A while ago, I edited a piece about getting distinction, but for many of us, getting the perfect grades might not be the case. The struggle to get the perfect grades are best described by a line in Coldplay’s ‘The Scientist’: ‘nobody said it was easy; no one ever said it would be so hard’.
So, this is a story about what to do when your best isn’t good enough.
I had always been the top performer back in school, university, and even at work…. until I came to London School of Economics (LSE) for my master’s degree. The school was a whole different league compared to what I’d been in before. My department is ranked #1 in the UK and #3 in the world, so the kind of students and teachers there were top-notch, the materials were difficult, and the way classes are conducted really require students to be independent.
Within months, I lost my confidence, I often even stutter during discussions. My grades were quite okay, but for someone like me, ‘okay’ was not enough. I wanted to get the highest grade: Distinction, but I usually ended up with Merit. To make it harder, for most courses, LSE only takes final exam or paper score as the final grade, and they do not allow any remedial or appeal should you think the grade is not fair.
Things got worse when I got a Fail in a class, despite having performed quite well throughout the term. I asked the lecturer what went wrong, but I guess as social science goes, everything is subjective and sometimes you can’t comprehend others’ reasoning. She said that if my referencing was better, I could’ve gotten a Pass+, but I’ve been doing the same thing on my other papers, including in this class’ previous task, and it was all good. But then again, there was nothing I could do with this grade and I had to accept the Fail on my transcript.
Fast forward to two years later, I think I’m doing great. I graduated with a Merit classification from LSE, my dissertation was published in a journal, and I landed a good job right after graduation.
I wished I knew that things would get better and life does not end when you get a Fail. I wished I knew that struggling in school is normal and there are things that I could’ve done so I wouldn’t have felt so alone and left behind. So, now I’m passing this to you, a list of tips to make your academic journey less stressful.
- Be honest with yourself
Quoting every addiction recovery program: the first step is admitting that you have a problem — and accept that, be okay with that. There is nothing wrong with struggling and saying that you’re not doing as well as you might think you’ll be. Believe me, you’re not the only one struggling. All those fellow students who post happy pictures of parties and travels, they also struggle. Be okay with the fact that you’re struggling, and don’t be too hard on yourself: chances are you’re doing better than you think you are.
- Surround yourself with positive people
I’m not talking about motivators or preachers. I’m talking about people who can make you feel better about yourself and your struggle. Navigate your relationships, balance your network. Find people who can appreciate what you’re good at and don’t look down on you when you can’t do other things.
I’m blessed to have found a group of friends that can complement my strength and weaknesses — academically and personally, so we could learn and benefit from each other, and I think I wouldn’t be here without them. Find your support system as soon as possible, they’ll be your rock in this journey.
- Do the calculation to prepare for the worst
The best mantra to handle stress is: ‘What’s the worst can happen, right?’ — and it is right. Check the worst scenario that can happen: how many Fails you can afford to still graduate, what you can do to mitigate disasters, etc. This will keep your anxiety in check.
For me, LSE lets students fail 3 credits (2 courses), so when I failed a course, I still could breathe because I knew at least I wasn’t failing my degree, and that by getting distinction at other courses with higher credit, I could still manage to balance my final sheet and graduate with a Merit.
- Get all the help you can get
You are not alone and you’re not the only one struggling. In my scholarship program, for example, apparently, many students were struggling with their grades but they didn’t want to share out of shame, so most of them just suffered in silence. This is not healthy. Find those people and talk to them, find solace in each other and support each other.
You can also find support from your school. In LSE, they take academic pressure very seriously because so many students are stressed. Talk to the student wellness services, get help — mentally and academically. Believe me, you are not alone and help is always available for those who ask.
- Don’t be too ‘grade-minded’
You can fight me on this, but this is what I found out after grad school. It doesn’t matter that much whether you get a Distinction or a Pass. Unlike in your first degree, grades are not the most important thing when you graduate. Grad school is more about critical thinking (not memorizing stuff), about doing the things you like so much you’re willing to spend more time in school, and about finding put what you’re really good at. So, be okay with what you can and can’t do, and make the most of it.
For example, I knew I wasn’t good at European politics, but I knew how the media runs, so I shifted all my projects and assignments to either media, campaigns, or public opinion, and avoid hardcore theories. I knew I’m not good with numbers, but I’m great at field research and qualitative research due to my journalism background, so I made the most of it. That’s the good thing about grad school: you get to choose your specialty.
In the end, stress is inevitable in grad school, but it does not mean that the stress should take away the joy of studying. In the end, it’s just school and this time, you were the one who chose this path. As a dear friend once told me, your grad school experience is more than just getting a piece of paper. It’s a journey you have to enjoy. Enjoy the process, enjoy the struggle, enjoy the learnings.
Don’t be too hard on yourself and get the support you need. You’ll beat the odds and everything will turn out fine.