Panel Discusses the True Value of a GPA

Amidst the buzz over the recently released list of the Phi Beta Kappa “Junior 24,” a panel of students and administrators discussed why students' GPA might not be as important as they think.

More than 50 students crowded into the Office of Career Services basement Friday evening to hear what moderator and Bureau of Study Counsel psychologist Ariel Phillips called a “mixed bag” of personal experiences, as the panelists tried to give the students a taste of the steps and stumbles that define a healthy academic experience.

Alongside their successes, the panelists’ collective credentials included 12 failed grant applications, several C’s, and one “danger of failing” call from the dean’s office.

When it came to GPA, the panelists agreed that being passionate about one’s studies is more important than—and often leads to—a good GPA.

When panelist Taras B. Dreszer ’14, who is also a Crimson news comper, entered Harvard as a freshman, he came in with the perspective that grades did not count for everything, and expected other students to feel the same way. But Dreszer found that few other students shared his view and, by sophomore year, started feeling the pressure to raise his GPA, he said.

“It got to the point where I was just feeling miserable and I didn’t feel motivated,” Dreszer said. “Not worrying about grades isn’t necessarily getting bad grades.”

Being satisfied with a B+, Dreszer said, can allow students to focus more exclusively on what he or she finds interesting both in and outside of the classroom. By resisting the pressure to have a perfect GPA freshman year, Dreszer was free to take private piano lessons and attend campus events more often.

“Don’t be afraid to not be the norm here because the norm here, honestly, is pretty different from the actual norm,” Dreszer said.

The panelists also detailed their experiences with choosing a concentration, a decision that freshmen will begin to consider this week, with the launch of Advising Fortnight on Monday.

Panelist Rory M. Sullivan ’09, who serves in the Freshman Dean’s Office as Director for Residential Education and Arts Initiatives, found herself concentrating in psychology, despite her interest in folklore and mythology. Sullivan said that if she could give herself advice as a freshman, it would be to “listen to the voices that feel silly.”

“Do what you feel is exciting to you because it doesn’t really matter what that extracurricular was, or that class was,” Sullivan said. “If you go to a grad school or an employer, what they’re going to care about is having that passion and those skills.”

Along with two other panelists, Sullivan noted that parental pressure played a role in pushing her away from her interests.

Elizabeth P. Frates ’90, an assistant clinical professor at the Medical School, said she was expected to take over as president of her father’s company. But after taking Economics 10 and hating it, Frates said she realized she would rather pursue a career in medicine.

Frates said her father nearly drove off the road when she announced in seventh grade that she wanted to be a social worker. But later, after suffering a heart attack and stroke—possibly due to stress—at the age of 52, her father loosened his grip on her career choice.

Frates emphasized the importance of having a “growth mindset,” or looking at mistakes as opportunities to grow, when approaching academics.

—Staff writer Gina K. Hackett can be reached at ghackett@college.harvard.edu.

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