Success and Grades


By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Consider what success in college means.
  • Describe situations in which grades matter and why it’s important to do as well as you can.
  • Describe why it is so important to be successful in your first year of college.
  • List steps you can begin taking immediately to ensure your success.
  • Describe the characteristics of successful students.
Group of adults holding trophies

Success and Failure

What does success actually mean in college? Many students might say getting good grades, but years later when people are asked about their college experience, grades are seldom one of the first things mentioned. College graduates reflecting back typically emphasize the following:

  • The complete college experience
  • Exploring many different subjects and discovering one’s own interests
  • Meeting a lot of interesting people and learning about different ways to live
  • Learning how to make decisions and solve problems that are now related to a career
  • Gaining the skills needed to get the job and life one desires

Some people feel successful when they are achieving what they want in life, and others feel success when they are happy and challenged in their careers. Living life to its fullest or contributing to the world are also indicators of success for many people, but it is up to each individual to define what success looks like in his or her life. A successful college experience does include acceptable grades, but in the end, grades are only one component of a larger picture.

How Much Do Grades Matter?

Students holding envelopes with test resultsAs you begin your college experience, it’s good to think about your attitude toward grades since grades often motivate students to study and do well on assignments.

Valuing grades too highly, or not highly enough, can cause problems. A student who is determined to get only the highest grades can easily be frustrated by difficult college classes. Expectations that are too high may lead to disappointment, possibly depression or anxiety, and may become counterproductive. At the other extreme, a student who is too relaxed about grades, who is content simply with passing courses, may not stay motivated to study enough to pass.

What is a good attitude to have toward grades? The answer to that depends in part on how grades matter generally and specifically in your own situation. Here are some ways grades matter:

  • At most colleges, all students must maintain a certain grade point average (GPA) to be allowed to continue taking courses and to graduate.
  • Financial aid and scholarship recipients must maintain a certain grade in all courses, or a minimum GPA overall, to continue receiving their financial award.
  • In some programs, the grade in certain courses must be higher than simply passing in order to count toward the program or major.
  • In some cases, you’ll need to receive a C or higher in a prerequisite course to move on to the next course.

After graduation, it may be enough in some careers to have completed the program or degree, but in most situations, how well one did in college may still affect one’s life. Employers often ask new graduates about their grades, but this becomes less important after one has gained more job experience. Students who are proud of their grades usually include their GPA on their résumés. Students with a low GPA may avoid including it on their resume, but employers may ask on the company’s application form or in an interview. An employer who asks for a college transcript will see all your grades, not just the overall GPA.

In addition to the importance for jobs, grades matter if you plan to transfer or continue to graduate school, professional school, or other educational programs, all of which require your transcript.

Certainly grades are not the only way people are judged, but along with all forms of experience (work, volunteer, internship, hobbies), personal qualities, and the recommendations of others, they are an important consideration.

How to Calculate Your GPA

Because of various requirements for maintaining a GPA at a certain level, you may find it helpful to know how to calculate your GPA before grades come out at the end of the semester. To calculate your overall GPA, you will need to consider both the grade in every course and the number of credit hours for that course. Here is how you would do the calculation in the traditional four-point scale. First, translate each letter grade to a numerical score:

A = 4
B = 3
C = 2
D = 1

Then multiply each grade’s numerical score by the number of units or hours for that course:

B in Math 101 × 5 hours = 3 × 5 = 15
B in English 4 × 3 hours = 3 × 3 = 9
C in Humanities 1 × 5 hours = 2 × 5 = 10
A in College Success × 3 hours = 4 × 3 = 12

Then add together those numbers for each course:

15 + 9 + 10 + 12 = 46

Then divide that total by the total number of credit hours:

46 / 16 = 2.87 = GPA of 2.87

Consult your college’s policies regarding the numeric weighting of + and − grades.

