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1.5: Let’s Talk about Success

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Understand that success in college means much more in the long term than simply passing or getting good grades.
    2. Describe situations in which grades do matter—and why it’s important to do as well as you can.
    3. Describe why it is so important to be successful in your first year of college.
    4. List steps you can begin taking immediately to ensure your success.

    Success in college is the theme of this book—and you’ll be learning more about everything involved in success in the following chapters. Let’s first define what success really means so that you can get started, right now, on the right foot.

    Understand first that no book can “make” you be successful—it can only offer the tools for you to use if you want. What are you thinking right now as you read these words? Are you reading this right now only because you have to, because it is assigned reading in a course you have to take—and your mind keeps drifting to other things because you’re feeling bored? Or are you interested because you’ve decided you want to succeed in college?

    We hope it’s the latter, that you’re feeling motivated—and excited, too—to do a great job in college. But even if you aren’t much concerned at present about these issues, we hope you’ll keep reading and do some thinking about why you’re in college and how to get motivated to do well.

    “Success” and “Failure”

    So what does “success” actually mean in college? Good grades? That’s what many students would say—at least toward the beginning of their time in college.

    When you ask people about their college experience a few years later, grades are seldom one of the first things mentioned. College graduates reflecting back typically emphasize the following:

    • The complete college experience (often described as “the best years of my life”)
    • Exploring many different subjects and discovering one’s own interests
    • Meeting a lot of interesting people, 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

    When you are achieving what you want in life and when you are happy and challenged and feel you are living life to its fullest and contributing to the world, then you likely feel successful. When you reach this point, your grades in college are about the last thing you’ll think of.

    This is not to say that grades don’t matter—just that getting good grades is not the ultimate goal of college or the best way to define personal success while in college. Five or ten years from now, no one is going to care much about what grade you got in freshman English or Biology 101. A successful college experience does include acceptable grades, of course, but in the end—in your long-range goals—grades are only one component of a larger picture.

    How Much Do Grades Matter?

    As 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 be motivated to study enough even to pass—and may be at risk for failing courses.

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

    After graduation, it may be enough in some careers just 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 how well you did in college (new graduates at least—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 (and being caught in a lie can lead to being fired). 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 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) and personal qualities and the recommendations of others, they are an important consideration. After all, an employer may think, if this person goofed off so much in college that he got low grades, how can I expect him not to goof off on the job?

    How to Calculate Your GPA

    Because of various requirements for maintaining a GPA at a certain level, you may need to know how to calculate your GPA before grades come out at the end of the term. The math is not difficult, but you need to consider both the grade in every course and the number of credit hours for that course in order to calculate the overall GPA. 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. You don’t need to kill yourself, but if you’re not going to make an effort then there’s not much reason to be there in the first place. Almost everything in this book—from time management to study skills to social skills and staying healthy—will contribute to your overall success and, yes, 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 your academic advisor. If a class requires more preparation than you have from past courses and experience, you might be urged to drop that class and take another—or to seek extra help. Your advisor can help you work through any individual issues related to doing well and getting the best grade you can.

    Can You Challenge a Grade?

    Yes and no. College instructors are very careful about how they assign grades, which are based on clear-cut standards often stated in the course syllabus. The likelihood of an instructor changing your grade if you challenge it is very low. On the other hand, we’re all human—mistakes can occur, and if you truly feel a test or other score was miscalculated, you can ask your instructor to review the grade. Just be sure to be polite and respectful.

    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 simply feel they deserve a higher grade because they think they understand the material well or 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. The instructor is grading not what he or she thinks is in your head, but what you actually wrote down.

    If you are concerned that your grade does not accurately reflect your understanding or effort, you should still talk with your instructor—but 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. Instructors do respect students who want to improve. Visit the instructor during office hours or ask for an appointment and prepare questions ahead of time to help you better understand how your performance can improve and better indicate how well you understand the material.

    A major aspect of college for some students is learning how to accept criticism. Your college instructors hold you to high standards and expect you to have the maturity to understand that a lower grade is not a personal attack on you and not a statement that you’re not smart enough to do the work. Since none of us is perfect, we all can improve in almost everything we do—and the first step in that direction is accepting evaluation of our work. If you receive a grade lower than you think you have earned, take the responsibility to learn what you need to do to earn a higher grade next time.