Submit Your Best College Advice to Be Featured in August!

College Advice

Each year in August, Pages Unbound features roughly a week of posts geared towards college advice.  For example, we have posted about How to Write an Email to Your Professor and What to Expect on the First Day of a College Class.  You can check out all our academic posts here.

This year you can participate by telling us one piece of advice you wish you knew before college!  We’ll compile the answers and put them in a post on August 14 for our readers, crediting you and linking to your blog.  (Non-bloggers can also participate.  Anyone with good advice is welcome!)

Let us know if you have any questions in the comments!  You can also let us know if there are any topics we should address in future academic advice posts.

(There should be a Google form embedded here where you can submit your advice, but it may also just show up as a link to the form that you can click.)

Ten Easy Ways to Strengthen Your Final Paper

College Advice

As finals week rolls around for many college students, it’s time to write that last paper and hope for a high grade.  Time may be short, however, so we offer here ten easy ways to strengthen that last paper as you begin to revise.

1. Never write “From the dawn of time” again.

Or “throughout history,” “mankind has always,” “since history began,” “from the Dark Ages to the present,” “many times and cultures,” etc. etc.   You’re attempting to cover far too broad a time period with these sweeping generalizations and you don’t have space to provide evidence to support such claims.   By the time you demonstrate that your issue was being discussed in ancient Egypt you’ll probably already be over your page limit.   You may also accidentally have said something a little silly.  Have schools really existed “since the dawn of time?”  Have scholars actually been debating the purpose of life “since time began?”  Were schools and scholars around at the Big Bang?

How to fix it.

Begin by talking about your specific topic.  Are you writing about cross-dressing in Twelfth Night?  Either begin by discussing cross-dressing in English Renaissance drama or about how other scholars have discussed cross-dressing in Twelfth Night.  Your introduction is still moving from a general discussion to a specific one, but your introduction is much more focused than one that says “Since the dawn of time people have been interested in cross-dressing.”  You also don’t have to prove that people existed at the dawn of time, that they wore clothes at all at the dawn of time, or that they had gendered clothing at the dawn of time.

2. Don’t Mistake Fact for Argument.

After doing all your research for a topic you may have noticed certain trends and thought to yourself, “Aha!  Pollution is bad for the environment!  Everyone says so!”  If everyone says so, you’re not really advancing an argument. You’re just repeating what everyone accepts as fact.  You want your argument to be something your readers can engage with, maybe even disagree with.  But almost no one thinks pollution is good.  So what can you do?

How to Fix It.

Offer solutions or a personal interpretation.  If you are writing about pollution affects the environment, instead saying “I argue pollution is bad for the environment,” focus on a specific issue regarding pollution and offer solutions.  For instance, “Although many businesses have argued against X policy because they say it will increase costs and cause job loss, I argue that X policy will benefit the city in the long run because…”

3. Don’t Forget to Position Yourself in the Conversation.

The “I argue” thesis is an easy way to claim authority in your paper and make clear t your readers what your thesis is.  However, you want to make sure that your argument is contextualized.  Who are the other voices you are responding to?  How are you intervening in the conversation to offer something new or to point out a previously overlooked point?  You will need to do research for this part, but the research will be worth it to ensure that you aren’t repeating other people’s work or aren’t arguing something that was disproved ten  years ago.

How to fix it.

Refer to the example thesis in example two: “Although many businesses have argued against X policy because they say it will increase costs and cause job loss, I argue that X policy will benefit the city in the long run because…”  The writer has indicated to readers what other voices in the conversation are saying–the businesses are worried about increased costs.  The writer then responds to that argument by offering a counter position.

4. Don’t make the argument black and white.

It’s tempting for students to over-simplifying the argument so it’s easier to gain access into it.  However, the point of academia is not to “win” the argument like a political debate.  You don’t have to pretend that certain facts don’t exist, nor do you have to cleverly misrepresent the opposing side’s argument in order to make your own side stronger.

How to fix it.

Do the research and see what other voices are saying.  Quote them exactly so readers know that you are not misrepresenting their views for your own convenience.  Then feel free to offer a middle road.  For example, perhaps you chose a hot-button issue such as abortion or stem cell research.  You don’t have to argue, “Abortion is always acceptable” or that “Stem cell research is always wrong.”  You could take a nuanced position and argue something like, “Abortion should be restricted except in cases of rape or incest because…” or “Embryonic stem cell research is unethical for X reasons but we should pursue adult stem research because…”  It doesn’t have to be either/or.

