Academic Success: Dealing with a Poor Grade in College

College Advice

At the midpoint of the semester, many students begin to worry about their grades.  Sure, the instructor may have mentioned excessive late arrivals or a failure to participate, but who knew that meant they would actually deduct points?  What’s a student to do when faced with an undesirable grade?

Be realistic about what your grade actually means.

Many students in the U.S. are accustomed to receiving high grades or even all A’s in their courses, so the first “B” on a major assignment or in the class may come as a shock.  However, a “B” is not  a bad grade; it’s higher than average!

And what grades mean changes across disciplines.  In an English course, a “C” may indeed be less than desirable grade.  In a math course, a “C” may truly be the average. And there’s nothing wrong with an average grade!

Assess Your Own Responsibility.

Students demanding grade changes, arguing over whether they deserve one more point on question #2 and 2 more points on question #5, and insisting that the directions were unclear and they aren’t to blame for not turning in an assignment  are all very common. What isn’t common?   The student who admits that they didn’t understand the assignment because they missed the last two weeks of class.  The student who agrees that the late penalties outlined on the syllabus are fair since they, well, did turn the paper in late.  The student who admits that they didn’t fulfill all the requirements of the assignment prompt.

The student who takes responsibility for their work instead of finding a reason it’s the instructor’s fault that they don’t have the grade they want is really going to stand out as someone special.  When it comes time to ask for a letter of recommendation, your instructor will remember you as the student who took responsibility for your actions- and you’re very likely to get a recommendation letter that sets you apart.

Honestly Assess Your Grounds for a Grade Challenge to Ensure That the Challenge helps, not Harms, You.

Consider carefully the points above.  Did your paper lose points because you turned it in late, failed to make the specified revisions your instructor asked for, failed to address the assignment prompt, etc.?  You might want to think twice about contesting your grade unless you really know that your instructor “has it out for you” or awarded someone else significantly more points for the same work.  Otherwise, if you contest, you may be facing a policy that allows the possibilitiy of assigning your work a lower grade.  You don’t want to run to a committe with your “B” paper only to have them return it labelled with a “C.”  After all, these committees are less familiar with you and your work and less likely to award you points for “effort” or “significant revision” or whatever other outside factors your instructor considered.  They’re going to assess what they see before them on the paper.

Look Toward the Future.

You may be concerned about your grades because you need a certain G.P.A. to maintain your scholarship, get into a certain honors society, or apply to a specific grad school.  However, bear in mind that if you aren’t applying to a specific and highly competitive academic program in the future, your grades might not matter all that much.  Job applications typically don’t ask for your G.P.A. or your transcripts–they just want to see you have a degree.  That “C” you got in your freshman philosophy course?  No one’s going to know about it.  And even if they did, it’s unlikely someone hiring you to do accounting cares about your ability to do philosophy.

Try To Take Something Away from Your Failure.

“Failure,” of course means different things for different people. Some students can’t stand the fact that they received a “B” in a course while others are happy to receive a “C.”  But how you define failure is not as important as how you to react to it.  Everyone faces failure at some point at life.  But do you acknowledge to yourself that you could have changed something and done better–and make plans to change in the future? (Maybe attending class more could help, for example.)  Do you admit to yourself that you honestly tried your best and still got a “C”–but that’s okay?  You’re still a valuable individual.  Or do you simply give up because things didn’t go your way this time?  Finding ways to deal with your failure and move on may be one of the most important lessons you actually take away from your time in college.

Remember You Are More Than a Grade.

Your grades do not define you as a person.  They simply measure how well you met the criteria of a specific class.  If you fail out of a class, that does not mean you are unintelligent or not valuable.  You still have a lot to offer the world, even if you can’t memorize all those amino acids for the life of you.

