Bad Grades & Self-Care

I recently received an email from a reader who obtained a midterm grade they did not think was very good. This test was worth a sizeable portion of their final grade and they asked me if I had ever received a bad grade, and if so some useful strategies to help cope with the reality.

I’ll start by saying YES, I have received bad grades before. I will not expand on my specific case since this is not about me, but I will emphasize the importance of being able to bounce back and cope with bad grades. The grade has happened, do not dwell on it and let it weigh you down. Instead, get the most out of the bad grade. Use your failure as a learning experience and think about ways in which you can improve. Never accept failure without improvement, think about reasons why you think you did not do as well as you had hoped. Did you not study enough? Did you cram the material too late, not providing yourself sufficient time to understand it? Did you focus too much on concepts that were not tested? Did you study too much theory without practice or vice versa? Self-reflection upon failure is a very vital skill to develop and can help you grow as a person. If you sit down and really thoroughly reflect on why you didn’t do as well, and formulate some strategies to do better next time, I can almost guarantee improvement. This skill is applicable throughout your life to not just school, but all endeavors, and I highly recommend you implement this!

If you notice a trend of getting bad grades, the situation is different. If you have tried self-improvement and it is not working, the best advice I can give is to try and reach out to someone else to analyze your habits. Having a third-party observer can help break the tunnel vision and provide you with a fresh, unbiased perspective on how to increase efficiencies in your methods. I have personally used a third-party perspective multiple times throughout my academic career and continue to use it in medical school. I noticed that how I studied in undergraduate education was not efficient in medical school. I found I was spending far too much time and not getting much in return. In order to circumvent this, I began consulting upper years and other classmates, and did some research on the internet. From multiple perspectives I encountered, I was able to more effectively evaluate my own methods. My system now is not rigid, I am in a dynamic state of constant change as school progressed and I continue to find more efficient methods to understand the material.

Now if you have tried reaching out, you have tried shifting your methods, and nothing seems to work it is more difficult to really address the issue. At that point it would be a more individualized and isolated issue. An important piece to keep in mind, however, is that at the end of the day, do not let bad test results in general hold you down. I know grades are important for medical school and other professional school admissions, and having low grades can unfortunately lead you to be automatically filtered from the selection committee. What is more important than getting into any professional school, however, is your mental health. If you put the value of your life on getting A+’s, and getting into a professional school, then you are setting yourself up for many potentially unfortunate outcomes, some which I have seen. Potential outcomes include burnout, lack of enjoyment of the field, and general unhappiness. Remember that even if you do get into medical school, you will continue to be graded, not only on your own medical school’s examinations, but also on standardized tests for licensing, residency, fellowships etc. There is no end to education and testing in the medical field. If you are feeling “fed-up” with testing, or feel extremely anxious from tests and receiving test results, then that is something to take into consideration when thinking about this field, especially if you are early in your career. Sure, you can probably run your mental health down temporarily for three, four, maybe even six years and “get by”, but remember, this is for a career that is continuous and consumes a large part of your life.

I believe at all stages of your life it is important to have some self-care incorporated, while still getting the essential aspects of your academics completed. What do I mean by self-care? Get your exercise in, do some extracurricular activities that aren’t related to your field, socialize and see your friends and family, and eat right. If you skimp on these aspects of your life early-on, then as your life goes on and you get more and more busy, you will never be able to successfully incorporate them, or it will take a great deal more effort to. You will always make time to eat something because you have to. So now add on exercising as a have to activity. Instead of wasting time and money waiting in line and buying food every day for lunch, meal prep on the weekends or during the week when you have time and pack your lunches. It is an investment of time that pays dividends over the course of your life, and if you start early you build these habits that will always be a part of your lifestyle and not something you can easily skimp on. In this day and age, it is always easy to have an easy immediate gratification fix, so having that discipline and setting self-rules is important to stay on top of things. At the same time, however, you still need a balance in life. The key is just not to make a habit of the unhealthy actions and make a habit of the healthy actions while still allowing yourself to enjoy the unhealthy aspects of life.


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