Imagine a culture in which there is a semi-annual ceremony of judgment, in which every person is singled out and assigned a permanent mark based on the worth that a higher power deems they have. Twice a year, in preparation for this ceremony, people are given one last chance to prove that they are worthy. People then sacrifice everything they have to prove their worth and tip the scales in their favor. Sleep is sacrificed, friendships are sacrificed, and sometimes even money is sacrificed to make that permanent mark less brutal.
This culture seems zealously religious, incredibly frightened, and helplessly defeated by this ritual. This is not a Biblical story or some obscure tribal ritual. This is finals season on a college campus.
The winter of our discontent
I am sitting in the library right now surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of late-night studiers who are devoting hours of sleeplessness to the hope that their GPA will be higher after this semester is over. Like an unspoken pilgrimage, all of these people flock to quiet isolated desks to study everything from supply chain management to Bayesian probability theory. The hope is that by cramming as much information into their heads over the next few hours, they will be able to dump all of that information out on a final and end the semester with a high GPA.
I was never a crammer; I always considered it inefficient to spend time at the end of the semester trying to digest 16 weeks worth of information overnight. I’d have a hard time understanding people who seemed to wait until the last minute to study for classes, and never sympathized for the all-nighters pulled on the silent floors of Hayden library.
This semester has changed that, and I now sit in this library with probability theory swimming through my brain, trying to truly gain a comprehensive understanding of the course before the final tomorrow at noon. This course has been the most difficult class I have ever taken, and tomorrow’s test will be more challenging than anything I have ever tried. The class average on the final exam was 14% in years past. There is no possible way for me to get a 100% on the test, no matter how much I try to study. I know what that feels like now, and I understand what all of these people are going through. It’s defeating and scary and humbling to be faced with a test that you know you cannot beat.
The reason for the season
Finals season exists for the GPA, and the GPA will be the final determinant of how much effort you put into the finals season. It would be easy for me to say that “It’s just a number” or “You’re more than your GPA”, but for some people it’s not that easy. A lot of people depend on their GPA for scholarships that allow them to go to school, and a lot of people plan on going into programs, like the ROTC or graduate schools, that base their decisions on GPA. I’m lucky that my future will still be the same whether or not I come out of this semester with a 4.0 or 3.5. A lot of people are not that lucky.
If my future did depend on GPA, I would be spending a lot of time right now thinking about why that future was important to me. I’d try imagining my life without that scholarship, without graduate school, or without the super competitive position. I’d try to define myself without that future, independent of whatever comes out of finals season. I’d think of my family, my hobbies, my dog, my car, my favorite quiet places. I’d focus on those, and try to realize that even if my GPA isn’t as good as I need it to be this season, I will still have those things.
Right now I’m just excited knowing that I have some awesome roommates, a great family, access to an unlimited supply of open source software to learn, and a small healthy body that can handle late nights in the library. I hope that you can at least remember that it’s not just finals season, but the holiday season as well, and you’ve got a great family waiting to celebrate it with you whether you do well on finals or not.
Good luck everyone! I know you’ll do great!