On Campus

How to deal with “that” student

He never studies or buys textbooks, but aces every test. Don’t let him drive you nuts

Got a great question by mail about a week ago. I’ve been saving it for a proper reply.

I just finished my first semester at [university], and I worked my ass off; I studied hard for the tests and assignments, I got good grades and stayed home on nights I would have dearly loved to have gone out partying. It paid off; I still ended up with an 84% average.

One of my fellow classmates, who I’ve become pretty good friends with, never shows up to school, never studies and never opens his textbooks. He actually didn’t even buy half the textbooks he should have. The days he does come to school, he doesn’t even go to class but instead sits in the caf all day drinking coffee. And yet, he still ended up with a 98% average this semester!

How does someone like myself deal with this sort of person?? He drives me nuts. It’s not fair that he can do that so easily and the rest of us have to work like slaves, and still not do as well as him.

This question brings a lot of things to mind, and none of them are straight-up solutions. I’ll just throw everything I can think of at the issue and hope something helps.

First off, when dealing with someone who seems to have everything come too easy, don’t be too quick to take everything you hear about it on faith. Sometimes students flat out lie about their grades. Why I can’t guess, when there’s no obligation to talk about it in the first place, but some do anyway. Even more commonly students exaggerate and tell stories about their work habits that aren’t really true. Some students seem to be studying all the time when it isn’t genuine and some are just the opposite. Someone who is trying to portray and preserve a slacker image may claim to throw his papers together at the last minute, but are you sure it’s true? Maybe he stays up all night working and simply doesn’t admit to it. It’s hard to be sure.

None of this is to say your information in this case isn’t accurate. It may well be true, and in fact I’ll assume it is for the rest of my answer. But it’s good to remember that you can’t really guess, in the majority of cases, what’s going on with other students. It’s just like the classic story where the family next door seems to be perfect but once you know what’s really going on you realize how good you have it.

This leads me around to a thought or two on the subject of “fair.” Wow, what a terrifying subject. Somewhere in the world right now there are 12-year-old soldiers who simply dream of the chance to even see the inside of a classroom again. I don’t mean to belittle your concerns by pointing this out, but the idea of fair and unfair is something I barely know how to talk about. Which one of us has it better than the next person, anyway?

The kind of math it would take to add it all up, and to balance all of my advantages and challenges against those of another person, is just too much. So I try not to do it at all. I try to be thankful for my blessings and remember those who are clearly less fortunate but I sure don’t stay awake at night worrying about those who have it “better” than I do. I think about all the things I can’t know about them instead. Sometimes it’s tempting to look at just one thing and pretend that’s all that matters, and the concept of “fair” can be focused just on this one point alone, but obviously that’s untrue. Remembering this helps keep me balanced.

So moving away from the idea of what’s “fair,” I’ll say the real issue is how to stay motivated around people who seem to get everything too easily. I think that’s what you really meant, after all. This isn’t an existential crisis about fairness in the universe – it’s a question of how to avoid having this affect your own attitude in school. And that’s a very good question indeed.

In order to stay motivated, I’ll suggest that you’re learning a lot more in school than just what you need to know for the next test. It isn’t only about the grade you receive – there really is something important in how you get there. You learn work ethic along with composition. You learn time management just as you’re sitting up all night studying for an exam. These skills are important. No one can surf through life on pure ability alone. Some can surf through school on that basis – I won’t lie to you. But they don’t necessarily emerge better prepared for the “real world” after doing so.

People have a variety of different aptitudes. Even what we tend to call “intelligence” is a very mushy concept. It’s just a collection of various talents that we privilege for no good reason over other talents. Some people can chew right through a test but can’t figure out people to save their lives. Some can memorize a textbook but can’t produce original work. Some are good at writing and manage to cover weak research with smooth prose. I’ve been guilty of that last one myself.

In the end, though, when you’re out in the professional world you’ll have to call on a variety of skills to succeed and they aren’t necessarily the ones that get you the highest grades in school. In your case, it seems like you’re developing your work ethic a lot, in order to shore up whatever difficulties you have with the material you’re learning. It’s paying off, clearly. Your grades are good. But are you sure your friend whose grades are great is really doing “better” than you are? Sure, he’s topping you in an academic sense. But I suspect the skills you are developing will serve you better in the long run.

Mostly, the best advice I can give you is advice you seem to already be heeding. Don’t take it personally. Stay friends with the guy. The world is full of people we can spend our time comparing ourselves to and competing with. Sometimes comparison and competition is healthy, but it shouldn’t get in the way of our friendships or social interactions. That’s the point at which it’s very clearly unhealthy.

Sounds to me like you’re doing fine. Keep it up. And have a great holiday break.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even those I don’t address here will still receive replies.

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