I went to a prestigious high school in Beijing, China, and my high school valued GPA over almost everything else. I played important roles in multiple student organizations, such as the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper and the President of Iminent Community Service Club.
The only reason I could get involved in those organizations? I could keep my grades up.
When I found out by the end of sophomore year that my second semester’s GPA had been slightly below 3.8, I was horrified. I knew that my academic adviser would want to talk to me about this. Relief washed over me when she finally called me into her office two days later; I wanted to get it over with.
As expected, my advisor lectured me on the importance of GPA for my college application. She added, with a hint of regret, that I would have gotten better grades if only I had focused more on my courses and less on my extracurricular activities. She even told me that I would be removed from my leadership positions in student organizations if my grades continued to fall. Faced with this threat, I dedicated more time to reading and preparing for exams, and my grades did improve. I graduated high school with a 3.9 overall GPA.
I thought that university would be no different.
When I was choosing classes after my arrival at Northwestern University, my peer advisor suggested that I take easier classes and not overload. Despite this, my arrogance from high school prompted me to do the exact opposite. I took classes with heavy readings and even took five classes rather than the standard four classes.
My first quarter at Northwestern University could be described in one word: miserable. Outside of classes, I usually spent up to 50 hours reading all the materials for class. I was too stubborn to drop a class, even though I knew that my workload was crushing me. I could also have chosen to read less and risk getting lower grades, but the habit of getting As persisted past high school and into university. I studied past midnight not only almost every weekday but also on weekends. When my friends asked me if I had time to hang out, I could only say no because I knew that my readings piled up too quickly.
I strove for perfection, exhausting myself.
There even came a time in the quarter when I slept less than five hours every day. I had breakdowns, crying over the readings because I knew I could not finish them. I turned away from club activities and spent hours in the libraries. At the end of the quarter, when I eventually got my As, I felt no satisfaction. I gave up way too many opportunities for my GPA.
I changed my strategies for the second quarter. Although still taking five classes, I focused more of my attention on student organizations and socializing. As a journalism major and a theatre minor, I wrote for school publications and participated in theatre productions on campus. On weekends, sometimes my friends and I took the train to Chicago.
I still studied a lot, but I realized that making friends and finding entertainment was more important than getting perfect grades. I was not disappointed when I received a B from one of my classes at the end of my second quarter. Had I tried hard enough, I would have gotten an A, but at a high cost.
It took me a quarter to understand that it’s okay to get a B in university. Ultimately, life is not all about studying and striving for the perfect grades. Life is also about building connections with other people and having fun.