I got an 82 on my Statistics 101 midterm.
I scored exactly at the mean, but only because the distribution was left-skewed. What that means is some poor soul bombed the exam, pulling the average down for all of us. Putting it euphemistically, he really took one for the team.
It would be a little hyperbolic to describe my reaction as crushed, though it was certainly frustrating. Of my various friends in the class, it seemed that I put in a lot more effort and diligence both before the exam and throughout the semester; yet I performed significantly worse.
I attended far more office hours than anyone else I know. I can’t exactly prove this, but the fact that one friend took to calling me “office hour boy” was strong supporting evidence. I read and reread notes, went thoroughly through sample midterm problems and (somewhat fruitlessly) tried skimming through the textbook.
Getting the exam back was a real “welcome to the Ivy League” moment. The only real metric you have of how you compare against others is exam performance — and as it turns out, people here are pretty damn good at tests.
And those metrics are quite unforgiving. In Stat 101, the midterm makes up 30 percent of the grade, and the final makes up 50 percent. Eighty percent of your grade for the semester is determined in four short hours. I’m told that in OPIM 101, another required Wharton class that most freshmen take in the spring semester, there are only two tests, each consisting of 30 points — with no partial credit.
With all that in mind, I’ve found myself wondering whether it would have been a smarter move to go to UNC-Chapel Hill. Scholarship money would have made it a fraction of the cost of Wharton, I would have been close to home, I already had a network of high school friends there and I would’ve likely been able to maintain a higher class ranking with less effort than I do at Wharton. In short, it would have been easier to shine and impress employers upon graduation.
But the other day, as I was taking stock of my friends and acquaintances at Penn so far, something occurred to me. One of my best friends was a national champion at debate. A girl on his hall headed the Make a Wish Foundation in Pakistan. Someone I met in the dining hall two weeks ago is in talks with Amazon about a coding position. Four freshmen I know (including myself) were offered positions with start-ups within the first month of the semester. If I search most of my friends on Google, things other than Facebook pages actually come up.
It’s certainly tough, going from the top to average. But a place where brilliance is the norm makes the fantastic intellectual diversity I just described possible. Most of us were probably standouts in our high school, and now the tables have turned. Or at least, aren’t oriented so much in our favor. But when you’re at or near the top all the time, how much more can you grow? Do you even have much of an incentive to?
To be clear, I don’t think scoring at the mean on one exam means that I’m forever doomed to academic mediocrity. That being said, it’ll be tough. I can’t expect performances well above the mean to be the norm, as they were in high school. It’s disheartening, but at the same time there are really only two responses: resign or push harder. Personally, I’m going to tap into the resources at Weingarten and figure out how to use my efforts more effectively than the last time around — and maybe retain the moniker of “office hour boy.”
But what I do know is that while it’s perfectly fine to be a big fish in a small pond, being in a place where you’re comfortably ahead doesn’t spur anything forward. If you live your whole life as a standout without ever once hitting a wall or being knocked off the pedestal, odds are it won’t be that impressive. You probably need to find a bigger pond.
Arjun Gupta is a Wharton freshman from Matthews, N.C. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. “Frosh Quaker Oats” appears every other Wednesday.
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