I’m not talking about your cumulative GPA. Believe me, I’m not a fan either, but if you start out with a 3.0, it is mathematically impossible to graduate with a 4.0 (RIDICULOUS, I know). I’m talking about your semester GPA. I apologize if my title was misleading. Although, it’s incredibly important and helpful to focus on a semester GPA because it is an obvious and simple way to track your progress over the years.
And yes, I do realize some semesters are more difficult than others (but we’ll get into all of that later). Essentially what I’m saying is that a change in your habits can turn that dreadful first-semester freshman GPA into something you’ll be proud to put on your resumé.
Like most, I started out college on a rough note. In addition to having no idea how to be an adult and live on my own, I also struggled with how to develop a work ethic. In fact, my mind wasn’t even really on having a work ethic. At that point in time, I was of the belief that I was who I was, and my intelligence and abilities were now what they were always going to be. Looking back, I don’t think I could’ve been more incorrect. I also fulfilled my first-semester freshman duties of getting mono. I was really off to a great start (sarcasm).
But after that sh*t show, excuse my French, I slowly started to pull it together. And at the end of my sophomore year, after ending my first semester as a freshman with around a 3.0, I pulled off my first 4.0, this past semester. And it has done wonders for my cumulative total, increasing it by around 0.5, which is a crazy amount for 3 semesters. Now I know more than anyone that nobody besides your parents really cares to hear about your grades. But I want to show that following these few steps really made a monumental difference for me, and it can for you too. So let’s get to it.
My first piece of advice is to NEVER ASSUME A CLASS IS AN EASY A.
I don’t mean to be dramatic, but I believe the importance of this statement deserves caps lock. In my opinion, there is no such thing as an "easy A." In certain contexts, it may be "easier" to get an A in one class compared to another, but an A is never the result of minimal work. To earn an A in a course, you are always going to have to put in some amount of work and care.
Even if peers tell you a class is unbelievably easy, an A will never just be handed to you. Thus, for each and every class you have, treat it like you would treat your hardest class that semester. Whether it be Bio or Orgo or some advanced math course or an intensive research course, it doesn’t really matter. If your mindset surrounding even your easiest of classes is similar to that of your hardest, you will inevitably work harder in that class, which will result in a better performance.
I know it seems silly to approach intro German with the same mindset with which you would approach Calc III. However, if you think about it, in both cases you will be completely unfamiliar with some if not all of the course content, and you will, therefore, have to put in work to understand the concepts and do well on tests. An "easy" class may contain easier content, although it is no guarantee of a good grade if you do not put in the effort.
The next piece of advice I have is to make studying a habit!
This is not to be confused with "make a study habit." Anyone can make a study habit which often results in the habit of putting off studying and cramming at the last minute. Making studying a habit means working studying into your daily schedule. It means designating specific times that you know you are free that you can sit down and review.
Consistency is key. Once you get into the habit of doing this, it will become easy. Well maybe not easy, but you will absolutely get used to the flow of it, and before you know it you will feel more prepared for tests than you thought possible.
Next piece of advice and this one’s crucial: do NOT overload your semesters.
A lot of you may be pre-med or pre-health or pre any type of competitive grad school. And I completely understand the pressure everyone is under to cram as much stuff into your undergrad as humanly possible, in order to create the most stacked, jacked or Arnold-Schwarzenegger-looking application possible. Although I really cannot stress enough how crucial it is to set yourself up with a balanced, doable semester.
The most important facet of any goal you set is that it’s achievable. Therefore, each semester, really evaluate what you intend to take. For me, in order to do well, I take between 13-15 credits maximum. I’ve learned that with my job and other obligations, this is the number of credits I can handle and do well.
It is important to understand that this will vary with every single person, although every person does have a limit and it’s up to you to figure out what that limit is, and then plan accordingly. So no matter what the pressure may be from your major or your parents or even your peers, always put your grades first, because believe it or not you have more than enough time to complete your degree in four years and do it successfully—you just have to plan for it.
Surround yourself with people who want to see you succeed.
This one’s important. The environment in which you find yourself has a monumental impact on how you fare. I’ve found that surrounding myself with people who have equally or more ambitious goals, or maybe just better work ethics, has changed my entire perspective on college.
You can still have fun and get good grades, but there has to be a limit. Surrounding yourself with those who want to succeed and want to see you succeed will allow you to prioritize school when it needs to be prioritized, while still allowing yourself to have a social life. Whether that means joining an academic club or making friends with people in your classes or applying for some type of honors society or college, a positive academic environment will allow you to gain perspective and prioritize successfully.
Now I would like to clarify that I do not mean to say you should surround yourself with crazy competitive peers. That is a recipe for a self-conscious, self-destructive disaster. It is never good to surround yourself with people who try to compare themselves with you, as they typically do not have your best interests in mind. I only mean that you should create an environment that creates some sort of accountability, as well as motivation to do your best.
Okay, we’re getting to the end, I promise, but the next one is to GET ORGANIZED.
This was a big one for me because I was severely disorganized coming into college. I had missed shifts at work, overslept and missed class, forgotten to submit assignments on time, the whole 9. Starting out as the mess that I was, the first step I took was creating some type of calendar. I like using Google calendar because I’m still terrible about forgetting things, which means I would forget a paper planner on my desk more times than not.
I also took initiative to organize my notes and agendas for class. I would take neat, "pretty" notes, for appropriate classes, and make efforts to organize when I was going over what for more problem-based classes such as math or physics. In order to be successful, it is essential to have some semblance of what you’re actually doing. Therefore you must organize your life in some sort of comprehensible manner.
LASTLY, ask for help when you need it.
I feel as though I do not need to explain how terribly stressful college can get. With friends who may not actually be friends, mean teachers, and terrible TERRIBLE food options, who can be expected to survive without a gray hair? Given all of that, it is incredibly important to understand that you can and should ask for help when you need it.
For classes, office hours are probably the world’s most valuable and underused resource. A teacher will help you more than you think if you put in the effort. No, I am not talking about boosting your grade. A professor has many more resources than just the answer to your homework, and I cannot tell you how beneficial it is to seek that out.
I also want to discuss this from a mental health perspective. College as a whole is most definitely one of the biggest tests to us, as students. We go through more stress with grades, sleep deprivation and our social lives (or lack thereof), that one can only expect every college student to go through some type of major stress or anxiousness. In these cases, I urge anyone going through something to reach out.
Whether it be to a trusted friend, your mom or a loved one, or the on-campus counseling services, talking through your problems can be so much more helpful than you might expect. Even if you doubt any significant outcomes from those conversations, simply talking through your thoughts allows you to organize and see things more clearly.
My biggest mistake going into college was in lacking a work ethic. I had managed to do well enough in high school to earn admission to some decent schools, although nothing outstanding. And I had definitely improved my approach to school over those four dreadful years of high school. Although going into the fall semester of my freshman year I was still, for all intents and purposes, a mess.
After receiving my first transcript I was really disappointed. I thought that maybe I wasn’t cut out for what I signed up for. But the reality of it is nobody is simply "not cut out" for something. Being successful is all about how you approach something, and how much effort you put into it. If you apply yourself and give every class everything you have, you absolutely have the capacity to be successful.
Lastly, I’d like to address that all of these tactics are a result of my own life and my own experience. I in no way mean to convey that these strategies are the only path to success. I simply wanted to share my experience with the world, in hopes that my struggle through college can be turned into valuable advice for others who may find themselves in a similar situation.