Krysta 64

12 thoughts on “Academic Success: Dealing with a Poor Grade in College

  1. Briana says:

    Being graded on the product they turn in, rather than the fact they put “effort” into the assignment, is definitely one of the biggest challenges my students face. It’s very hard for some of them to realize that it’s possible to spend many hours working on something…but still not have it turn out great. (I would know. Spending hours drawing something is not going to turn me into an great artist.)

    I think most professors will give some leeway for genuine effort, but that effort needs to be visible. There’s a huge difference between someone coming to my office and just telling me “I worked really hard on this” and someone coming to my office with five different versions of their paper and working with me on it. Maybe the first student did spend 40 hours on that assignment, and maybe they didn’t. It’s hard to know. In the second case, it’s obvious the student worked hard. However, getting some credit for effort still does not automatically mean “A.” It may mean a B minus paper gets a B or a B plus, but not more than that.

    At the end of the day, most people are grading the product, whether the assignment is “good,” and not on how many hours it took the student to produce it. Because that’s generally how the real world works. In most jobs, you need to eventually produce strong results, not just tell your boss you tried really hard.


    • Krysta says:

      I know a few instructors grade more on effort so if you make enough revisions on a paper and do everything the instructor asked you to do in their feedback, you’ll get a high grade. But this is certainly very rare in my own experience. Generally being rewarded for effort means, as you said, being bumped up maybe a third of a letter grade–which might actually be the difference between the C+ and the B-. But, yes, I agree it’s important to note you’re being graded in most cases on the end product, no matter how much time you put into it.


  2. Michael J. Miller says:

    I love this post and I have had this conversation with many of my high school students. Thank you for putting it so clearly. The anxiety a student can lose when the realize they aren’t their grades is a powerful and freeing experience. As long as you’ve honestly tried your best, regardless of the grade, you can ask no more of yourself. Well said!


    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I think one of the most important things a student can learn in school is how to separate their self-identify from their grades. I’ve seen people who were devastated later in life because they never learned how to do this, so the first time they had to deal with feedback that wasn’t all positive, they fell apart. I don’t think we can impress upon students enough that they are more than their grade, that they are allowed to fail, and that they can still be successful in life even if this one assignment didn’t go the way they had hoped.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sarah DeLuca says:

    This is so true! I always grew up in a ‘your grades are not who you are’ household, but getting those less-than-ideal grades still makes you doubt yourself…especially at the beginning of college.


    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I think it helps students to learn earlier on that a low grade doesn’t mean they’re worthless. It’s better to get that learning moment out of the way when the stakes are lower.


  4. TeacherofYA says:

    I always try really hard to get good grades, but I know, if I’m not doing well, I just work on studying more. If I still can’t do better, then at least I can say I tried! Thanks for the help. 😉


    • Krysta says:

      I think that sometimes it is possible to do your best and still not get the grade you want. But that’s okay! You should feel proud that you gave it a strong effort. 🙂


  5. Briana says:

    I commented on this post awhile ago, but I just wanted to add to the point about comparing your grades to other people’s and feeling that you and they did “equal work” but somehow your grade was lower. In some instances, this is true, and you should definitely approach the instructor for clarification if it’s a short answer or multiple choice or something, and you did put the “same answer” and got different grades. Grading mistakes do happen, and students shouldn’t be afraid to ask if the professor genuinely made an error they can correct.

    However, I hear a lot about “I read his essay, and I don’t see what he did differently from me! Why did he get an A- and I get a B?” And with essays it’s so much harder to students to genuinely see how their paper differs from someone else’s paper. In a lot of cases, students are just unduly fixated on grammar or other minor issues. “My paper was proofread, and I have a nice structure! So does he! Why are our grades different?” But some students are less good at seeing beyond that. Maybe the other student has a more original or complex argument. Maybe the other student used stronger sources. Maybe the other student offered more original analysis while the student with the B mostly summarized sources. These things can be hard for students who are still learning to write to pick out. I think the more useful approach is getting clarification on what made your paper a B and what an A paper should look like, rather than crying that Johnny got an A and you’re sure that you and he basically are writing the same way.


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