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Why You Shouldn’t Base Your Self-Esteem on Your Grades

why you shouldn't base your self-esteem on grades

by brianna ruffin

On every campus, students are plagued by self-deprecating thoughts like “I’m such an idiot” or “I don’t even deserve to be here.” These self-criticisms are extremely common and can be exacerbated by stressful situations like final exams. Often times these thoughts are a bigger deal then they might seem and can be a sure sign of poor self-esteem.

What exactly is self-esteem? According to, self-esteem is a “realistic respect for or favorable impression of oneself.” In other words, it’s how you see yourself.  The range is huge—some have an extremely positive concept of self, while others might have a neutral self-esteem. Unfortunately, many college students suffer from having a low self-esteem—a problem that can be caused by negative life experiences, mental illness, and past trauma. It is important to start an open dialogue about low self-esteem because it can easily co-exist with mental illness. The anxiety and depression that supplements poor self-esteem make it hard for students to make life decisions and navigate their futures in a healthy way.  

What else can lead to low-self esteem? Many studies point to the fact that self-esteem is deeply correlated with external validation. A 2002 study by Jennifer Crocker at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social found that eighty percent of college students base their self-worth on their academic success. The results show that the students who base their self-esteem on grades and physical appearance are more likely to fall victim to depression and anxiety. These same students are also more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs. The value that students place on their external achievements has a negative impact on their mental health, academic achievement and overall happiness.

For some college students, this information is revolutionary. Many students’ grades are the ultimate determination of their self-worth. If they receive an A instead of a B, they believe they are a failure. If they don’t get the internship they applied for, they take the company’s rejection of their application as a rejection of themselves.  Often students fail to see how little these rejections have to do with their competence in the first place—no one can get perfect grades all of the time and many internships have low acceptance rates. However, it is difficult to avoid falling into a pattern of taking these rejections personally. The prospect of correlating self-esteem with internal validation instead of external is a daunting task. Without a GPA to define them, students may feel as though they are left with no standard to judge themselves off of—and in turn, fear they will lose their motivation to work hard. The study shows however, that students can still care about academics without it causing anxiety, depression and substance abuse. Instead, they will find that choosing an alternative basis for their self-worth will raise their self-esteem and improve their chances of accomplishing their goals.


There are many alternatives to basing your self-esteem on your academic or professional accomplishments. If you’re reading this and find that you fall into the demographic of students with low self-esteem—recognize your inherent worth as a human being. Realize that there is only one of each person on earth and that you can provide original personality, taste, interest and experience. You have the ability to add value to any room that you enter because only you can offer thoughts or opinions from your specific perspective. You can add value to any community (including a collegiate community) because there is only one you. In this model, every human being has value simply because they are unique.

If recognizing your inherent self-worth as a human being seems too difficult, there are other factors besides self-esteem on which to base your accomplishments. Center your self-esteem on personal accomplishments— preferably accomplishments that involve only yourself. For example, as a first-generation college student, a large personal accomplishment for me was getting into college. Though some might argue that this accomplishment is dependent on external validation (in this case, that of the admissions office at the colleges to which I applied), I would argue that this accomplishment actually stemmed from working hard to achieve a long-term goal. These personal accomplishments will differ from person to person. One person might be especially proud of traveling independently to another country while another person might feel great about volunteering or helping family members. 

On the topic of family, it is also possible to base your self-esteem on interpersonal relationships. You can feel good about yourself because of the strong relationship you have with your family, significant other, and friends. You can place value on the fact that you are always there for the people you love and feel proud of the deep connections you have with people in your life. Maybe your self-esteem can be based on the way you’re always willing to go out of your way to help others—even absolute strangers. The possibilities for are endless.

Your self-esteem doesn’t have to be determined by academics. You are more than your grades and GPA. You are more than the internship opportunities you receive or do not receive. You are more than your major. The only person who can determine your self-esteem is you. You have inherent worth, and hopefully once you recognize that you will be able to say, with confidence, “I deserve to be here.”


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