BY RAFFI MELKONIAN
Sometime in the next couple of weeks, grades for 1Ls will be released. If this year’s crop of students is anything like those in my class, there will be a certain amount of nervousness, and relief, and annoyance as the day gets closer. I’m here to tell you that it’s okay to be anxious – after all, this is the first time you’ve been measured in any serious way against all these smart classmates of yours, most of whom spent the entire semester working like wounded banshees. Before I say anything else, then, let me be clear – no, the admissions committee didn’t make a terrible mistake in letting you in here, you probably did fine, and if you didn’t, life will go on. As former Supreme Court clerk, Harvard law alum, and George Washington Professor Orin Kerr recently wrote on his website, “fall 1L exam grades are less important than most people think. . . . It takes some students more time than others to get ‘the game’ of how to answer a law school exam question, and when they do their grades go way up.”
In any case, it could always be worse. At college, my history department posted our names and grades for each exam on a bulletin board just outside the library, leading to all kinds of fun on the day results were announced – and that was still better than the poor pre-meds, who only got their grades posted if they failed. You even have it better than we did just two years ago – back then, grades were still mailed out in flimsy see-through envelopes, and people only a little further from campus than Gropius had to wait an extra agonizing day for their fate. All you’ll have to do is put a few numbers in the PIN registration system, and your grades will pop up. Count whatever blessings you have.
Having said all that, though, grades do matter. They matter because some of us have giant egos, and because some of us have never seen a grade lower than an “A” before. They matter because some law firms inexplicably labeled as more prestigious care about them, and the judges so many of us want to work for can be obsessive. Faced with those facts, the reaction of some people here at school, at least outwardly, is to shrug and note that “grades are random.” We get what we get – how it happens, no one knows.
But I don’t think that grades are random in any real sense. If they were, then those double Sears prize winners among us wouldn’t be able to pump out stratospheric grade after stratospheric grade. Summa cum laude, rare enough now, would be a sort of cruel myth – occasionally awarded to someone with reasonable skill and outrageous luck. All students would risk a few extremely low grades. Studying for or even caring about exams would become pretty irrational – why bother if you can’t help your grade?
As we all know, however, that’s not how things work – some people do consistently very well. Many others “live” decisively on one side or other of the curve, even while experiencing all sorts of fluctuations. So what’s going on? Obviously, I don’t have a comprehensive explanation. But to a large extent, my sense is that a lot of grading uncertainty is caused by a combination of the curve with our generally diligent students. Almost everyone at this school, especially during 1L year, does a pretty good job of getting ready for exams – whether by working steadily all semester or by sleeping in the library for a week with a bag of pretzels and a creased Gilbert’s. What this means is that all exam papers end up being decent objectively – if the exam is anything but fiendishly difficult, the real stars will separate themselves, and the vast mass of students will bunch around the middle. In a fair, happy, world, the professor would award a couple of A+’s, and everyone else would get some other grade. But the curve and our system of gradations don’t allow for such equality. So instead of sitting around with the A- everyone else got, you end up with a B+ in one class you thought you knew, and a higher grade in a class you were unsure of, all based on the fact that the professor literally had to separate functionally identical exams. Grades, in other words, aren’t random but somewhat arbitrary – and that should make you feel better.
If, in the long term, you care about grades, there are certainly things you can do. For example, if you take nothing but extremely difficult classes, where exams should spread out along the curve more evenly, you ought to see a better relationship between your results and your efforts. Or it might be that there’s just something about take home or in-class exams that you can’t deal with – maybe you’re a slow typist, or need the in-class adrenaline rush to get things done. Whatever the situation, don’t despair. If you decide grades matter for you, there are things you can do – and if ultimately it doesn’t go as well as you hope, well – join the rest of us. Relative mediocrity isn’t so bad. Especially not here.
Raffi Melkonian is a 3L. His grades are random.