Grading time brings a burst of ‘motivation’

At the end of the semester, “motivation” soars. High school teachers get heartfelt pleas from two groups of students: those who are failing and really want to pass, and those who are earning A-s and really want As instead.

“What can I do?” both groups ask. “I’ll do anything!”

The first group – the kids who are failing – is frustrating, mainly because their problem is so preventable. You wouldn’t be failing if you had cared half as much two months ago, when you didn’t turn in that paper! We need to help them develop long-term thinking skills, so their motivation doesn’t show up only for serious deadlines.

Still, their problem is real, and I do what I can to help them move into the “pass” column.

The second group is a lot trickier because their problem isn’t really a problem at all, and what they want isn’t just an A in my class — they often want all As, perfect test scores and admission to Harvard. What they want is a polished 2.0 version of themselves.

We need to discourage — not feed — this kind of “motivation.”

This past week, I spoke with someone with significant admissions experience at highly selective colleges, and he shares my concern that the obsession with 4.0s is not what we want to cultivate.

Yes, grades matter, he said, but highly selective colleges do admit students with Bs and turn down students with perfect GPAs and 36s on the ACT.

“No one is sitting in a committee saying, ‘Oh, this student received an A- instead of an A,’” he said. “I find it very troubling, this achievement culture — achievement for the sake of achievement, not achievement for the sake of the student.”

So what is a poor student who dreams of Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, etc. supposed to do? Admissions seems like a game you can’t possibly win.

This admissions expert said students need to realize they don’t have control over whether an Ivy will admit them, so they should focus on other things. “Finding meaning and intellectual curiosity, exploring different interests and talents, and thinking about taking risks,” he suggested. “Even if we don’t admit you, you’re going to be very well positioned for the future.”

I asked if he bought into this idea that Harvard and other elite colleges are going to change the admissions process, to focus more on “caring” and students’ contributions to their communities. They already have, he said.

“I think it’s now up to communities and up to students to start thinking long and hard about their own well being and personal development,” he added. “ We have to be more mindful of teens’ brain development, in parallel with their academic development.”

But there must be a secret sauce, right? If it’s not straight As and 36s, what is it?

“We’re looking to admit students who will help to change the face of the institution,” he said. “What different voice does this student bring? Is this a student who has done everything he or she has been told, or is this a student who is really searching for meaning in the work that they are doing? Perhaps pushing the boundaries? “

The focus is on the essays and the interview, he said, the indicators that can actually reveal the whole person.

As for grades, he said, they mostly use them to identify who really isn’t up to the task of doing rigorous college work. A C in high school, for example, would probably predict Fs in uber-competitive college classes. “We’re making a decision for their benefit,” he said.

The message I hope to spread to students is: A- v. A just doesn’t matter. They won’t reject you if you’ve demonstrated you can do the work in challenging classes. But they might reject you if the only thing you care about is grades.