And, ultimately, changing your mindset:
Emily: “You know the whole ‘aim for the moon, land among the stars’? Every time you don’t meet your expectations, take it in stride and figure out a way to reframe it so it becomes a learning experience. Keep doing your best and listen to the kind of feedback that you’re getting. And the next time that you have a task to do, take these things into account.”
We can do this
When immersed in a crowd of people who always seem to be academically stronger than you, it’s easy to compare yourself, feel lesser than others, and forget that your worth is not defined by your grades or your unmet expectations.
Remember that you can still improve, that you’re not alone, that there are others in the same boat as you (even Pi had company, albeit a four-legged one!). Above all, remember that you were chosen to be here.