BYU freshman Brianna Gee went to her History 221 TA three times to make sure her first paper was perfect.
But when her professor returned the graded paper, she saw something she had never seen on a school assignment before: a “C” grade.
“I came back and I just cried in my room for like a couple of hours,” Gee said. “I just remember crying and crying, and I thought, ‘I am not good enough. I cannot be here. What am I doing?'”
Gee, like many BYU students, was a straight-A student in high school and was in the running for valedictorian. Many freshmen struggle to maintain the grades they earned in high school and find it difficult to adjust to no longer being at the top of their class.
“It was just a hard adjustment going from everyone loving you, everyone praising you, everyone thinking the world of you, and then coming here and you’re just a drop in the bucket,” Gee said. “That was really eye-opening and humbling.”
Clinical psychologist Marleen Williams said the transition from high school to college is difficult anywhere, but BYU’s high academic standards pose an additional challenge for students.
“BYU attracts and accepts highly capable, very bright, very accomplished individuals, so the person then gets into an environment that is much more competitive than what they’re used to,” Williams said.
According to BYU Admissions Services, accepted incoming freshmen in 2017 had an average GPA of 3.86 and an average ACT score of 29.5.
Williams said this academic standard paired with perfectionist standards is a “good recipe” for mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
She defined perfectionism as an “unhealthy attempt to get control over everything by trying to be perfect,” and said it is a sign of poor mental health.
“Recognizing a difference between a healthy quest for growth and perfectionism is important because your only choices aren’t just to be a high-achieving perfectionist or a slacker who never accomplishes anything,” Williams said. “There’s a whole lot of places in between.”
According to Williams, perfectionism is characterized by having an identity built on achievement and setting unrealistically high goals.
“Basing your goals and your identity on your performance isn’t going to be healthy,” Williams said. “It’s healthier to strive for growth and to base your goals on a self-awareness for what’s realistic for you and what is not.”
In addition to the risks of depression and anxiety associated with perfectionism, Williams also said a perfectionistic mindset can damage relationships.
“It’s hard to get close to people and have close relationships because you believe that you have to be perfect to be valuable and to be loved and to be important,” Williams said. “That makes relationships difficult. It’s often the people whose faults we know that we really love the most.”
Williams said those who suffer from perfectionistic attitudes can get help by seeking therapy, talking with a counselor, learning to recognize the thoughts that characterize perfectionism and gaining an accurate understanding of the gospel.
“When you start noticing that your expectations exceed reality, that’s a sign you may have perfectionist attitudes,” Williams said. “If you’re getting undue anxiety and depression over your performance, then it’s worth looking at it.”
For the past six semesters, senior Kristina Meng has been a TA for American Heritage, a notoriously difficult general education class many freshmen take.
According to Meng, about 3,500 students enroll in American Heritage each semester, and the great majority are freshmen.
“I feel like for a lot of students it’s a shock to them because it’s their first real college class,” Meng said.
Meng said the large class sizes and application-based tests are different than the classes freshmen are used to, and many students come to her concerned about their grades, sometimes asking for the grade to be changed.
“I try to tell my students that grades are not the most important thing that matter in college,” Meng said. “Yeah, they matter, and it’s nice to get good grades, but getting a good grade or a bad grade isn’t as indicative of how smart you are or how hard you work.”
Freshman Sienna Stroud took American Heritage Winter semester, and it’s helped her be content with grades that are not As.
Stroud said it’s completely changed her way of thinking. Although she used to be disappointed when she didn’t get perfect grades, she now feels happy for putting in the effort to study and learn the material.
“Now I have to tell myself, ‘You tried everything. You did everything you could for this test. You studied as much as you could, so that’s a success in and of itself,'” Stroud said. “If I didn’t get the grade I wanted, as long as I did all the work I needed to and felt like I had mastered the material, then that was the most important thing.”
Stroud said being smart was part of her identity in high school. As the oldest of five children, she felt like she needed to be an example for her younger siblings.
“I just beat myself up a lot about those things, and I feel like I had this expectation of who I should be, and when I don’t actually live up to that expectation … for a minute I start letting it weigh down on my worth,” Stroud said.
However, Stroud said throughout the past two semesters, she’s learned to enjoy her BYU education for its non-academic facets, like the people she meets on campus and the spiritual experiences available.
In her classes, Stroud now focuses on what she can learn rather than obsessing on what she will be tested on. She spoke about inspiring concepts in her film class and learning to eat better in her nutrition class.
“None of that is tested on, but I’m still getting this awesome education, learning all these new things and becoming a better person,” Stroud said. “Yeah, these tests are important because that number ends up being important, but that’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is just what you’re learning and how it’s changing your life.”
Ever since she earned a C on her history paper, Gee has also started to feel content with her grades if she knows she’s done her best. She’s learned to appreciate her education regardless of the outcome of papers or exams.
“My happiness is no longer dependent on how well I do in school,” Gee said. “It matters — of course it matters, and I’m going to strive for the best I can. But at the end of the day, I’m getting an informal education here that I couldn’t get anywhere else in the world.”
Like Stroud, Gee finds some of the most rewarding parts of her BYU education have nothing to do with grades, but with her spiritual experiences and the people around her.
“I just love the fact that I’m learning to enjoy life, and I can endure joyfully,” Gee said. “I can get a B and not be in my room the rest of the night crying. I can get a grade that isn’t my typical standard, and I can have friends around me, and we can just go to do something crazy that night.”