Don’t Let Expectations Ruin Your Education

by Alex Whitney | Class of 2019 at Minerva Schools

I remember my studies in high school quite distinctly.

There were many nights hunched over my laptop, feverishly re-typing an essay because I thought my supporting points did not connect to my thesis well enough. Then there were nights spent watching extra Khan Academy videos, even though I did not have to, and nights where I scribbled in my notebook, doing extra practice problems way past my bedtime just so I could do well on my math test the next morning.

All of these nights, the extra stress, and the unhealthy amount of sleep I was getting, were a result of one thing: the pressure to meet expectations. I am not talking about expectations set by my parents, they were much more relaxed about my grades than I was. It was more about social pressure — the invisible yet ever-present essence telling us exactly what we need to do in order to be accepted in society.

I couldn’t help but think: “If I do not do well on this test will my classmates think I am stupid? Will university admissions think I am a good fit for their institution? What about employers?” I felt as though the grades I got in high school would determine the rest of my life — that my future education and social standing was riding on one or two tests, and if I bombed those, well, it’d be over.

My friends would all bury themselves in textbooks and pack on extracurriculars to give themselves an extra edge against the competition. We would fight and we would crawl over one another to get whatever additional opportunities presented themselves, with the fear of missing out driving us forward towards our fool’s gold treasure.

What made it worse was that we were not necessarily participating in activities that we were genuinely interested in. We did them because we felt that we had to if we wanted to be successful. It’s a slippery slope that is easy to get wrapped up in, and the pressure to participate in everything while still maintaining a high academic standing multiplied my own stress ten-fold. Regardless, I still managed to convince my young, narrow-minded self that if I was going to be worth anything in the “real world,” I needed to do it all.

I had become defined by expectations. Class was no longer a place to learn, but rather to memorize, and then forget. It became a game, and the mission was to find the best strategy to cheat the system — except this game wasn’t your light-hearted round of Cards Against Humanity or Risk. It was much more intense than that.

The physical and psychological stress I put myself through in high school was far from what I would consider healthy. The days dragged on and I felt burnt out more often than not. My friends and I had to have get-togethers to help us all de-stress. We would play games, and our eyes would glaze over as we watched some action-thriller on TV, letting the couch mold around our bodies as our muscles completely relaxed. Still, the next task was always floating in the back of my mind. The cycle seemed to never end.

Fast forward to last year, where I had just completed one of the best school years of my life at Minerva. No, I did not get outstanding grades over the course of my first year. Far from it, actually. However, I felt as though I learned an incredible amount while still maintaining my sanity, and that is something I could not appreciate more.

At Minerva, grades during our first year are not assessed on our knowledge of content. Instead, we are scored on our ability to apply different Habits of Mind and Foundational Concepts (known as HCs) to the topics we discuss in class. These scores are provisional, meaning they are adjusted as our studies continue over the four years, as you cannot master a specific habit or concept in the one or two class periods in which it is introduced.

With this type of curriculum and grading, I have found myself less concerned with obtaining the highest mark possible on every assignment. The goal of studying at Minerva is not to get an “A” — the goal is that you learn, think, and apply. A high grade shows that you met that goal, it is not the goal itself. This may be the aim of other institutions too, but I cannot help but feel that this message gets lost for the students between all the complexities and convolutions of keeping up with everyday college life.

Minerva has always made sure that this objective is in the forefront of our minds.

I wish I could go back and tell myself all of this three years ago, when I was caught in the angst of schoolwork. It is about perspective; if the endgame is achieving the highest grade, then you’re missing the point of school. If you are spending your time staying up late, flipping through the pages of your notes, trying to get that “A,” try looking up for a change. Take a fresh perspective and think carefully about why you are really doing what you are doing.

To me, school is a place for learning, exploring, applying, and above all, growing. My advice to you is to never forget that. Education is a journey. Do not belittle it and add unnecessary stress by throwing yourself into books for a mere letter. It is worth a lot more.

This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.