Albert Einstein’s Grades: A Fascinating Look at His Report Cards

Albert Ein­stein was a pre­co­cious child.

At the age of twelve, he fol­lowed his own line of rea­son­ing to find a proof of the Pythagore­an The­o­rem. At thir­teen he read Kant, just for the fun of it. And before he was fif­teen he had taught him­self dif­fer­en­tial and inte­gral cal­cu­lus.

But while the young Ein­stein was engrossed in intel­lec­tu­al pur­suits, he did­n’t much care for school. He hat­ed rote learn­ing and despised author­i­tar­i­an school­mas­ters. His sense of intel­lec­tu­al supe­ri­or­i­ty was resent­ed by his teach­ers.

In Sub­tle is the Lord: The Sci­ence and Life of Albert Ein­stein, author Abra­ham Pais tells a fun­ny sto­ry from Ein­stein’s days at the Luit­pold Gym­na­si­um, a sec­ondary school in Munich now called the Albert-Ein­stein-Gym­na­si­um:

At the Gym­na­si­um a teacher once said to him that he, the teacher, would be much hap­pi­er if the boy were not in his class. Ein­stein replied that he had done noth­ing wrong. The teacher answered, “Yes, that is true. But you sit there in the back row and smile, and that vio­lates the feel­ing of respect that a teacher needs from his class.”

The same teacher famous­ly said that Ein­stein “would nev­er get any­where in life.”

What both­ered Ein­stein most about the Luit­pold was its oppres­sive atmos­phere. His sis­ter Maja would lat­er write:

“The mil­i­tary tone of the school, the sys­tem­at­ic train­ing in the wor­ship of author­i­ty that was sup­posed to accus­tom pupils at an ear­ly age to mil­i­tary dis­ci­pline, was also par­tic­u­lar­ly unpleas­ant for the boy. He con­tem­plat­ed with dread that not-too-dis­tant moment when he will have to don a sol­dier’s uni­form in order to ful­fill his mil­i­tary oblig­a­tions.”

When he was six­teen, Ein­stein’s par­ents moved to Italy to pur­sue a busi­ness ven­ture. They told him to stay behind and fin­ish school. But Ein­stein was des­per­ate to join them in Italy before his sev­en­teenth birth­day. “Accord­ing to the Ger­man cit­i­zen­ship laws,” Maja explained, “a male cit­i­zen must not emi­grate after his com­plet­ed six­teenth year; oth­er­wise, if he fails to report for mil­i­tary ser­vice, he is declared a desert­er.”

So Ein­stein found a way to get a doc­tor’s per­mis­sion to with­draw from the school on the pre­text of “men­tal exhaus­tion,” and fled to Italy with­out a diplo­ma. Years lat­er, in 1944, dur­ing the final days of World War II, the Luit­pold Gym­na­si­um was oblit­er­at­ed by Allied bomb­ing. So we don’t have a record of Ein­stein’s grades there. But there is record of a prin­ci­pal at the school look­ing up Ein­stein’s grades in 1929 to fact check a press report that Ein­stein had been a very bad stu­dent. Wal­ter Sul­li­van writes about it in a 1984 piece in The New York Times:

With 1 as the high­est grade and 6 the low­est, the prin­ci­pal report­ed, Ein­stein’s marks in Greek, Latin and math­e­mat­ics oscil­lat­ed between 1 and 2 until, toward the end, he invari­ably scored 1 in math.

After he dropped out, Ein­stein’s fam­i­ly enlist­ed a well-con­nect­ed friend to per­suade the Swiss Fed­er­al Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, or ETH, to let him take the entrance exam, even though he was only six­teen years old and had not grad­u­at­ed from high school. He scored bril­liant­ly in physics and math, but poor­ly in oth­er areas. The direc­tor of the ETH sug­gest­ed he fin­ish prepara­to­ry school in the town of Aarau, in the Swiss can­ton of Aar­gau. A diplo­ma from the can­ton­al school would guar­an­tee Ein­stein admis­sion to the ETH.

At Aarau, Ein­stein was pleas­ant­ly sur­prised to find a lib­er­al atmos­phere in which inde­pen­dent thought was encour­aged.  “When com­pared to six years’ school­ing at a Ger­man author­i­tar­i­an gym­na­si­um,” he lat­er said, “it made me clear­ly real­ize how much supe­ri­or an edu­ca­tion based on free action and per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty is to one rely­ing on out­ward author­i­ty.”

In Ein­stein’s first semes­ter at Aarau, the school still used the old method of scor­ing from 1 to 6, with 1 as the high­est grade. In the sec­ond semes­ter the sys­tem was reversed, with 6 becom­ing the high­est grade. Bar­ry R. Park­er talks about Ein­stein’s first-semes­ter grades in his book, Ein­stein: The Pas­sions of a Sci­en­tist:

His grades over the first few months were: Ger­man, 2–3; French, 3–4; his­to­ry, 1–2; math­e­mat­ics, 1; physics, 1–2; nat­ur­al his­to­ry, 2–3; chem­istry, 2–3; draw­ing, 2–3; and vio­lin, 1. (The range is 1 to 6, with 1 being the high­est.) Although none of the grades, with the excep­tion of French, were con­sid­ered poor, some of them were only aver­age.

