The New Universal Grading Policy: Harvard’s Necessary Shift of Focus


The New Universal Grading Policy: Harvard’s Necessary Shift of Focus

An opinion on the new grading policy implemented at Harvard College




I have become a huge proponent of a universally-mandated, Emergency Satisfactory/Emergency Unsatisfactory (SEM/UEM) grading policy. When I initially arrived home, however, I was not.

Like many students, I worried about my own GPA (as I had hoped to use this semester to bolster my overall average), friends who fear not having the grades to be competitive applicants for graduate schools and scholarships,  and seniors who need this last chance for a GPA boost. Days later, as I began to settle into home, I realized just how difficult it was, maybe even impossible, to focus on my grades and believe in their importance. And, I will make a grand, generalizing statement here and say that the majority of students, maybe even everyone, are or will be in the same position as me.

Let me explain myself.

Returning home from living at college is a jarring experience, especially for those who have never experienced the great shift. (Yes, everyone at this point has experienced the six-week long stretch during winter break but this is six months.) When we leave the routine of school, we always lose a relative degree of independence, a sense of freedom, the ability to see your friends at almost any point in the day, and for many, the feeling that you could finally reach your greatest potential. Life seems to slow down for too long, forcing people to grapple with these temporary losses, which are overwhelming, anxiety-provoking, and confusing. To counteract these reactions, students try to fill their summers or long breaks with researching, jobs, internships, community service, athletics, and travel. While we do these to both build our resumes and fulfill our passions, we would be lying if we said we don’t like to keep busy, to regain the normalcy of a fast-paced life. Moreover, our return home disrupts the routines of our families, for they must also adjust to another person in their space. Some students may not even have their own room anymore. 

Consider a few more factors. What if a student lives in a household where they experienced emotional and mental distress or some form of abuse during their life? When they return, their home is not guaranteed to be either safe or healthy for them. What if a student comes from a low-income background? The return home is usually just as much of a culture shock as is arriving at school. What if a student does not have a home to return to and staying on campus is their only option? A lonely campus becomes a frustrating reminder of what one lacks.

Add an out-of-control pandemic.

Now, anyone, regardless of their life circumstances, must adjust not only to an unfamiliar home but also to an unfamiliar world. Now, what we normally do to adjust to life at home does little to help or nothing at all. Now, we can’t escape any of those thoughts or feelings we try to push away when we are not at school. The people we live with, our parents or guardians, siblings, friends, must also adjust to this new life. The anxiety and fear behind losing jobs and homes and family, contracting the virus, and not knowing what will happen next is crippling for them and us. Being boxed into our homes, while the necessary thing to do, only exacerbates the tension among everyone. 

With all of this going on, each factor compounded, I find it shocking that some believe we do not need a change in our grading policy. We cannot truly perform as well when we must juggle so much, and this is really only the beginning. Some people might say, “Well, this is the time that tests our perseverance and grit,” but our efforts to be resilient are not needed in getting impeccable grades. They are needed in our actions these upcoming months. It is in our hands to decide a better trajectory, so while those who are attending work to keep our country afloat, we must practice social distancing, stop hoarding, stay home, and listen to public health experts. If we do not, we risk the health of essential workers and those vulnerable to COVID-19. We risk our country. 

I also believe fostering a stronger sense of human connection is vital. So, what types of things can we do? We learn a new kind of lifestyle to keep mentally and physically safe. We consistently check in on the people we know and love (also even those we just like or may be struggling). We help our communities in any way possible. We educate ourselves on the consequences of this pandemic to ensure greater preparedness in the future. We use our voice to advocate for ourselves and those disproportionately affected by the pandemic. But to do all of this is extraordinarily difficult. Finding and holding onto hope is never easy and takes time. It is constantly tested, for crises tend to escalate to their highest peaks before being overcome. It is a mind-consuming process that is completely necessary right now. 

While trying to process all of this, my thoughts have continually gone back to the importance of people. I have barely even mentioned grades because, in the grand scheme of all this, they just do not matter. If I have learned anything in these past weeks, it is that to move forward, we have to let go of the relatively menial and gain a sense of periphery. The first few things on that agenda are recognizing what an immense privilege it is to have our greatest worry be our GPA, understanding that faculty and staff have lives and loved ones who also need their attention, and processing the numbers of cases and deaths we hear on the news as real people not just abstract statistics. 

I know that all these worries stem from the fact that our individual futures are uncertain, but so are the futures of our country and world. We must move collectively; it is not about what only benefits you or me. It is about finding the solution that makes it easier for us—you, me, faculty, staff, coaches, family, and friends—to focus our attention on fighting a pandemic, keeping the most vulnerable populations safe, ensuring a future that has us return to campus in the fall, and productively moving forward.  

So, I support the newly implemented universally-mandated, Emergency Satisfactory/Emergency Unsatisfactory (SEM/UEM) grading policy because it will push us to shift our focus on what actually matters—people


Arsh Dhillon ’23 ( hopes that when this is over, people are tired of making TikToks.