The best attitude to take toward grades in college is simply to do the best you can do. Almost everything in this book, from time management to study skills to social skills and staying healthy, will contribute to your overall success and to getting better grades.

If you have special concerns about grades, such as feeling unprepared in certain classes and at risk of failing, talk with an academic or faculty advisor. If a class requires more preparation than you have from past courses and experience, you may need to seek extra help. In some instances, you might consider dropping or withdrawing from that class, but before you do that, gather as much information as you can to be sure it is the best decision. Talk with the instructor of the course, seek advisement, and find out about financial aid implications.

Can You Challenge a Grade?

Yes and no. College instructors are very careful about how they assign grades, which are based on clear standards often stated in the course information sheet. The likelihood of an instructor changing your grade if you challenge it is low. On the Two men talking about a piece of paperother hand, mistakes can occur. If you feel a test or other score was miscalculated, you can politely and respectfully ask your instructor to review the grade.

Most situations in which students want to challenge a grade, however, result from a misunderstanding regarding the expectations of the grading scale or standards used. Students may feel they deserve a higher grade because they spent a lot of time studying or doing the assignment. The instructor’s grade, however, is based on your actual responses on a test, a paper or other assignment and is often accompanied by a grading rubric.

If you are concerned that your grade does not accurately reflect your understanding or effort, you should talk with your instructor. Your goal should be not to argue for a grade change but to gain a better understanding of the course’s expectations so that you’ll do better next time.

A major aspect of college for some students is learning how to accept criticism. Your college instructors hold you to high standards. A lower grade is not a personal attack on you and not a statement that you’re not smart enough to do the work. We can all improve, and often the first step in that direction is accepting evaluation of our work.

Succeeding in Your First Year

The first year of college is almost every student’s most crucial time. Statistics show a much higher drop-out rate in the first year than in any other year. This is true for many students because adjusting to college is not easy. Students wrestle with managing their time, their freedom, and their other commitments to family, friends, and work.

On the other hand, when students do succeed in their first year, the odds are very good that they’ll continue to succeed to complete their program or degree.

Getting Off to Good Start

  • Make an appointment to talk with an academic advisor if you have any doubt about the courses you have already enrolled in or about the direction you’re taking. Start examining how you spend your time to ensure you have enough time to keep up with your courses.
  • Check out MCC’s learning centers for extra help or free tutoring.
  • Like yourself. You’ve come a long way to reach this point, and you have succeeded in taking this first step toward meeting your college goal. You are fully capable of succeeding the rest of the way.
  • Planner with pen and iPodPay attention to your learning style and your instructors’ teaching styles.
  • Plan ahead. Check your syllabus for each class and highlight the dates of major assignments and tests. Write on your calendar the important dates coming up.
  • Look around your classroom and plan to introduce yourself right away to one or two other students. Talking with other students is the first step in forming study groups that will help you succeed.
  • Introduce yourself to your instructors if you haven’t already. Go up to the instructor after class and ask a question about anything in the lecture or about an upcoming assignment.
  • Participate in your classes.
  • Pay more attention to how you spend your money.
  • Take good care of your body. Good health makes you a better student.

Profile of a Successful Student

The following are some of the characteristics of successful students.  Which ones do you possess now and which ones will you work on developing?

Successful students:

have a good attitude and know how to stay motivated.
have developed good time management strategies, such as scheduling study time and getting started early on assignments and projects.
have developed their critical thinking skills and apply them in their studies.
have effective strategies for taking good notes in class and using them.
have learned how to gain the most from their assigned readings for classes.
know how to prepare for and take tests successfully.
interact well with their instructors and fellow students in and outside of class.
have learned to write well for their classes, an essential aspect of college education.
develop social relationships that contribute to, rather than detract from, their educational experiences.
take control of their health with good habits that help them be better students and feel less stress.
have control over their finances. Because getting into debt is a very common reason that students have to drop out of college, it’s important to control expenditures and manage your finances well.
are able to transition well from the world of college into their future careers.