Breaking The Glass Ceiling: A Back To School Manifesto

How many times have heard a college student begin a new semester or quarter with grand declarations that “this” is the semester where they’re going to get everything together?

My guess? About as many times as you hear the collective sigh of defeat during finals week, grandiose thoughts of accomplishment far removed.

It’s something not many of us like to admit, but the reality is that this occurs much too often across college campuses. However, all hope is not lost. Realizing why this phenomenon occurs is the first step to bridging the gap between resolution and results, and to do so let’s take a quick trip back to 2nd grade, courtesy of Mr. Seth Godin.

“In 2nd grade you learned that when you hand in that homework assignment, it might come back with red marks all over it and it’s not going to lead to much upside, but it could lead to a lot of downside… so there are some people, if you give them a mile, they are going to take an inch… It’s why every-time we look at a 6 year old… we’re seeing is someone whose been trained to push for smaller assignments, to turn things in at the very last minute, to whenever possible, go for the inch instead of the mile.”- Seth Godin

Mr. Godin’s argument is that years of schooling have ingrained in students the attitude of less, and when you think more about it, the point becomes more valid. The A-F grading system instills a value system that places a cap on how “good” something can be. This attitude of “good enough” carries further into high school. Instead of empowering students to dream and achieve greater things then they thought possible, this style of teaching enforces the notion of just getting by.


While Godin refers to this phenomenom as reducing the size of the frying pan (so that you limit the size of the fish you can catch), I see it as more of an unseen glass ceiling. One that is just waiting to be shattered by readers like you.

The Unseen Glass Ceiling

Tracing back to the mystery link between the grandiose resolutions and sigh of defeat, the glass ceiling can be pinned as the primary culprit for the disconnect. Students begin every term looking up through the ceiling and imagining all the wonderful things they can accomplish, but when the time comes for execution, to actually go beyond the ceiling, too many of us fall short. We as students are so used to having a “cap” placed on what we can accomplish that when we encounter one on our own, we fail to even see it.

And what happens when actually try to reach our goals? The inevitable bump against the ceiling arises and we are faced with two options, either (unknowingly) concede to the ceiling or break through that sucker and actually get what we set our sights on. As such, aiming for “just good enough” is not only acceptable, it is encouraged.

It’s a harrowing thought, realizing that schools can condition students for limited success, but the thought is one that needs to be recognized before the glass ceiling can be broken through.

Most people don’t even know that the glass ceiling exists, but that’s why most people fall into that fat section on a bell curve known as average. If you want to be exceptional, you’ve got to not just break, but shatter, the glass ceiling and go beyond what most people are conditioned to aim for.

Breaking Through By Rethinking How You Approach Classes

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”- Albert Einstein

If you really want different results, you have to put in a different effort.

Back in March of 2010 I was stuck in a bit of a conundrum. Another quarter had gone by and despite the bold goals I had set out for myself, the term turned out to be yet another lackluster performance. Deep procrastination and all-nighters were, unsurprisingly, not paying off with the kind of grades and results that I wanted. The turning point came when I decided to implement Cal Newport’s blog StudyHacks. Using the strategies from his blog and books, I completely revamped how I approached classes. That quarter, I went on to receive my highest GPA yet while in college.

A lack of motivation is far from the primary obstacle to obtaining spectacular results. Getting these extraordinary results in school requires revamping the entire mindset of how you approach classes. It doesn’t have to be through StudyHacks (although I definitely recommend it), but it does require rethinking how you fundamentally approach school.

Do you usually doze off in the back of the class? Force yourself to sit in the front row, every time.

Never been to office hours before? Go to office hours in the first two weeks, primarily for the purpose of introducing yourself and talk about the professor’s research or work.

Having trouble studying at home or in the library? Go adventure scouting for 3 or 4 study “spots” around campus or the city you live in. Hole in the wall coffee shops, secluded hiking spots, or even empty building rooms.

The time has come to move beyond wishing and hoping, put a plan into action and shatter through that glass ceiling you keep bumping into.

What are you going to “do” differently this semester or quarter?  

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11 Comments on "Breaking The Glass Ceiling: A Back To School Manifesto"

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Benjamin Kasavan

About the A-F grading system: I must say that the grading system is the one place were the french system is better.
In france (And much of europe) grades are on a 0-20 basis – and stuff is graded harder (ie, the college board, or some other official organization has proclaimed that a 14/20 in the french system is an A+ in the american)
That means that you can almost always get a higher grade.
A story I have heard from a teacher in France is the following:

After a student did a really good assigment, and gt an 18/20 – while the rest of the class generally had around 12s or 13s, She went up to the teacher and asked why she didnt get a better grade. The answer?
“18 is for you, 19 is for me, and 20 is for God”

So, basically, the french system gives the everlasting possibility of getting a higher grade (And getting a 20 is extremely hard and, on the national exams, extremely rare)

Just my 2 cents.

Thomas Frank

That grading system works really well for homework graded on a subjective basis, and actually I’d be interested to see something like that implemented here. A system where you can get “full marks”, but still know you have room for improvement is actually a really good idea; it might cut down on all the overconfident highschoolers who get A’s on everything and think they don’t have to try hard at anything (I was one of these).

I wonder: how does that system work for things like math? Do they switch to a 20/20 system for objective, right-or-wrong subjects?


@[email protected] Thanks for the kind words, Rajneesh. I write about my application process and other premed things on PracticalPremed and keep productivity and other general college topics to CIG. Good luck with your premed journey, definitely feel free to contact me through my site if you have questions.


@[email protected] That’s awesome. I want to be a premed too.

Thomas Frank

@rajneeshm.nair Indeed – @RyanNguyen is also the mastermind behind PracticalPremed!


This is an excellent article. Does the author have his own blog?


This is an excellent article. Does the author have his own blog?


@meghanc303 Haha, thanks! I tried to get the broader appeal to all kinds of students.


@mplis Thanks Michael, hopefully this realization helps you make it through the semester to go beyond your goals.

Michael Plis

Awesome article. I realize now that I make those “grandiose resolutions” every single semester, but don’t live my life at school any differently than I did before. Hopefully this semester is different. I’ve been using things like Evernote and Remember the Milk to keep me organized and tools like Buffer,, and Hootsuite to cut down the time I spend online.


Ryan, this is such a fantastic article! I love that it can apply to anyone, not just incoming first year students, and your personal story in connection to this made it even more applicable. (And a great link to a blog in the bargain!)

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