Was Einstein Actually a Bad Student?

Sean Kernan

Editorial Rights purchased from Silvio via Adobe Stock Photos

The year 1905 was Einstein’s “Year of Miracles”. The 26-year-old physicist published three papers that completely changed science and our perception of reality. The first proved the existence of atoms. The second was the Particle Theory of Light, which won him a Nobel Prize. The third introduced E=mc².

Long before these papers and his name becoming synonymous with brilliance, he is rumored to have been a bad student: lazy, disorganized, disobedient, forgetful. But the answer to whether Einstein was a good or bad student isn’t straightforward.

The origins of a genius

Albert was not your traditional power student as we see them today, obsessed with perfect marks, taking test prep courses every summer. This is partly because such things didn’t exist, but mostly because he wasn’t that type.

He was late to talk as a toddler. In his own words to a biographer, “My parents worried because I started to talk comparatively late and they consulted a doctor about it.” He eventually began talking and caught up, quite quickly.

He did well in his elementary years, routinely getting perfect marks, though standards were relatively low at that age.

Einstein could be described as a casual genius in his teenage years. He cared about his performance and, like many teenagers of his time, felt the tuggings of academic pressure from his family. That pressure seemed informed by letters between his mother and sister, who suspected young Albert had immense natural talent.

The temptation of disinterest

Einstein could be accurately described as a bored student, not because he hated school, but because he already understood most of the material. In modern times, he’d have likely skipped a grade or two for this very reason. He was often reprimanded for daydreaming being disengaged. He was also studying advanced textbooks in his free time.

He occasionally veered into the territory of a begrudging student. He hated the rigors of rote, memorization-based, learning. He also grew impatient with his professors and the slow pace of classes. By age 11, he was reading college-level math books. By age 13, he was more proficient than most college math majors.

In what equated to High School, Einstein finished second overall. They had a very strict six-point scoring system. He scored a five or six in all of his courses, which was a great score. He had one notable black eye: a three in his French class, a subject he made no secret of his hatred for.

One of the most common stories is that Einstein flunked an exam to attend the University of Bern. The story is true but he didn’t flunk in the letter grade sense. He simply missed the standards for acceptance. His shortcoming also had a valid excuse: he was only 16 and took the test in a language he wasn’t fluent in.

Later, he took one of his most important tests: the Zurich Entrance Exam. He did well with the exception of, again, French. He had the highest score in Math. In Physics, he also scored the highest and finished long before his peers, leaving in half the allotted time.

College years and growth

He went on to attend Zurich Polytechnic. Today it’s called ETH Zurich and is one of the top universities in the world. While there, he did well, though his performance was spotty at times.

He averaged five out of six in his physics courses and four out of six in his math courses. It’s worth mentioning, these were far crueler grading scales in the late 19th century. Teachers were merciless. There were no grading curves and crying about your score would do nothing.

All that aside, this was still Einstein. He was fully capable of maxing everything out. There was a reason why he didn’t.

Einstein was coming into his own as a thinker around this time. He had preferred interests of study. Like academics, even today, he was surrounded by top peers and socialized with the very brightest minds. But he wasn’t giving his due diligence to all his subjects.

Einstein had all the brainpower, and then some, to top students in his courses. But only when he chose to. And perhaps that is the appeal of Einstein. We tend to think of top students as ambitious, type-A rule followers, who hyperventilate before tests and measure all their worth by their grades. That wasn’t Einstein. He cared more about learning and the allure of big ideas. He was a dreamer and creative type, a great improvisational violinist. And he didn’t take kindly to militant academic systems and illogical rules.

Makers matters worse, if Einstein disliked a professor, or knew a better way of doing things, he wasn’t afraid to speak up in his own kind, rebellious manner. This impulse didn’t sit well with the authoritarian style of teaching. It also did Einstein no favors in the grade books. But alas, brilliant students clashing with teachers is as old as education itself.

Perhaps Einstein’s darkest academic hour was with a professor, Jean Pernet. Einstein routinely skipped his class and didn’t follow lab instructions as given. And even though Pernet’s assistant stuck up for Einstein, saying his alternative methods were fantastic and should be used, it didn’t matter. Pernet had the distinction of being the only professor to flunk Einstein, giving him the lowest possible grade of one out of six, and not just in any course, but in Physics.

Fortunately, the universe didn’t explode.

It’s not quite fair to say Einstein was a bad student. He had a number of great accomplishments before he ever did academic research.

However, if you were Einstein’s parents, who knew of his brilliance from a very early age, you would probably say he was a bit of an underachiever at times. His attendance record and lack of passion for certain subjects cost him a number of points along the way.

But, the source of his underachieving — his daydreaming, creativity, unconventional thinking, and hatred for authority, were the same things that allowed him to rewrite the rules of science.

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