This year’s Mental Health Edition was recently released, prompting questions regarding the source of students’ stress at IMSA. For further insight on the student perspective, The Acronym sat down with Maddy Clarke (‘24) to discuss how IMSA students view grades. As an IMSA student themself, Clarke has first hand experience dealing with the mental stressors associated with IMSA’s academic curriculum. After having pushed themself so hard and having to repeat a grade as a result, Clarke has grown from this experience and wants to share their knowledge on the importance of prioritizing one’s mental health.
Being a student at IMSA means being subjected to its intense, rigorous academic environment. With this comes a lot of students who attach their self-worth to their academic performance. In addition, they also tend to compare themselves to their peers which perpetuates the toxic mindset fostered by several IMSA students.
To clarify, Clarke doesn’t intend to deter students from putting their efforts into school but rather hopes to encourage them to be introspective so that IMSA’s community benefits from a positive mindset surrounding grades.
What is your take on how IMSA students view grades and what do you think influences their perspectives?
Clarke identifies factors such as parental pressure, college, and students’ drive to be perfect as probable causes of the toxic mindset surrounding grades.
“The mindset surrounding grades” comes from students who believe that they “have to be perfect, get all A’s’, and be better than every other student in order to get into a good college. The idea of college is the driving force behind that mindset. Students also believe that all of this will stop once they get into college, but it won’t. They’ll get to college and realize that they still have to compete with others for jobs and opportunities” just as they did here at IMSA. “If we take a step back without looking at what our grades are but what we’ve learned instead, then that’s how we can really change that mindset.”
A lot of students’ excitement and anxiety stems from parental pressure to get into a range of highly selective colleges. From a young age, several IMSA students are told to study hard so they can get straight A’s, get into an excellent college, and get a good job. Part of this is also why students come to IMSA. However, this strict path is unhealthy and inapplicable to all students at IMSA. Unfortunately, the thought is so ingrained in our minds that we can’t help but stick to what we know, which is getting good grades to maintain a steady GPA. This also prompts us to use numerical data such as test scores, grades, and GPA as the basis of comparison of ourselves to others. By doing so, several students neglect the unique qualities that define them and limit themselves to the grade they got on their latest math test. As Clarke mentioned, this locks students in a perpetual cycle of comparison and competition with others which continues throughout college.
What constitutes a toxic mindset when it comes to education?
Clarke sheds light on the layers behind purposeful and accidental toxicity when it comes to grades:
“Toxicity can be unconscious or conscious. The people who constantly compare themselves to others or those that brag about being more advanced in terms of course placement and academic performance are either consciously or unconsciously fueling a toxic mindset about academics. For whatever reason, whether it be that a student is insecure or just really craves academic validation, they drive other students to maintain an unhealthy mindset about grades and school.”
Some students benefit from this toxic mindset as it satisfies their need for academic validation. However, while they benefit from a feeling of inflation, those around them are at risk of feeling less accomplished or more insecure. This leads to the second type of toxicity perpetuated by IMSA students: the unconscious toxic mindset. Students at IMSA constantly compare themselves to their peers, and more often than not, this action stems from a place of insecurity. They feel the need to put themselves down as a way to cope with an intense fear of failure. This puts more students in danger of poor mental health which is detrimental to their life at IMSA.
What are your thoughts on students’ tendency to surround themselves with people who foster toxic mindsets about school?
“When it comes to mental health, not only do the words you say to yourself affect you, but they affect others. As much as we try not to, we compare ourselves to each other constantly. If you perceive someone as more advanced than you and they talk down on themselves, that can really impact how you see yourself. It takes a lot of time and effort to not care as much, but what we hear other people say to themselves really takes a toll on how we perceive ourselves.”
Why is it IMSA students’ responsibility to change our mindset about grades?
“Administration can’t do anything about how students perceive the importance of their academic performance. They can’t change the toxicity and mindset around grades. They can push mental health, stress the importance of seeing a counselor, and give [us] resources, but at the end of the day it’s up to us as students to change the mindset and culture at IMSA.”
Unlike the students around us, administration doesn’t know us on a personal level. They can’t know the level to which students internalize the importance of grades and how much of a mental toll that takes on us. As Clarke mentioned, administration can only do so much, and the students have to shoulder the responsibility from there. Encouraging others and promoting a healthy mindset about grades requires students to change their perspective from constantly saying “I need to be perfect” to “How can I learn more?” Students at IMSA initially came here for an education that they couldn’t receive anywhere else, and it’s time to embrace that fact and promote a healthy outlook on our educational experience.