1. Dumb Luck
Each exam covers a massive amount of material. It is impossible to master every topic covered in class: only 70% completion is expected for the highest distinction, a first. If you can't study everything, you are forced to make a choice.
Many students choose to specialize in 4 or 5 topics that are likely to appear on the exam. Say you’re taking an economic history course (qualitative).3 The exam gives you a choice of 12 essay prompts, 6 of which you must develop into 30-minute essays. The strategy here is to comb through past exams to look for a couple of key characteristics:
- Topics that appear with the highest frequency
- Topics you’ve already studied for other classes
- Topics that haven’t been asked in recent exams
- Topics that interest you, which will be easier to study
Based on this analysis, you’ll pick your 6 topics. Masterful crammers could get in a couple more, but it is impossible to know every subject at essay-proficient levels, especially with 3 other subjects to revise.Now that you’ve made your choices, the rest depends on luck and the whims of the exam compiler. You hope to see all of your chosen topics prompted in the exam.
1.1 Benefits of Luck/Choice
I enjoy the luck/choice factor inherently introduced by the assumption that you will be unable to answer a large (30%) portion of the exam. The benefits of luck/choice manifest themselves in 3 ways:
- Allows for diversity of interest
- Lessens fear of failure
- Encourages empathy/reduces entitled mindset
Diversity of Interest: Luck/choice encourages interest by allowing a student to focus on specific topics, rather than forcing her to memorize 90-100% of the material, as she would in The States. As one friend put it, “you can get 40% of a UK exam wrong and still walk out with a 2.1 (B+/A-)”. Score a 60% in The States and you walk out with an F.
By expecting students to know 90-100% of the material to achieve an “A”, the US system removes any ambiguity on the choice of topic that you will be studying. You know exactly what will be on the exam, and you know exactly how much of it you must memorize to get your desired grade.
The UK system presents you with a buffet of knowledge, pushing you to sample that one extra topic that lies just beyond what you think you can comfortably retain. The US system forces predetermined topics down your throat, deducting points if you find one topic unbearably boring, overly complex, or simply flawed.
Fear of Failure: Ingrained in the US system is the idea that perfection (100%) or total control and mastery of a subject is not simply possible, but routinely expected of good students. When is anything ever 100% complete in the real world? When do we have complete and inexorable control over anything? Psychologically, it feels better to see a big red 100 on the top of your exam and a 4.0 at the top of a transcript. But the idea that perfection can and should be consistently achieved is dangerous. It does not belong in a student's mind.
Greatness is achieved in the pursuit of perfection, but for an educational system to reinforce the idea that your work can and should be consistently close to perfect can cause severely negative reactions to (gasp) failure. Failure, that shameful, ignominious event that we are taught to avoid at all costs. Failure, an inevitable part of life that is to be swept under the rug, hidden by a system that punishes what is sometimes unavoidable, completely out of our control. Failure, that event that can either be ignored and repeated, or remembered as a valuable lesson learned the hard way; a lesson that can inform future success.
I don't mean to imply that people should fail, only that people will fail. I am talking about relative failure, not absolute failure. Getting a B in today's competitive college environment is a relative failure as many highly sought-after jobs screen first and foremost on a GPA cutoff. A UPenn student recently committed suicide after achieving a 3.5 (A-/B+) in her first semester. Rampant grade inflation and cheating exacerbate the problem.
Assuming you are well prepared and the exam is fairly written, bad luck should not drop you from a first to a fail. It should mean the difference between a first and a 2.1.
Empathy & Entitlement: In her recent Stanford commencement speech Melinda Gates reemphasizes how important the recognition of luck is in keeping us grounded
Bill worked incredibly hard and took risks and made sacrifices for success. But there is another essential ingredient of success, and that ingredient is luck – absolute and total luck.
When were you born? Who were your parents? Where did you grow up? None of us earned these things. They were given to us.
When we strip away our luck and privilege and consider where we'd be without them, it becomes easier to see someone who's poor and sick and say "that could be me." This is empathy; it tears down barriers and opens up new frontiers for optimism.
Bill & Melinda Gates aren't alone; Warren Buffet shares the same sentiments. It's all too easy for the majority of us college students in the United States to forget just how fortunate we are to have the opportunity to spend 4 years and $200k just to learn, while many of our peers may have faced unfortunate familial/financial situations. When we get used to a system in which leaves no room for luck, it becomes easy to adopt an entitled mindset:
I work hard and prepare myself for my exams. I can and should always do well in my exams (because they are designed to be completed to near-perfection). Therefore, if I work hard later in life, I should always be successful in my career and family life. This is how life is and should be. People who don't achieve success are either lazy or stupid.
As inequality (the defining challenge of our time) grows, mobility between wealth brackets decreases. As mobility decreases, the importance of luck (being born smart, good-looking, white, rich, in the USA) increases. Luck, or undiversifiable (systematic) risk should be accounted for, as it is in the UK system. We should not be misled into thinking that our success is purely a result of hard work and personal. It is, and will always be, a varying combination of effort and luck.