Letting go of academic validation

Caroline Ohlandt, Co-editor-in-chief

I have always believed that no one thing defined who I am entirely.

While I have consistently been someone who works hard in school, I never consciously believed that my grades defined my self-worth. And yet, when I scored a 71 percent on a test a few months ago, the following reaction occurred: I felt sick to my stomach, I cried, and most concerningly, I thought less of myself.

My high school experience has been dominated by one thing: academic validation. A phenomenon in which students define themselves and their self-worth primarily based on their academic achievements, academic validation has a chokehold on students–myself included.

After living for 18 years in a community that places high value on academic merit, it is no surprise that I have always felt pressure to perform well in school. Whether it be from peers, parents, or even myself, the pressure to achieve a high grade point average, have a perfect SAT, and pack in as many Advanced Placement and honors-level classes as humanly possible has been overwhelming, and frankly, unrealistic.

It’s too much.

Striving to do well is a mindset that has been ingrained in students’ heads from a young age. And while there is nothing wrong with working hard, society has taught that having perfect grades in high school and attending a prestigious university is the sole method to reaching success as a young adult. To fail at any of these staggering expectations is to fail at life.

With this mindset following my every step, high school quickly began to feel like walking on a tightrope–I was either sacrificing my mental and physical health just to achieve perfect grades, or choosing to prioritize my sanity by taking a step back only to feel worse after seeing my grades fall. School was no longer a safe space to learn, instead serving as a battlefield between my stability and others’ expectations. My strive for success sucked much of the joy out of my high school experience.

It took almost four years of this cycle for me to realize something: high school truly is not that serious. Understanding this simple sentence has allowed me to savor my remaining days of high school and actually live in the moment, and it has allowed my day-to-day life to be so much more memorable and enjoyable.

Now, as a senior who will be graduating in just 16 days, I find it necessary to do all I can to ensure no other students go through the same cycle I did. So, for anyone who has found themself obsessing over disappointing grades or failed expectations, here is my advice.

First and foremost, I encourage you to breathe. Remember to put your mental health first. Remember that nothing is more important than your happiness.

Second, I urge you to enjoy the moment. While high school is of course a place to grow academically, it is also a time to develop socially, discover new interests, and learn to love the person you are growing up to be. Seniors aren’t joking when they say that these four years go by fast, so put your school work aside every once in a while to savor the fleeting moments you have left.

Finally, remember this: the sooner you stop imposing society’s impossible image of perfection on yourself, the better. View disappointing grades as an opportunity for growth, not as a failure. Know, above all, that you are worth so much more than any grade you receive, good or bad. Focus on that.

Much love,

Caroline Ohlandt