15 Secrets of Getting Good Grades in College

Picking the right courses (and actually going to them) can boost your college GPA.

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Grades are the measure of college success. Like the salary at a job, the batting average in baseball, or the price of a stock, your grade-point average is an objective indication of how you're doing. And yet, there's surprisingly little good information—least of all from professors—about just what you should do to get good grades at college. Here are the 15 best tips from our ProfessorsGuide to Getting Good Grades in College—with our best wishes that you get all A's as you start your college year:

1. Take charge of this thing. College isn't like high school. There's no teacher or parent to remind you every day of what you need to do. So step up to bat and take responsibility. What grades you get will depend on what you yourself do.

2. Select, don't settle. To get good grades in college, it's very important that you pick the right courses. Pick classes that you think you can do. And be sure to pick the right level in required courses such as math, English comp, sciences, and languages (in some colleges, there are five courses all bearing the name "college math"). Most of all, don't accept some "standard freshman program" from your adviser. Pick your courses one by one, paying careful attention that some fulfill distribution requirements, some count to a possible major, some satisfy some interest of yours, and at least one is something that somehow "sounds interesting." You'll do better if you've made the right choices.

3. Don't overload. Some students think it's a mark of pride to take as many hours as the college allows. It isn't. Take four or at the most five courses each semester. And, unless you are very special, don't take more than one major. Each major comes equipped with 10 or 12 required courses, and you can really kill your GPA if you're taking lots of required—that is, forced—courses in a major that you're only half-interested in.

4. Make a plan. Part of getting good grades is balancing off the various things you have to do, week by week. So get a calendar—electronic is good—and enter in all your classes, exams, and papers, and professors' office hours (more on that later). For the brave, also enter in the hours you plan to study each week for each course. That way, you'll have a plan for (or at least a fantasy about) what you'll be doing as the semester progresses.

5. Get your a** to class. Most students have a cutting budget: the number of lectures they can miss in each course and still do well. But if there are 35 class meetings, each class has about 3 percent of the content. Miss seven, and that's 20 percent. And, if you blow off the class right before Thanksgiving and the professor picks the essay question for the final from that very class . . . well, you can really do major damage to your GPA for the price of one class.

6. Be a robo-notetaker. In many intro courses, the professor's lectures form the major part of the material tested on the midterm and final. So you should be writing down everything the professor says in the lecture. Don't worry too much about the structure, and forget about special "note-taking systems" (Cornell Note-Taking System, Mind Mapping, or the "five R's of good note taking"). Just get it all down—you can always fix it up later. 

4-Star Tip. Pay special attention to writing down anything the prof writes on the board and any PowerPoints he or she might use. Be sure to capture any explanations given, as you might have trouble understanding the code words provided without the professor's explanations.

7. Avoid do-overs. It's a really bad idea to plan to do things twice: recording the lectures with the idea of listening to them again when you get home, doing the reading three times, copying over your notes the day before the test. Focus as hard as you can the first time and do a really good job.

8. Study like you mean it. At college, you're expected to prepare an hour or two (sometimes more) for each class meeting. This means budgeting the time each week and finding an appropriate "study environment." No devices, no social networking, no friends, no eating—just your mind up against the work. We know this can be painful—but all students who get A's do this (no matter what they tell you).

9. Double up on tests. Before each test, take a practice test you make up, with questions similar to the ones you expect on the real test. Write it out under test conditions (no notes, limited time). Use handouts, study guides, homeworks and labs, old exams, and hints from the prof or TA to construct the test. If you get to a test and the questions look surprising to you, you haven't really prepared properly.

10. Don't be a Wiki-potamus. If your course has a research paper, make sure you use proper, scholarly materials. Look to the assignment sheet and/or instructions in lecture or section to see what the prof is expecting. Above all, forget about Wikipedia and blind Google searches: These typically do not yield the sort of content that is right for a college paper.

11. "Hook up" with the prof. The most underused resource at college—and the one most likely to benefit your grade—is the office hour, either in person or electronic. This is really the only time that you can get one-on-one help from a prof or TA. Find out when your teacher wants to meet and in what modality—traditional office hours, E-mail inquiry, Skype, or even Twitter or Facebook.

12. Join a community. Many students, especially in the sciences, improve their grades with "study buddies" or study groups—especially when their cohorts are smarter than they. Try to meet at least once a week—especially in courses in which there are weekly problem sets or quizzes. Students can improve their grades one level (or more) when they commit to working in an organized way with other students.

13. Play all four quarters. Most college courses are "backloaded": More than half of the grade is left to assignments due in the last month of the semester. Make sure you're not running out of gas just as the third test, term paper, and final are going on. Some suggestions? Pace yourself, keep up your stress-reducing activities, and don't forget to eat and sleep.

Extra Pointer. Avoid extensions and incompletes like the plague. Many students, when they fall behind, think the solution lies in asking the professor for more time—or worse yet, a chance to finish the course over vacation or even into the next semester. This is almost always a bad strategy since it's twice as hard to complete the work without the deadline in place.

14. Do the "extras." In some courses, there are special, end-of-the-semester activities that can improve your grade. Take advantage of review sessions, extra office hours, and extra credit work. Especially in schools where there are no pluses and minuses, even a little grade improvement can push you over the hump (say, from B plus to A minus—that is, to A).

15. Believe in No. 1. A large part of good grades is good attitude: believing—really believing—that you can do it (and then doing it). Do not let family myths—"you're just not that good a student," "you have trouble in math and science," "your sister is the smart one"—undermine your confidence. Your college took you because they thought you could do well. Prove them right.

Bonus Tip. Make sure you get at least one A each semester. Getting even a single A will change how you think about yourself—and your prospects for future semesters. If you're at all close, in even one course, work really hard to do it. It'll change things forever.

© 2009, Professors' Guide LLC. All rights reserved.