5. Don’t be too convinced your own argument.

When you are too convinced of your own argument you may not feel compelled to research it or to provide evidence to support it.  This can lead to a “he says/she says” argument where your readers are thinking, “No way!  Middle-grade isn’t less complex literature!” and your response is, “Yes, it is!”

How to fix it.

Do the research and provide evidence.  If you are going to argue that MG books aren’t complex, you need to say why.  You also need to anticipate the potential counterarguments of your readers so you can address them.

6. Don’t overuse “I argue.”

You want to claim authority in your work so instead of saying “I think maybe” and “I believe,” you write “I argue all over the paper.  This might potentially backfire as your readers will be accustomed to seeing “I argue” in front of your main argument.  Having five “I argue” statements” makes it look like you have five different arguments in the same paper.

How to Fix It.

Use “I argue” for your thesis.  Use other verbs for other parts of the paper.  You can try, “I follow X Scholar in suggesting,” or “I extend the work of Y Scholar,” or “I propose that…”

7. Don’t Forget to Contextualize your quotes.

It’s a common mistake for students to insert quotations in their essays without any context.  For instance, a student might write, “Since the dawn of time mankind has looked to the stars. ‘Stars inspire us to reach higher and farther.’ We look into space and wonder what is out there.”  Who said, “Stars inspire us to reach higher and father?”  When did they say it?  In what context?  Is this from a poem, an interview, a novel, an academic essay?  Readers have no idea where this quote came from or how to read it.

How to fix it.

Simply introduce your quote with a little context.  “John Smith writes, ‘Stars inspire us to reach higher and father’ (pg. #).”  That’s it.  Your readers can now refer to the Works Cited for more.  Other types of quotes, however, might warrant more context.  It’s usually useful for instance to provide dates “John Smith (2010) says…” or “In an interview in 1995, Politician Y stated…”

8. Don’t Assume You Don’t Have to Read the Material You’re Working with.

It seems silly, but it’s not uncommon for students to write on material they’re not familiar with or that they assume they are familiar with.  But if you haven’t read The Great Gatsby since high school, you will have to reread it before you write a paper on it for college.  Your instructor will surely notice when you begin to talk about things that never happened in the book.

How to Fix It.

At least go back and reread the scenes you’re writing about.  Don’t rely on outside sources like Spark Notes to tell you what happened.

9. Stop Using Google as a Dictionary.

It’s easy so you do it.  But published scholars use the OED.

How to Fix It.

The OED is probably offered through your university.  Check the library website and see if it’s listed in the databases.

10. Fix Your Typos and Clean Up Your Citations.

You’re crunched for time and your argument weighs more than your comma splices.  Instructors get it. However, if your instructor highlighted your comma splices, the least you can do is put a period there to make it look like you care.

How to Fix It.

Address glaring typos and anything your instructor took time to mark.  Maybe you don’t have time to proofread the whole thing, but if you took the time to erase your instructor’s highlights or delete their comments, you had time to add a comma, too.

And your citations really matter. Many instructors don’t mess around with sloppy scholarship or potential plagiarism.  Don’t take a chance by not adding page numbers when asked to or by not fixing your Works Cited to make sure your entries are complete.  If you referenced something, cite it accurately and cite it fully.

5 Reasons I’m in Favor of Required (Classic) Reading

Discussion Post

The topic of required reading in high schools often comes up for criticism and intense debate.  Why must students all read the same books?  Why must they all read those books (those old, musty classics by dead white men?)  Isn’t reading supposed to be about enjoyment? the critics ask.  Shouldn’t we be simply encouraging students to read anything, rather than dictating what they must read and killing their joy?  After all, the classics are hard, boring, and completely unrelatable to students.  They simply have to go.

 I have a lot of sympathy for the argument that reading should be about pleasure, and I believe that the last thing a school should accomplish is making students dislike reading.  However, I disagree with the assertions that reading classic literature—old literature, challenging literature—is pointless and has no place in our schools at all.  Below I list five reasons in favor of required (classic) reading.

1. The Classics Are Not Irrelevant to “the Real World”

Although the classics are often dismissed as irrelevant to everyday life, as knowledge one will never actually use, the truth is that literary knowledge is fundamental to many fields—and many careers.  Literary allusions makes their way into art, theatre, history, and other literature.  A knowledge of Shakespeare or Virgil or Plato may, in fact, be useful.  Students should be given a foundational literary education so they can apply it other fields, if they choose.  It’s simply not true that the only people who need to know about literature are people who end up being literature teachers.

