Commentary, Opinion

Sacrificing academic fulfillment for a 4.0

In the midst of add-drop season, any study space at McGill is filled with students frantically scrolling through the McGill course catalogue in search of the perfect class—one that will fit into their packed schedules, help them increase their GPAs, and make their lives a little easier. How much they enjoy the course is only an afterthought. Academic fulfillment is no longer the point or, seemingly, even a prevalent factor in university life. To prevent this, McGill needs to take steps to ensure that students are able to enrich themselves academically without concern for their futures.

As an exchange student from London, the add-drop process itself was a new world for me. In the United Kingdom., studying a program where you “major” in more than one subject or have the option to “minor” is rare, although options are becoming increasingly available. In most degrees, students only have a few elective courses they can take, and there is usually a small pool to choose from. The “shopping period” doesn’t really exist for courses in the U.K. As a result, there is a smaller range of difficulty between courses that are deemed “easier” or “harder”, and, thus, students take courses for interest or to fulfill prerequisites. Even sites like Rate My Professor and the amount of Reddit forums discussing what classes to take were new territory. I’ve spoken to other exchange students who have been equally puzzled by the culture of switching classes and cultivating schedules. 

This raises the question: Why are students at McGill and other North American universities prioritizing their grades over what they really want to study? When students are paying thousands of dollars for their education, it is unclear what they truly gain in picking courses that stray miles away from their majors. 

The overwhelming answer: To be a more competitive candidate. Both the job market and grad schools expect increasingly unrealistic standards from graduates. Perfect GPAs, unblemished academic records, along with an array of internships and extracurriculars are  prerequisites. At Yale Law School, the average GPA for successful applicants is 3.94. When this is compounded with McGill’s varied course examination style and difficulty, it becomes obvious why students are hesitant to challenge themselves with courses that mean long hours and struggling grades when easier routes are available to them. The perceived rewards for high grades and GPA outweigh semesters of intellectually challenging but engaging classes.

But some contest whether this culture of picking “bird” classes is necessarily a bad thing. Not only is the motivation behind this strategy very reasonable, but students may also find themselves learning about subjects outside of their normal scope of academia. So, while I was surprised by the add-drop system, it was refreshing to see how normalized it is for students to take a variety of subjects. Arguing that this encourages a wider breadth of learning, however, can easily be countered when factoring in that most students taking these “easier” classes do not engage quite so vigorously with the syllabus as they might with a course required for their degree.

McGill needs to encourage its students’ focus on academic fulfillment. McGill contributes to the problem by allowing a disparity between course assessment styles, with some renowned for easy marking and lax teachers while others are known for intensive workloads and course content. From “Natural Disasters” (EPSC 185)  to “The Art of Listening” (MUAR 211), students only need to have a browse on Reddit to get a run-down of which classes might be favourable to their transcripts. Generations of students have publicly discussed the pros and cons of certain courses, making it impossible for course reputations to not contribute to future choices. Standardizing more cohesive workloads and attendance policies across the university would be a productive start. As an institution that prides itself in “expanding minds,” McGill allow its students to learn without their grades being the main determinant of their academic journey. 

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