The school head­mas­ter, Jost Win­tel­er, who had wel­comed Ein­stein into his home as a board­er and had become some­thing of a sur­ro­gate father to him dur­ing his time at Aarau, was con­cerned that a young man as obvi­ous­ly bril­liant as Albert was receiv­ing aver­age grades in so many cours­es. At Christ­mas in 1895, he mailed a report card to Ein­stein’s par­ents. Her­mann Ein­stein replied with warm thanks, but said he was not too wor­ried. As Park­er writes, Ein­stein’s father said he was used to see­ing a few “not-so-good grades along with very good ones.”

In the next semes­ter Ein­stein’s grades improved, but were still mixed. As Toby Hendy of the Youtube chan­nel Tibees shows in the video above, Ein­stein’s final grades were excel­lent in math and physics, but clos­er to aver­age in oth­er areas.

Ein­stein’s uneven aca­d­e­m­ic per­for­mance con­tin­ued at the ETH, as Hendy shows. By the third year his rela­tion­ship with the head of the physics depart­ment, Hein­rich Weber, began to dete­ri­o­rate. Weber was offend­ed by the young man’s arro­gance. “You’re a clever boy, Ein­stein,” said Weber. “An extreme­ly clever boy. But you have one great fault. You’ll nev­er allow your­self to be told any­thing.” Ein­stein was par­tic­u­lar­ly frus­trat­ed that Weber refused to teach the ground­break­ing elec­tro­mag­net­ic the­o­ry of James Clerk Maxwell. He began spend­ing less time in the class­room and more time read­ing up on cur­rent physics at home and in the cafes of Zurich.

Ein­stein increas­ing­ly focused his atten­tion on physics, and neglect­ed math­e­mat­ics. He came to regret this. “It was not clear to me as a stu­dent,” he lat­er said, “that a more pro­found knowl­edge of the basic prin­ci­ples of physics was tied up with the most intri­cate math­e­mat­i­cal meth­ods.”

Ein­stein’s class­mate Mar­cel Gross­mann helped him by shar­ing his notes from the math lec­tures Ein­stein had skipped. When Ein­stein grad­u­at­ed, his con­flict with Weber cost him the teach­ing job he had expect­ed to receive. Gross­mann even­tu­al­ly came to Ein­stein’s res­cue again, urg­ing his father to help him secure a well-paid job as a clerk in the Swiss patent office. Many years lat­er, when Gross­mann died, Ein­stein wrote a let­ter to his wid­ow that con­veyed not only his sad­ness at an old friend’s death, but also his bit­ter­sweet mem­o­ries of life as a col­lege stu­dent:

“Our days togeth­er come back to me. He a mod­el stu­dent; I untidy and a day­dream­er. He on excel­lent terms with the teach­ers and grasp­ing every­thing eas­i­ly; I aloof and dis­con­tent­ed, not very pop­u­lar. But we were good friends and our con­ver­sa­tions over iced cof­fee at the Metropol every few weeks belong among my nicest mem­o­ries.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Albert Ein­stein Read  ‘The Com­mon Lan­guage of Sci­ence’ (1941)

Dig­i­tal Ein­stein: Prince­ton Web Site Puts Thou­sands of Ein­stein’s Papers Online

Albert Ein­stein on Indi­vid­ual Lib­er­ty, With­out Which There Would Be ‘No Shake­speare, No Goethe, No New­ton’

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Comments (4)
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  • Fompeyrine says:

    Dear writer,
    You should know that the grades sheet you show is from aar­gau, which is a region in switzer­land and not ger­many. you’ll find that in switzer­land grades are giv­en from 1 to 6 .6 being the best pos­si­ble grade, mak­ing ein­stein to a fair­ly rea­son­able stude nt. Don’t take my word for it, do your own research.
    Best regards

  • Mike Springer says:

    Dear Fom­peyrine,
    I sus­pect you did not read the arti­cle close­ly.

  • Tino Lamprecht says:

    The final school report con­tains 13 dif­fer­ent cas­es, from top 6 to bad 1. The total of points is 65. If you divide this with the num­ber of cas­es, as all swiss schol­ars do, you get an arith­metic mean of 5.
    This is the next best result. In addi­tion Ein­stein got top scores in the cas­es that were impor­tant for him after­wards.

    There­fore Toby Hendy is wrong in his con­clu­sion. An arith­metic mean of 5 is over aver­age and get you a tick­et to Uni­ver­si­ty with­out dif­fi­cul­ties (the low­est bor­der is 4)

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