Students who make the choice to attend St Andrews do it with their futures in mind. Whether this future includes an additional degree or a job, our university looks impressive on a CV. For Americans who come here, there is the extra consideration of applying to graduate school in the States after their time at St Andrews.
Universities in America, unlike those in Scotland, evaluate students in the form of GPAs (Grade Point Average). The specific GPA scale varies from one college to the next, with some being out of 100, some being out of four, and others consisting of letter grades. Either way, any of these scales can be easily converted to the next, which is essential for the application process. This is not the case for the University of St Andrews, with our results out of 20 and our Honours and Sub-Honours.
The most comforting phrase one hears as a fresher is “it doesn’t matter- it’s only first year!” The knowledge that only a 7 is necessary to continue on to second year provides first year students with endless relaxation and the enjoyment of a “YOLO” attitude. If that requirement of only a 7 was taken away, the future generations of first year students would not have the same experiences we did. This is not to say that first year students actually do only receive marks of 7, as this is not the case at all. It is about the consolation of knowing that even with a 7, success is yours for the taking.
Louise Richardson revealed in her interview with The Saint that the university is considering introducing GPAs in St Andrews. As someone who used to work at Harvard, she can be trusted to know the benefits and drawbacks of GPAs, and how the GPA system compares to our form of assessment. Still, I doubt that other University officials will consider how much it would affect the experience of St Andrews.
There are, of course, substantial academic benefits to introducing a GPA system. I recently attended a video-chat session between the University of Michigan Law School and our university. The law school at the University of Michigan, located in Ann Arbor, is one of the most prestigious law schools in the United States. It is currently ranked at #11, following a majority of the Ivy Leagues. The UMich law school has a steady stream of applicants from St Andrews, most, but not all, of which are American. The Dean of Admissions from Michigan, Sarah Zearfoss, informed us that when we apply to universities in the United States, where it says GPA on the application, there is a zero. Of course, this does not reflect our grades, but it’s still a little daunting.
Instead, our marks out of 20 for all of our courses from all four years (including first year) are provided. The marks out of 20 are given labels; a 15 is average, a 14 is below average, a 16 is above average, and an 18 is high above average. Four years of hard work converted to the simple phrase “average” is pretty depressing.
We asked Professor Hudson of the School of History here at St Andrews whether being an applicant from St Andrews puts us at a disadvantage when applying to universities in the United States. Professor Hudson is also a Global Law Professor at the University of Michigan, so his advice is valuable. Professor Hudson explained that although St Andrews students are not necessarily at a disadvantage, students with “average” grades are not very likely to get in, even with impressive LSAT scores.
It is hard for admissions teams at American universities to understand our grading system, which makes us require more effort to consider, and puts us in a position where our intelligence can easily be negatively misconstrued. For these reasons, the introduction of a GPA system would be helpful and beneficial for students applying to universities in the United States after their time at St Andrews.
These advantages do not, however, outweigh the hindrances. The possibility of being judged on first year grades is not only dispiriting; it is also unfair to students who come from outside the United Kingdom.
In fact, it takes time for all students, whether from the UK or not, to become accustomed to university life here, so counting first year grades seems unfair and misleading.
First year is the time to find your friends, find your own voice, and find your writing style, so shouldn’t be under the pressure of seeking high grades.
The added and significant pressure of having to achieve grades high enough to get into universities that students do not even think about applying to until their final undergraduate year would be detrimental to student health and happiness.
Students should be able to enjoy their first year at university with freedom and spontaneity. The pressure of third and fourth year, as well as the stress of future academic degrees or careers, is more than enough as it is. GPAs might be beneficial in some ways, but happiness should, to a large extent, be the priority.