At the top of every list of what colleges look for in applicants is a strong academic record. This means both grade point average and strength of academic program. And they go hand-in-hand—you can’t cut corners on either.
For the record, grades always should be trending upward, and although “stuff happens,” grade blips are definitely not desirable. Two students with identical GPAs will be viewed very differently by admissions offices if one has improving grades and the other is on the decline.
But whether you’re just starting off or well along in your academic journey, here are a few tips for earning grades colleges will be sure to notice:
- Show up. And not just physically, although that’s a good first step. Attend class with the intent to learn. Avoid distractions such as reading other materials, texting, surreptitiously surfing the internet on your mobile phone, or talking to the student next to you.
- Get Organized. Invest in a planner and use it. Keep track of assignments as they are announced, check them off as they are completed and always scan ahead to see what’s on the horizon. You’d be amazed how handy a planner is—log-in club meetings, dentist appointments, or consultations with your school counselor. The more you use a planner, the better organized you will become.
- Sit close to the front of the classroom. Students who voluntarily sit in one of the first few rows generally earn better grades than those who sit toward the back. Sorry. It’s just true!
- Ask questions. If you don’t “get” something, the chances are excellent that others in the class also don’t understand. Inquisitive students are engaged students.
- Join class discussions. Teachers notice who is paying attention through class participation. This can play to your advantage when it comes time to giving out grades. Besides, discussions (and class content) are more likely to be imprinted on your mind if you’ve gotten involved.
- Take good class notes. You’ll be taking notes for the rest of your academic career, so learn and practice these skills now. Find a system that works for you and use it. But don’t count on your computer for taking notes. Studies show that technology just doesn’t work as well on this one.
- Listen. Listen “between the lines” for subtle messages. Many teachers provide strong clues about the most important elements in a lesson—even suggesting something about a topic’s relevance to the next quiz or test. The best students pick up on these clues.
- Ask for help. The key is not to wait until you’ve fallen hopelessly behind. Your front line source of help is your teacher, who should be very invested in your success. Stay after class or make an appointment for after-school help. If this doesn’t work, seek outside support. Try classmates or find a tutor if necessary.
- Keep up. Finish assignments before they are due. Actually turning in the work helps too. Work completed in advance of deadlines is often better than that thrown together at the last minute.
- Read actively. Active reading involves more than scanning words on a page. For some students, it means underlining, highlighting, or annotating materials. Others develop lists of key words and summarize materials as they read.
- Study daily. Successful students commit some time every day to active studying—reading, writing, and reviewing. This may also mean outlining, making flash cards, participating in study groups, or rewriting notes. Students who work steadily on coursework do better than those who study in large chunks, and they definitely outperform students who cram.
- Work the extra credit. View “optional” extra credit projects or assignments as required. Even if it’s just a few points added to your grade, the total can add up. Missing an A- by one point can be really painful.
- Upgrade writing skills. Learn to proofread, revise and correct written work. At the same time, take steps to increase vocabulary and develop facility with basic grammar. Improved writing skill strengthens critical thinking as well as listening, reading, and speaking abilities. It also pays off outside the classroom with higher standardized test scores.
- Limit internet distractions. There is no reason to have any social networking distraction going while doing homework. In fact, it’s likely you can complete most assignments without even turning the computer on. Consider studying somewhere away from the single biggest “attractive nuisance” in the house—your computer.
- Avoid overscheduling. Keeping in mind the relative importance of GPA in the college admissions process, be smart about the number of outside commitments interfering with your ability to study and complete assignments on time. Time management will become increasingly important as you go further in your education.
- Develop test taking know-how. Successful test taking avoids carelessness and rests on a few simple strategies like following directions, becoming familiar with different kinds of questions, and understanding how the test will be graded.
- Use time wisely. Even if you don’t procrastinate and are generally pretty organized, strategic use of time can reduce stress. Tackle harder work first and break large projects into smaller, easy-to-accomplish pieces. Feel free to reward yourself for completing major tasks by taking short breaks.
- Get enough sleep. Go to bed at a reasonable time and turn off your cellphone. Better yet, leave the cellphone in the kitchen. No text message is ever that important.