Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Materials Girl: The bell curve doth toll

Posted on behalf of Materials Girl

Finals are, at last, over and winter break has begun! ‘Tis the season for living at home, sleeping in, catching up on blogging, and checking grades online obsessively! (More precisely, I am procrastinating on studying for the GRE. Ugh. The vocabulary words I’m familiar with nowadays are on par with trimethylxanthine, eigenfunction, and nanorod, not termagant, eleemosynary, and nadir).

As far as grading goes, some form of curving seems standard among non-humanities classes. My science professors tend to aim for “nice” exam averages of 60-80, then curve results so that the wretched students scoring 50% get C’s instead of F’s. The brilliant engineering profs think everything is completely straightforward and write “easy” exams. Hah!

From a student’s perspective, I generally don’t have problems with curving. It’s nice to not worry about getting +90% on everything and risk having a few arithmetical errors or forgotten arrows kill perceived performance. However, if someone achieves those high scores and stays well above average, an A still isn’t guaranteed. And, that really sucks. It seems to boil down to two choices: battling tests & grading rubrics to score some set percentage, or battling classmates to be at the top of the pack. At the end of the day, it’s just a matter of a little luck and how well you fight (and get back up when beaten down) – regardless of the opponent.

Everyone says to not worry about GPAs, but it can’t be completely written off – especially since some schools give out A’s more easily than others. Experience and recommendations aside, how much do grad schools and companies really factor in what university an applicant comes from? At career fairs, recruiters always, always begin by looking for the GPA on my resume. It does make sense, since a 5-10 minute conversation can’t really tell them how qualified or knowledgeable I might be. But, what if I had a B in a class because my peers were a little bit better that time around, and I could’ve taken the same class the next term and gotten an A? I don’t think the 4.0 from community college will be of much help…


  1. Report this comment

    psi*psi said:

    I hope research experience matters more, and that GPA gets ignored altogether. But that’s because my GPA sucks: I didn’t take bunny classes, I took more chemistry! (Something they don’t mention: it’s tricky to manage the number of hours it takes to be full-time as an undergrad if you fill them all with grad classes.) I also hope my undergrad institution gets overlooked on the app. (The GREs were kind to me, so they can look at those instead.)

    As far as the GRE verbal goes, seek out some good Scandinavian metal—perfect for gems like perfidy, apostasy and volant.

  2. Report this comment

    MG said:

    psi*psi: Depends on what you mean by a sucky GPA! Mine would otherwise be pretty good if I didn’t have two horrid C’s. Have you applied to schools yet?

    I’m taking the GRE in 1.5 weeks and need to start studying… But it’s Christmas! I’ve been doing kitchen chemistry and sleeping. I think I’m doomed.

  3. Report this comment

    psi*psi said:

    By sucky I mean probably good enough to get accepted most places, but definitely not high enough for fellowship consideration. I think I graduated with 4 Cs, but also had a lot of As in some of the more challenging classes. My applications are in…the waiting is the worst part of the whole process.

    Best of luck on the GRE. It’s not that bad, unless you’re taking the subject test…which is pretty much pure evil.

  4. Report this comment

    TCO said:

    Tests should measure a standard of performance. Teachers should know the subject well enough and write tests with enough skill that curves are not needed. If everyone has “excellent insight and understanding”, then they all get As. And visa versa. This requires courage and skill from the teachers, but so what? Life is hard and we should do our best.

  5. Report this comment

    MG said:

    psi*psi: I survived! Unfortunately, learning ~200 new words (and reviewing even more) didn’t help on the verbal section. I essentially just need to learn how to read [quickly]. The quantitative part turned out great, unless the computer lied to me… Fortunately, I doubt that I’ll be required to take the subject test, since I’m going into materials and not pure chemistry. I don’t trust myself enough for that. 😛 Good luck on your apps! I’m sure you’ll get into wherever you want.

    TCO: Unfortunately, many – if not a majority – of the professors I’ve had don’t care to take up that much time. If anything, they write exams the night prior and have some hapless TA xerox right before the test… This statistic is probably very affected by the fact that I attend a large research university, though.