Tips for Getting a High GPA
Alright, so, you’ve started college. You are dealing with all sorts of new experiences and meeting new people. It’s the time of your life. And, beyond that, you are surrounded by some of the most impressive (perhaps intimidatingly so) bright young scholars and faculty. You may have ambitions of a post-graduate career. You’ve always dreamed of becoming a doctor, a lawyer, a businessman, or the likes, and you know that you have to perform now to get where you want to go. Maybe you aren’t exactly sure of the direction you’re going to take- but just want to make sure you’re set up for success for when the time comes that you’re ready to take a specific path. The first step you can do is to work towards getting a high GPA. While you can still find success with a low GPA, a high GPA will help you secure relevant and lucrative internships during college and jobs after college.
You are not going to love every course you take, and you are not going to get every instructor you want. A course pick will not always be your favorite, but required. There will be loads of distractions to deter you from your objective, especially when the short-term demands seem tedious and your friends are beckoning and your motivation weans for your objective in the first place. The first tip to succeed in class is to be driven—to something, to anything. Be driven, and keep that drive. You have to be hungry to succeed.
Your first two years will be predominately general education and some requirements and pre-requisites for your upper-division coursework specific to your major. These are probably the toughest courses you will take. Firstly, most faculty do not want to teach 300 freshman introductory anything, because they know that many of the kids are not going to be inherently driven to learn the material but still want good grades. It means they have to deal with a lot of baggage that faculty who teach upper-division or graduate students who have already devoted themselves to that subject do not have to expend time and energy on. Some departments even incentivize faculty with less teaching requirements if they opt for teaching the large lecture hall lower-division courses.
Second, the knowledge that most students are not going to pursue this field makes it easy for instructors to skimp out on passionately teaching the subject. The unfortunate reality is that, in large lecture halls, the kids who are most outspoken with complaints and questions of what will appear on the exam and how they will be graded are the most evident to the faculty instructor. The faculty instructor can easily cater to these kids, quieting them and making less work on the teaching end, by hardly teaching and making exams easy, or, alternatively, not listen to any of the students, teach whatever they want, and not give second thought to their average exam scores (40%—for multiple choice exams). They will often curve finals in these cases, but it is a bit strenuous regardless, and it becomes obnoxious when the scores are so low that essentially answering one additional question correctly (or by chance) more than your peer is what determines a different course mark.
In defense of lower-division instructors, it is very difficult to sift through the overhead of pre-professional students to identify and cater the class towards those who are passionate about learning. Which leads us to the third, and perhaps most important, reason lower-division coursework comprise some of the toughest classes you will take: the great paradox is that a subset of kids in the large lecture halls will be majoring in that field. Especially in departments where declared majors do not have special lower-division courses (e.g. lower-division physics for physics majors as opposed to physics for all science majors). These kids will largely study the material independent of the instructor, so they will not be dependent on the instructor for lecturing effectively. Many of them could probably ace the final on the first day of class, and they are the ones who will readily occupy the top 10% on each exam. These kids will skew the curve, and the instructor may fallaciously reason that the material is being taught and the course exams are fair because these students are scoring well enough.
Do not look at these students and think that you are behind or that the subject is hard or that you are not going to get a good grade. Start on the FIRST day (if not before). Access the syllabus as early as possible, if not for your current term then for a previous term taught by the same instructor (these rarely change considerably—instructors don’t have time and often only change the year in the word doc before sending them out). Get your textbooks as early as possible. Buy used, sure, but buy it. You are paying thousands for tuition, and your education is an investment on a future career (if you want to weigh it financially). A thousand dollars a year in textbooks is not going to significantly change your financial situation, and reading the text is critical. For biology, I can easily say what determined the ‘A’ was who read the book, versus the ‘B’ average, which was who reviewed only the lecture notes before the exam.
Use the library copy if you don’t have the book by the first week, but start reading early. You should have the reading for a given lecture done before that lecture. It primes you to retain the material, and lecture becomes consolidation rather than an exhausting race to learn everything at the pace the instructor decides to present it. Further, reading provides you the more comprehensive knowledge that will be useful to integrate your coursework and to thrive during upper-division. Your instructor will have slants towards what they think is important (generally what appears in their research). Use the syllabus as a guide for what to read before a given class. Attend office hours and resuscitation sections as need be, or if you find repeated exposure to the material useful, but give yourself the time to read and to think about the material. Once you discipline yourself to do this, you will realize how easy coursework becomes—and it is empowering to be in that situation!
It requires dedication and discipline. It will be easy to flake out on the short term work for one event after another, only to have these little blips accumulate into a great period of stress at the end of the term, or, worse, poor course performance. Do yourself the favor and learn delayed gratification, or, better yet, learn to enjoy your courses. If it’s hard at first, put in more work until you achieve mastery. Read the lecture material before each lecture, and recognize that some of your classmates are quite exclusively devoting themselves to that course because they are majoring in that field—so don’t necessarily compare yourself to them. Study as early before a test as you can. Even if you don’t find the subject or the material inherently appealing, at the very least it is encouraging to receive good grades, and it is absolutely a life skill to be able to immerse yourself in an objective and execute a task regardless of your opinion of said objective or task. It would be great if you enjoy it, but even if you don’t, grind on through—you will be glad you did later.
While succeeding in class is always a good goal, it may not always be a practical reality. Realize that sometimes an unexpected personal issue may arise, or a certain subject may prove too difficult the first time around. Realize that many schools do offer an ability to retake courses; this concept of ‘course forgiveness’ will prove pivotal if the unexpected does occur. Always remember that a single course or semester of difficulty can be turned around in the next semesters with added time and study. And always remember to spend as much time making friends and living your youth as you spend in the library. We’ve said it many times before and we’ll say it again: college is one of the best times of your life- so make sure to make it that way!