07/28/2014 12:16 pm ET Updated Sep 27, 2014

7 Important Confessions of a Salutatorian

This post was written by Paige Sheffield, an incoming freshman at Central Michigan University. It was originally published on The Prospect, a student-run college admissions and high school/college lifestyles website. You can follow The Prospect on Facebook and Twitter.

Looking over my high school experience that culminated in being named salutatorian, there's a couple of things I've come to realize that could've totally changed my entire four years.

Confession #1: I thought I had to be the best.

And for some reason, I thought that getting good grades was the way to do this. After getting all A's during the first trimester of my freshman year of high school, I decided that I absolutely had to graduate at the top of my class with a 4.0 (note: my school did not have weighted GPAs.)

I obsessed over my grades to the point that I thought having a 96 percent in a class meant that I had a "low A," at risk of dropping to an A- and making me lose my coveted 4.0. Every time I took a test, I would leave telling people that I "definitely failed it," only to later sheepishly say I got an A when people asked me about it. Seriously, every time, I would say "I totally failed" then the people around me would tell me that I always said that and I would be all I mean it this time, really. Apparently, to my freshman self, being "the best" also meant being pretty annoying.

Confession #2: I didn't know why I cared so much.

I spent so much time studying and worrying about my grades, but I didn't truly know why. I could come up with numerous reasons why it meant something to me, such as "to get in to college" or "for scholarships," but I didn't really believe any of those reasons. Nowhere on this planet (hopefully, at least) does it say "to get in to college, you must be absolutely perfect." I thought I had to be. I thought a perfect transcript was the golden ticket to the world that I wanted, even though I had no idea what that world looked like. I thought the number four meant that I was smart. But really, it didn't. I didn't have any good reason to think that, and yet I believed it because I wanted to be smart. I wanted to have something that set me apart. The idea of being up on a pedestal gave me confidence (something that I clearly lacked).

Confession #3: I spent most of my time stressing.

I would spend ridiculous amounts of time on every assignment, because if it wasn't perfect, it wasn't good enough. I studied all the time and didn't do much else during my freshman or sophomore year. I would let bad grades tear me to pieces. I would feel stupid every time I didn't get the grades I wanted, only setting myself up to be disappointed. I was only ever able to achieve what I wanted or let myself down. Because I had such high expectations for myself, I was very rarely proud of myself. I was constantly trying to do better, which is great, except I didn't give myself enough credit for all that I was capable of. I compared myself to other people. But really, I was my own biggest competitor and I never won. I would constantly be on edge whenever I had to take a test or complete a big assignment. I didn't know how to simply "relax."

Confession #4: I realized that my obsession with grades didn't make me happy

Obviously, doing well still makes me happy. But obsessing over my grades to the extent that I did before did not make me happy. As I entered my junior year, I realized that while I was out collecting "perfect" grades, my collection of memories was lacking. That year, while I still cared about my grades, I finally allowed myself to have fun. I started to pursue my passions outside of school, beyond the clubs and the grades that I thought would look good on college applications. I focused on learning rather than getting good grades, which ended up being so much more valuable.

Confession #5: I learned so much more when I didn't obsess over my grades.

When I obsessed over my grades, I acquired more stress than I acquired knowledge. I didn't explore topics as much because I was so concerned with what would be on the test. The classes I took were about more than the letter grades that resulted. I still got good grades, but I was actually proud of them. On history tests, instead of desperately memorizing the information like I would've before, I thought about what was going on during the given time period and picked the answer that made the most sense when I came across questions I didn't know the answers to. I always had the ability to simply think, but I utilized it more when my grades weren't such a pressing concern. I stopped relying on my memory, and started trusting myself and my intelligence instead. It was much more useful, and in result, much more empowering.

Confession #6: I lost my "perfect GPA" at the end of my senior year and the world didn't end.

Nothing changed.

Confession #7: Your GPA is not a calculation of your potential.

The class ranking system doesn't measure full potential. A valedictorian may be inspiring and passionate and brilliant, but her class rank would never express that. Someone at the bottom of the class may be inspiring and passionate and brilliant, but her class rank would never express that.

When we stick single letters on our intelligence, we forget about all that we've composed with the rest of the alphabet. All of the sentences we've constructed. All of the equations we've solved. All of the people we've met. All of the discoveries we've made. All of the experiences that built us into who we are: people who could never be described with a single letter or number or title.

I used to feel smart whenever I got a test back with the letter A scrawled across it.
But not as smart as I felt when I analyzed a poem in front of my English class, raw and honest, after so many years of holding back from saying all the words that I meant. After so many years of being afraid to speak without a script.

Not as smart as I felt when I created an art project that I was proud of, pouring my heart into my artist statement after spending years thinking that I was a terrible artist.

Not as smart as I felt when my school's newspaper came out each month with my feature column on the third page, my vulnerability displayed for the whole school to access.

Not as smart as I felt when I truly understood and was able to apply something that I learned in physics or calculus.

I felt smarter then, when I was finding out how to be the best version of myself and learning how to be my own pedestal.

And my transcript could never tell you that.