After the heart-stopping terror of the email that grades have been posted comes the leaden-stomach anxiety of wondering what those grades mean and where to go from there. What do these grades mean for me? Am I supposed to review my exams? What if I don’t like my grades? As many questions swirl around after taking an exam as had to be answered in the exam itself. Thankfully, these questions are a little easier to answer than exam questions.
What Do My Grades Really Mean, and How Much Do They Matter?
Short answer: they, unfortunately, matter a lot in the short-term, but, luckily, matter almost not at all in the long-term.
Long answer: grades are often arbitrary metrics that, in truth, reflect no more than your ability to perform in a four or five hour window. No more and no less. They are not assessments of your academic capacity, nor scores of your legal aptitude.
Seton Hall Law Professor Paula Franzese writes:
Your grades, whatever they happen to be, are an indication of how well you fared for a few hours in applying your learning to a narrow, often peculiar format, as determined by someone else’s sometimes arbitrary, usually subjective judgment. In this imperfect system, injustices are inevitable. People who studied hard may not do as well as they should or could have. People who hardly studied may excel. The course that you thought you aced becomes your worst grade. The exam that you thought you bombed comes back as your best grade. And so on…
You are not your grades, or, for that matter, your standardized test scores, your resume or your summer job. Grades are simply information. They don’t have the power to define you or limit the possibilities unless you give them that power. Don’t. Do not surrender the song put in your heart to teacher, employer, colleague or classmate. That song was put there for a reason, and it is yours alone to sing. The world needs your voice.
Only you create the reality that your grades represent. No one else. View them as an opportunity for learning, self-knowledge and growth. Throughout, keep your head high. Do not be cruel to yourself. Beyond a healthy discipline, be gentle with yourself. Hold tight to your dignity, integrity and belief in yourself. You are precisely where you should be. You have succeeded before. You are a success now.
Stories abound among lawyers of folks who were less than successful in law school– some who even came close to dropping out in concern of their grades– but who still found their success as a judge, in-house counsel, or whatever their dream job. Hard work and a passion for the job are far greater determinants of career-long success than arbitrary measurements of four hours of work.
But, it would be dishonest for me to say that grades don’t matter at all or that they have absolutely no effect whatsoever. In the short term, grades matter quite a bit, especially if you’re interested in going into BigLaw. When you apply to your 1L and 2L summer jobs, you really don’t have much yet by way of a legal resume except your grades, so just by that sheer fact, your grades become a disproportionately important part of your application. So the more prestigious the internship during law school, the more GPA-exclusive the application likely is.
That isn’t to say that it’s impossible to get a more-exclusive job without a 4.0, just that it might take a little longer. Rather than getting a BigLaw job through 2L OCI, for instance, you might have start at a smaller firm and continue to lateral to slightly larger firms until you reach BigLaw. Or if you’re interested in a federal clerkship, you might not go straight through after law school, you might start at a state clerkship and then progress to a federal one. It’s not a matter of possibility, just a matter of timing. Because grades might matter in the shortest term, but in the long-term, they do not dictate your job prospects.
What Should I Do Once I Get My Grades Back?
For one, you should update your transcript and resume to reflect your updated grades, GPA, and rank. If you keep everything up-to-date as soon as you are able, when someone asks you to send them your resume at a networking event or Career Services says they want to forward your application to an alum they know, it’ll already be ready to go.
What If I Don’t Like the Grade I Got?
You’ve got two options, one of which is good and the other less so. The easier option is to pretend it didn’t happen and never think about it again. While it’s tempting, certainly, remember that if it’s a bar course we’re talking about, you’ll see that same information again on the Bar Exam. So isn’t it worth swallowing your pride and taking a moment to consider what happened on the exam?
That’s why the better option when you get a less-than-ideal grade is to set up a time with your professor to review your exam. Your professor can help you identify if there was a portion of the course you weren’t able to quite get the knack of, or if you just ran out of time when taking the exam, or if your exam answer wasn’t quite organized enough, or if you second-guessed yourself just a few too many times on the multiple choice. If you can discover what might have gone wrong, you can apply the new lesson on future exams and hopefully get a grade you’ll be happier with next semester. Further, if you find that there was an issue regarding the course content, then you can make sure to find the holes in your studying so that when you’re deep in the trenches of Bar prep, you’ll have already filled those knowledge holes then to make it easier for you now.
What If I Got a Good Grade, Do I Still Need to Review My Exam?
It certainly wouldn’t hurt to still go to an exam review. If you got less than an A+, that means there’s still at least a little room for improvement. And an exam review could still help you identify that possibility, even if it’s only something minor. One of my professors told me the rule of thumb is that if you got a B or less, especially on a Bar course, exam reviews are highly recommended.
No Matter What Grade You Got, Though, You Should Celebrate.
Regardless how you feel about your grade, you got a grade. You have one more semester of experience under your belt, and that in itself is worth something worth celebrating. Enjoy it! Revel in the fact that you are one step closer to becoming an attorney– one step closer to your dream.