Most students (and most parents) don’t realize that in college, a C is a great grade. When the student who pulled a 4.0 in high school ends up with a 2.5 GPA in their first semester in college, their shock is real. This can baffle parents, and give their students an identity crisis!
The fact is, most students’ GPAs drop during their first semester at college. This is actually normal – the new environment and the new rules mean there’s a lot more learning to do beyond the course content. Stress, lack of sleep, and other issues of adjusting to a new environment can shred a student’s ability to study and learn. But there’s another problem, and it requires a shift in perspective to really fix it. That problem is this: When you come from a school background where As were not a reward for exceptional work, but the basic grade given to any work that wasn’t an abject failure, it means that you do not know what an A actually stands for in college.
Too many new college students think that they should get an A if they follow all the directions and do everything the teacher said to do, whether they did it well or not. And why not? That’s how it worked in high school, right? Unfortunately, in college you are judged not by how much time you put in, or how much work you feel you did, or how much stress you felt. You are judged mainly, and often only, by your work. Simply writing eight pages does not a term paper make!
Grades Mean Something Different in College
Most often, here is what the grades correspond to at a college level:
F = No work done, or work done to such a low standard that it wastes the professor’s time to grade it. When students turn in F-level work (if they turn it in at all), it is obvious that they did not prepare, did not study, or simply did not care enough to do the work at the level expected in college.
D = Some work done, but not well enough to meet the standard set by the professor for basic completion of the work assigned. When students turn in D-level work, they have skimmed, skimped, or skipped over the important points and simply filled in a space or checked off a box. There is very little, if any, thought apparent in work at this level.
C = Average. This is the basic level that all professors expect of college students. When students turn in C-level work, they have answered all questions at the minimum level expected for competency in the course, but they have not pressed beyond that point. If all you’re doing is completing homework to the bare minimum standard or writing papers by their page count, this is the grade you can probably expect.
B = Above average. This is the level of a student who goes the extra mile. Instead of just answering a question, this student makes a point of investigating the question and responding at a level above the baseline. This student’s work shows a better level of comprehension of the material than is expected. This level of work may show a few errors, but the quality of the work exceeds the expectations of the course.
A = Superior. This is a level not easily achieved. This student goes beyond the extra mile and does their best to produce professional-quality work. This level of work has been combed over and checked to reduce and eliminate errors, it shows a high level of understanding and comprehension of the material, and the quality of the work is observably better than B-level work.
How to Break the Equation of “Only an A = Successful”
The problem is that too many students have been conditioned to believe that anything except an A means failure. So how do you break that idea and move on with the occasional C or B? Here’s a couple of tips about that problem.
Focus on the trend, not on the grade. If you were getting all Cs in your first semester, and you’ve increased your grades to C+s on average in your second semester, that’s a great improvement. But don’t expect to get an A, or even a B, just because you checked off all the boxes for assignments on your professor’s syllabus. That’s not how it works in college.
Focus on the game, not the scoreboard. If you were a basketball coach and you told your players, “When you’re practicing your jump shot, you have to always keep an eye on the scoreboard,” how well would they learn that jump shot? Probably not very well, since you have to keep an eye on the basket in order to do a decent jump shot. Grades are no different – they’re just a scoreboard. The more you look at the grade, the less you’re looking at the work you’re doing and trying to improve it.
How to Get an A in College
If you still really, really want to get an A, then you have to shift your mind into doing the things that will create superior work:
Be a one-percenter. Try to improve your work by one percent per day. If you’re working on math, this might mean learning how to do one specific kind of problem correctly every time. When you’ve got that, move on to the next problem type. If you’re working on a writing assignment, identify one of your known problems – one that you always get marked down for. Maybe you have the habit of using sound-alike words incorrectly (their for there, or accept for except, or affect for effect). Make a list of the five or ten words you habitually use incorrectly, search every document for them, and make sure they’re used correctly. That’s a 1% improvement. Every day, make one small, incremental change to get 1% better at whatever it is you’re doing.
Be your own sharpest critic – but make the criticism constructive. Be willing to criticize everything you do, and make small improvements from day to day. If you keep doing this over many weeks, you’ll get to the level you need to reach and maintain an A.
What Happens if You DON’T have a 4.0 GPA?
Here’s a secret for you. Do you know what they call someone who graduates from college with a 2.65 GPA?
They call them a college graduate.
Fortunately, you don’t need a 4.0 GPA when you graduate college to get your degree. Most employers will only care that you have the degree – they don’t need to know your grades or your GPA. If you’re planning on some kind of graduate work (graduate school, law school, or medical school) then yeah, you should work hard to keep your grades up. But if your goal is “bachelors’ and done,” your GPA isn’t going to hurt you that much, as long as you keep it high enough to graduate.