Coming into law school, I had many choices to make. Several of them were financial: where I would live, how much I would take out in loans, and whether I could hold a part time job during 1L (that final one was a no, which made things very tight during those many months of learning how to Bluebook and outline). I had to decide who I would befriend on the first day of orientation, who I would trust as study partners, and who I would go to when I was having a horrible time with my lot in life.
One thing I was determined NOT to do was to allow the confines and constraints of law school to turn me in to someone I would be ashamed of, or someone I just didn’t like.
And then I met “the curve:” the infamous, fixed grading system that pits section mate against section mate and keeps many law students up at night.
Generally speaking, the curve requires professors to give a specific number of letter grades for a particular exam or paper, and each student’s performance on that exam or paper is weighed against the others in the class. For example, the curve might require a professor with a class of 40 students to give out only 5 A, 5 A-, 10 B+, 10 B, 5 C+, and 5 C grades. So even if you write a fantastic paper, if your professor decides that 10 of your classmates wrote better ones, you might just end up with a B+ instead of an A.
This can force professors to make some truly difficult (and some would argue highly arbitrary) decisions when it comes to grading. It can also foster a sense of mistrust among law students, because it means that if only a small percentage of students can receive the “A” in a class, then perhaps that special insight you received from your professor during office hours is best kept to yourself. Or perhaps you don’t think you should share your outline (the one that you spent a literal 27 hours on) with the person in your study group who you think did less work than you.
In short, grading using the curve in law school might make you act like an untrustworthy and unkind person.
I decided right off the bat that no matter what my grades turned out to be, I wasn’t going to let the curve prevent me from camaraderie and kinship with my classmates. I tried my best to make certain everyone in my 1L section knew that I would be there for them if they needed notes or assistance understanding something in our material. Because it wasn’t as though my helping them figure it out prevented me from studying hard and doing well in my classes; it just meant that I was helping someone else in the process.
So much of our law school experience is isolating: grades, internship applications, summer jobs, law review. It didn’t make sense to me to close myself off from lending a hand to someone whose computer crashed during reading week. Did it occur to me that giving this person my outline would benefit them and not my particular place on the curve? Honestly, no; not because that’s not a perfectly rational concern in law school, but because what I got on any given exam had nothing to do with my helping my classmates.
As regular Impact readers already know, I transferred to BC Law this year for 2L, and luckily, I’ve found that most of my classmates here seem to feel the same way. There’s a real sense of community and a bonding over shared experiences both in and out of the classroom that helps to offset the natural competitiveness that the curve creates. Studying for finals for my third semester of law school and my first semester at BC was made easier because my friends and I buckled down together to weather that December storm.
That’s the thing they don’t tell you about law school exams before you take them: tests (and the curve) are simply assessments of how well you knew the stuff they were testing you on in one three-or-four-hour period on one day out of the hundreds of thousands of hours in your life. The curve doesn’t dictate your intelligence, or even your capability to command knowledge of the material. It’s just a mathematical requirement imposed on law schools to create some visage of a rigorous grading mechanism. Some law schools (see Harvard, Yale, and Columbia) don’t even have a fixed numerical grading system, and many academics argue that we should retire the system because it is in fact such an arbitrary representation of student ability.
But since we aren’t there yet, I challenge you: if you’re reading this and considering your LSAT registration, law school application, your first semester, or your final semester, remember that all the most important processes in law school are only as scary as you allow them to be. So don’t let the curve be one of those things–and don’t let it turn you into someone you don’t want to be.
Tatiana-Rose Becker is a second-year student at BC Law. She loves to hear from readers: email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.