2. Reading Classics Enhances Your Complexity of Thought and Writing Style

While I believe in the value of reading in general (any type of reading, of any genre or any text), studies keep suggesting that there is distinct difference between reading complex literary fiction (like the classics) over other books or other writing.  Studies have, shown, for instance, that people who read literary fiction are more empathetic than those who do not.   They have shown that people who read “good” writing are better writers than people who read primarily content on the Internet (like Buzzfeed, Reddit, etc.)The fact is that there’s a difference between just reading anything and reading something “good.”

3. Required Reading Introduces Students to New Things

When people argue against reading classics in the classroom, they often point out that teenagers simply aren’t interested in classics. The books are too old. They’re not about teens. They’re about unrelateable situations. And so on.  The proposed solution: Schools should assign books like YA novels, things teens like to read.

The problem with this solution is that it suggests schools should spend valuable class time teaching books that…teens are already reading by themselves.  If everyone at High School X is reading The Hunger Games, that’s great. But then the school doesn’t need to assign it.  One of the goals of required reading is to introduce students to texts they are not already familiar with. Hopefully, some students will discover that, even if they don’t like all classics, they really like Renaissance drama or Romantic lyrics or twentieth century naturalism.  “Classics” come in many genres and styles, after all.

4. Required Reading Challenges Students and Helps Them Grow

Reading classics, it is true, can be difficult.  The writing can seem foreign and the situations portrayed totally removed from the present-day.  However, this is exactly why classics need to be taught in schools.  Teachers know that Shakespeare or Chaucer or Milton may be new and challenging to students, that students may have to struggle and take hours to slog their way through the text.  But that’s the point: they are teaching students to read Shakespeare so that, next time, getting through an early modern play won’t be so hard.  The books are assigned because they are difficult, not in spite of that.

One’s “reading level” (often a loaded term in education, I know) only improves when one reads challenging texts, texts above one’s current ability.  To argue we should assign only books in high schools that are easily comprehensible to students is to do high schoolers a disservice.  By assigning difficult texts, we teach people to be better readers.

5. Required Reading Is a Practical Classroom Tool

Finally, there is one practicality surrounding required reading that is frequently overlooked: Literature classes work best when all the students and the teacher have read the same book(s).  Imagine how difficult it would be to hold a class discussion when everyone in the room had read a different novel.  Or how challenging it would be for a teacher to lecture on several difficult books at once. Or how impossible it would be for that teacher to fairly grade 100 essays about 100 different books.  Literature classes function on the assumption that the students and teachers have something in common, which means there will probably always be some sort of required reading in schools, even if the assigned texts are not all classics.

Possible Compromises

Despite my belief in the value of classic literature as required reading, I do recognize that reading the classics isn’t everyone’s “thing” and that expanding the curriculum to include a variety of genres and categories of books could be beneficial to help students learn that they probably don’t “hate reading;” they only hate reading certain types of books.  I think that high school classrooms could expand to incorporate, for instance, YA books alongside classic literature.  (Maybe the class could read a classic and then a YA adaptation.)  Alternatively, teachers could assign an independent reading project where students can choose their own book(s) to read.

The only complication I see with this compromise is that it requires students to read more than they do currently.  The amount of assigned reading high school students are asked to complete for one literature class can vary widely by school, or even by teacher within one school.  However, I know that it is not uncommon for high schoolers to read four or fewer novels per year in a literature class.  They may take a few months to read one Shakespeare play.  If this is the case—that a high school student will read only three novels in their junior year English literature class—I don’t think we should remove one of those classic texts and replace it with a John Green or Marissa Meyer book.  The goal should be to read YA (or graphic novels, or memoirs, or whatever genre) alongside the classics, rather than replacing the classics.

What are your thoughts? Are you in favor of required reading?  Was it ever beneficial to you?  Did you ever come across an assigned book you actually enjoyed?


What Distinguishes Academic Writing from Other Types of Writing?

College Advice

When students thinks of academic writing, they often think about stylistic features such as whether they “are allowed” to use the first-person, if they should use active or passive voice, or if they should format their papers in a certain style such as MLA or APA.  However, though mastering the stylistic features of a discipline can help students present themselves as in the process of mastering the type of discourse valued by a discipline ,arguably these markers are not the most important features of an academic essay.  Rather, if I had to choose one feature that distinguishes academic writing from other types, I would suggest that it is the sense that a writer knows what they are talking about.  They have done the research, read and reread the texts, and solved any conundrums they may have encountered along the way.  They are an authoritative voice.

