Williams College is in the top tier as far as competitive colleges go. Many students that come to Williams are used to earning stellar grades. However, this means that many students discover that their first year at Williams is more challenging than high school, and A’s do not come quite as easily. It is difficult to be the perfect student the first year, but shaky grades in the beginning are not as damaging in the long run as students may fear.
Charles Toomajian, Assistant Dean and Registrar, has noticed a trend. “Typically, students’ GPA’s improve each year,” he said. In fact, many students have trouble during the first year and then earn excellent grades from then on. Toomajian maintains that, although many students are affected by this trend, each student is different and has different reasons for struggling early on.
Simply adjusting to the new surroundings or the heavier workload are two of the more obvious causes. Another cause may be the fact that Williams is a liberal arts college. “We encourage students to take a variety of classes,” said Toomajian. In attempting to fill requirements, many first-years take courses that they may not be very interested in or very strong in and then do not get A’s.
“The flip side of [divisional requirements] is that students are also introduced to whole new areas that they may not have known before,” said Toomajian. Some students come in thinking that they know what they want to major in and upon taking the classes, discover that it does not inspire them at all. This may be another reason why first year grades sometimes suffer. They may end up completely switching gears after their first year.
Olga Beaver, Chair of the Committee on Academic Standing, offered another problem that she encounters. “I often see what I call the ‘hide’ syndrome with first-years.” Students who have the ‘hide’ syndrome are those who refuse to acknowledge that they are struggling. “It is extremely frustrating to a professor to see an incredibly bright student getting bad grades because he/she won’t give in and get help,” she said.
In the first year, students are required to earn no more than two C-’s and no failures. Beaver pointed out that more students than not have trouble during their first year. “If you are having a hard time, don’t think that everyone else has it so easy,” she said. She also said that most students who really cannot improve leave after their first year.
As students take progressively harder classes, they tend to get smaller and more discussion based. In these classes, students cannot get away with not doing the reading because they may be put on the spot. Students naturally to do better because they stay on top of things more. As students progress through semesters, the focus may become more specific. Therefore, classes tend to become more personally stimulating and relevant to students. As Todd Rogers ’01 says, “The longer you have been here, the better adjusted you are.”
Toomajian and Beaver agree that, in terms of graduate school, a little slip up as a first-year will not be too damaging because the admissions offices tend to look for patterns. They look to see if a student improved or performed particularly well within their major. “An unstellar year is not the kiss of death,” said Toomajian.
Fran Gavilanes, an admissions officer at the NYU medical school, confirmed Toomajian and Beaver’s point. “We don’t pull out an individual year and examine it. We look at the college career as a whole,” she said. Graduate schools have also noticed that many students have a hard time during their first year and take that into account. “Improvement can out weigh most any bad performance freshman year,” Gavilanes said.
“I would say that I worry about my grades a fair amount,” said Danielle Torin ’02. Most first years do worry about their grades, but Torin added, “I think that learning as much as I can is more important than getting perfect grades.” Toomajian and Beaver echo Torin’s point, emphasizing that learning is what is important.
There are also many things to learn outside of the classroom. “Students must learn tolerance and how to live with others. They must become compassionate about things that are important and learn how to fight those things which they consider wrong,” Toomajian said. Beaver added that students learn a lot about themselves as people.
Beaver’s parting advice was, “Forget the pain, remember the lesson.” It is important to keep things in perspective and to learn from any mistakes that may have caused the poor grades. As Julie Cantatore ’99 says, “It is possible to not stress out all the time and still do fine. Take advantage of the help available from profs and upperclassmen.”