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The Dartmouth
May 24, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Best of the Best: The Reality of Having a Perfect GPA at Dartmouth

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In a typical Dartmouth admissions cycle, 95% of accepted applicants are in the top 10% of their high school class. If this isn’t impressive enough, about 25% of admitted students are valedictorians.

But what happens when all of these high achievers arrive at the same school? While some students keep their streak of perfect grades alive, it certainly isn't easy — by sophomore year, only 5% of the Class of 2024 alone had 4.0 GPAs. 

According to Dartmouth News, each fall, the “20 top grade earners” from each graduating senior class are “inducted into the nation’s oldest honor society,” Phi Beta Kappa. At Dartmouth, being a part of that top 20 typically means having a GPA between 3.99 and 4.0 — the bar for most, if not all, potential valedictorians. 

One of last year’s inductees, Ethan Chen ’24, said his outstanding academic record “definitely wasn’t intentional.”

When Chen came to Dartmouth, he thought he “had a clear path” down the engineering pipeline. In high school, Chen explained, he built up a skillset and portfolio that lent itself to engineering — but not necessarily becoming a college valedictorian.

“I'd say just take things as they come … don't put too much pressure on yourself,” he said. “If you invest in yourself, then that's the best thing that you can do while you're here.” 

However, as a freshman, Chen said he “strayed from [the engineering] path a fair amount due to the distribution requirements” and discovered he was interested in many more subjects than he originally thought — from computer science to music.

“I really enjoy the [computer science] classes I’ve taken and music as well,” Chen said. “There was a part of me that was too prideful to drop engineering, so I found that the [computer science modified with engineering] major allowed me to explore a lot of [computer science] stuff without giving up the foundation that built up over some of the terms.” 

Zhenia Dubrova ’24, a student from Ukraine who was also inducted into Phi Beta Kappa last fall, agreed that earning perfect grades wasn’t a part of her plan at first. 

“[Having a 4.0] wasn’t really intentional, partly because as an international student, I didn’t really know what to expect,” she said. “I was always an ‘A’ student in Ukraine — it’s something that mattered to me, seeing the result of my work, but [having perfect grades] was not a goal that I set for myself. My one goal was taking classes that I’m really enjoying and trying to not choose classes based on what the median might be.”

Though Dubrova still has a 4.0 in her major, she admitted that her cumulative GPA recently fell to a 3.99. While getting her first A- was “difficult” for her to accept at first, Dubrova said the decrease could be seen as “a good thing because it takes off the pressure” of maintaining a 4.0. 

One of last year’s valedictorians, Sheen Kim ’23, said she worked “really hard” during her freshman year and remained dedicated to keeping her 4.0 afterward. 

“Coming into Dartmouth, I wanted to do well, but I was also prepared [to accept] … whatever happens, happens,” she said. “By junior or senior year, I had settled a lot more into the realization that grades don’t really matter, but I committed myself to ‘the bit’, so to speak.”

Kim said she did have one particularly close call with a grade where she had to fight for her A.

“It was very close between an A- and an A, and I [thought] I might as well go through with it,” she said. “The professor was like ‘why?’ But you’ve gone that far, you might as well just keep doing it.”

While Kim received her degree nearly a year ago, and Chen and Dubrova are approaching the end of their time as undergraduates, new overachievers are already on the rise.

Last fall, according to Dartmouth News, 43 students earned the annual Phi Beta Kappa Sophomore Prize, which “recognizes students with the highest grade point average after the completion of five terms.” One of those recipients, Wyatt Ellison ’25, said that while he acknowledged the prize was a great honor, his “experience at [Dartmouth] would have been so much better” if he had received “an A- freshman fall.”

“When [the Phi Beta Kappa Sophomore Prize] list was published in the fall, people were congratulating me … but now I feel pressure to keep my grades because there’s this public record that I perform well,” he said. 

Ellison remarked that he often plays “mind games” with himself about his grades. 

“If I do it a few more terms, then the [Phi Beta Kappa induction], and then a few more terms after that, I get to go and give this graduation speech,” Ellison said. “I keep thinking, ‘oh, just one more term trying to get these grades,’ and then there’s one more, then there’s one more.”

When selecting his classes for a given term, Ellison said he faced the strict limitations of Dartmouth’s engineering program, which allows students to earn both a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Engineering. Ellison is simultaneously pursuing a B.A. in engineering, math and computer science, as well as a B.A. 

“I don’t think I can take a class here that doesn’t count towards a B.A. graduation requirement for my major, distributions or languages,” Ellison said. 

When he is fulfilling distribution requirements outside of his major, Ellison said he looks for courses that align with his interests — that are also potentially easy.

“I can put in more time if I want to, but if I’m really swamped with my major work, then I need a layup,” he said.

Finding oneself in the pool of potential valedictorians at Dartmouth is both a blessing and a curse; the pressure and power go hand in hand. Still, the common denominator among these students remains their genuine love of learning across disciplines. One could even go so far as to call them “jack of all trades, master of all.”