A is for Academia, Acceptance, Accomplishment, ACTs, and Ambitious Addiction

Growth – Kristen Hardy
Sofia Herbert

The letter A is primarily known as an article in the English language, but it is also a variable in math equations, a vowel, a piano key, a blood type, and the third most likely answer choice on the 2022 SAT. Fitting roles for the first letter in the alphabet. But this letter is best known to us as a determinant of our self-worth. It varies based on the scale—1400 to 1600 on the SAT, 32 to 36 on the ACT, and 89.5 to 100 on a standard grading system—but the sentiment remains: an A is to fulfillment and validation as anything less is to inadequacy and disappointment. An A is much less an innocent academic goal than a restrictive, addictive lifestyle. After all, this stellar GPA doesn’t come without a cost. The education system’s rigid demands for perfection and excellence are impossible standards to uphold, but not for us. Some may question at what expense, but we don’t like talking about sleepless nights, academic burnout, and perpetual stress; they ruin the effortless, idealistic facade of an A-student. Many praise this pursuit and call it discipline, but we, the victims of academic validation, know it as a trap. Once you reach such a standard of perfection, nothing else matters beyond grades and accolades. It’s an addiction, but society endorses it because there’s no drug label to warn them about the severe side effects of academia in fine print. And we know these side effects better than anyone because we feel the highs and the comedowns on a day to day basis, but we can’t help it: an A is something we’d do anything for.

And for good reason. Securing an A—that academic validation—is incredibly rewarding for us, especially in schools with near immediate grade feedback. Between the praise, the pride, and the power, which kid could refuse the promising, pure pursuit of an A? In a conceited way, we like being smarter and more accomplished because high school is a vicious competition, and if you didn’t know that, clearly you’re not in the running.

But really, if you want the truth, the pursuit of an A is a time-consuming, soul-draining endeavor that perverts our authentic, inquisitive nature. We don’t learn because we figure clotures or horizontal integration will prove useful in our futures or because we’re curious, but because there’s a government quiz on Tuesday and an AP U.S. History multiple choice test on Friday, and we have to be within the top 5% of scorers or else…well, there is no or else. For the A, we’ll stay up all night, sore eyes strained, glued to the computer until birds begin chirping outside and sunlight spills through the curtains. Don’t worry, we excel at cramming information and regurgitating it on tests even on a couple hours of sleep. It’s our specialty. We’ll go to school, take the test, and spend the rest of the day wondering if the burning in our eyes and the lingering unfulfillment in our hearts can be resolved with a quick nap or a good cry. It never really goes away, but naps usually help (at least with the fatigue). Nothing really remedies this emptiness and exhaustion except the notification that we earned an A, and even then, it’s short-lived. And then we do it again. I mean, if cramming and memorization violate the whole purpose of learning, why does our school system foster and reward these quick fixes? At its core, pursuing an A is not a purely academic endeavor but a careful game of survival. It’s balancing as many APs, Honors, extracurriculars, and leadership positions as we can without collapsing under the pressure. Because you’re not a true A-student unless you can receive the presidential service award and lead at least two clubs (or sports) all while maintaining a straight-A transcript. Like I said, an A is more than a one time grade. An A is an obsession—an all-consuming, dangerous, inescapable addiction. 

But don’t blame us—blame our dealers. Blame the peer pressure. Blame the parents who expect their children to be excellent while ignoring the grueling process by which excellent children are formed. We are victims of an education system that has no qualms about turning a blind eye to the uninspired, drained students who roam school halls with vacant gazes if it means the U.S. national GPA keeps increasing. If there’s one thing we can say for sure, it’s that we didn’t choose this lifestyle. And we’d choose it again and again, but don’t mistake this “choice” for fulfillment—the pursuit of an A is an obligation, and we are miserable because of it. 

If we examine the term with a broader lens, modern society’s fixation on academic excellence (achieving an A) is emblematic of man’s shift towards perfectionism. Historically, the greatest scientists, philosophers, artists, and athletes demonstrated that progress and resilience in the face of failure are keys to accomplishment. But as America, an end-product society, evolved, the focus shifted from the process to the outcome, leading to an obsession with perfectionism and a near visceral revulsion to failure. Everything must be perfect now. Attractive body, clear skin, shiny car, big house, loving family, full bank account—it’s all part of America’s sick, unrealistic perfectionist culture. Today, adults and academic institutions force this ideal onto us as if they don’t understand how dangerous it is. We understand it perfectly well. Take it from us, the pursuit of such “glorious excellence” is nothing more than a grim, monotonous series of memorization and regurgitation that ruin the adolescent experience, mental health, and personal growth. Once an empty letter used for assessing academic mastery, the A is now an emblem of America’s empty, perfection-obsessed standard. 

An A-lifestyle is not synonymous with luck, smarts, or genetics. There’s nothing smart about obsessing over a letter because it’s minacious (you can thank the Barron’s 500 SAT Flashcards for that word). In fact, these common qualifiers discount all the effort we put into curating the perfect college candidate. But that’s how America likes it: exceptional without effort. The A-lifestyle is all about projecting intelligence and perfection while covering up the hours of effort we pour into studying and working. It’s about pretending we have everything together when in reality, we survive by telling ourselves that next week will be better. It never is. 

Like it or not, I know I’ve conformed to this pseudo-successful A-lifestyle. I am unhealthily afraid of failure, and I will do anything for my academic success. I base my self worth on how close to 1600 I can push my SAT score, my stomach burns with anxiety before exams, and I can’t help but compare myself to my peers. To me, an A is so much more than a flawless transcript and an impressive college application. A‘s are the dark rings beneath my eyes I smother with color-correcting concealer every morning. A‘s are the nights my mom turns off my bedroom lights at three in the morning because I’m passed out at my desk on my history textbook. A‘s are the invitations I declined and parties I’ve missed for biology exam cram sessions. A‘s are the unwavering hope and support of my parents who want the best future for their daughter. A‘s are the emotional and physical efforts I’ve poured into this empty, academic endeavor. A‘s are my reassurance that these overrated, superficial, sleepless four years will be worth it…

  I really hope it’s worth it.