Of course, there is a place for musings and ponderings in learning environments.  Instructors may assign journals, free writing, or short response papers that allow students to discuss things that interest or puzzle them, without having to forward an argument or come to any conclusions.  However, the academic essay is the place where these musings are supposed to come together and puzzles are meant to begin to be resolved.  The difficulty for students is, of course, that they often still in the process of learning about what they writing about, they are unsure what types of things they ought to know, and they are still in the process of figuring out what kinds of information they should provide to their readers.  But they still have to act like they have mastered the topic.

Fortunately, there are some easy ways to get started in terms of mastering a new topic and presenting yourself as one who knows.

Make More Specific Claims.

Writing “Taylor Swift is really popular” is a vague claim.  It is true that few readers will likely contest this claim, but you can strengthen it by adding specific details.  What is her estimated worth?  How many followers does she have on social media?  How many albums has she sold?  Details make your claim more interesting and provide some scope for your readers.  After all, popularity can be relative.  Maybe X book is really popular and it sold 20 million copies this year.  The next most popular book sold 6 million copies and the third most popular book sold 3 million copies.  Wow–it seems that X book is really popular!

Be Careful Making Historical Assumptions or General Historical Claims.

“Everyone knows the Middle Ages were a time of religious oppression,” you think to yourself, so you write all about how creativity was stifled and no one dared question the Catholic Church or write about anything but God.  Then your instructor directs you to all the medieval texts available about topics other than God, several of them seemingly condoning adultery.  Or “Everyone in the Renaissance accepted misogyny,” you think, so you write all about how The Taming of the Shrew was accepted blindly by the unthinking masses of earlier eras.  Then your instructor points out that John Fletcher responded to Shakespeare’s play with The Tamer Tamed.  Oops.  Rather than assume stereotypes associated with the past, do some preliminary research before writing.  Better yet, don’t fall into the trap of assuming that people in a historical period all thought the same.  Just like people today, people of the past were capable of independent thought!

Read All the Matter Contained in the Texts You Are Assigned.

If there is an introduction to the book, footnotes, or endnotes, read them.  These give you extra information that will help you make stronger claims.  These can provide information about historical context, information about the author’s biography, or ideas about how various scholars have interpreted a  line or allusion.  Likewise, you should also glance at the copyright page to get a sense of the work’s publication history.

Be Wary of Scare Quotes.

Sometimes students place scare quotes around vocabulary that is new to them.  So they might spend pages writing about “meter” and “rhyme” as if meter and rhyme do not really exist in the work or are some artificial construct, when that is not what they mean to say at all.  If you are working with new words, it is likely that people familiar with the topic you are writing on or people familiar with the field you are writing in know these words, so you should act like you know them, too.

In the same vein, try to present yourself as knowledgeable about other content that experts will likely be familiar with.  Try not to refer to “a text called Hamlet” as if Hamlet is a new concept or that must be explained or qualified.  If you are writing about Renaissance literature or Shakespeare, your readers surely know Hamlet and you’ll want to act as if you do, as well.   It’s an easy but effective way to give yourself authority.

Do the Research and Use Authoritative Language.

Present yourself as knowledgeable about your topic by doing the research and using authoritative language.  Make assertive statements and claims.  Take out anything that reads, “I am not sure but,” “I think that,” “Personally, it seems to me,” and so forth.  Simply present the claim without any qualifiers.  You can also use active language such as “I argue,” “I propose,” “I extend the work of X,” and so forth.

Fact Check Yourself.

Before writing all about how Shakespeare had to tailor his plays to Henry VIII, double check Shakespeare’s timeline and see which monarch was on the throne.  Before writing all about how Shakespeare is indecipherable because he writes in Old English, search the history of English (Shakespeare was writing early modern English!).  Doing an Internet search for such matters typically can save you from headaches down the road.

Providing evidence for any claims you make often works as an automatic fact check.  If, for example, you write that, “Author Y writes in blank verse and it’s not effective for their work,” and then go to find a relevant quote to explain why the blank verse is not working in a particular area, you may realize in the process that, actually, Author Y is not writing in blank verse at all!  (And, if you are new to poetry, it may also be beneficial for you to recheck the definition of blank verse before you make this claim.  Blank verse, free verse, and iambic pentameter often get jumbled up by novices!)

Read Other Articles on the Subject.

Reading published scholarly articles can be daunting prospect.  However, doing so will give you a good idea about the types of things others are talking about.  It will also enable you to see what kinds of information they assume experts already know.  And, if you read enough, you will be able to see which scholars are repeatedly quoted–they tend to be influential in their fields.  You can model your work on the experts by learning how to discern relevant information, how to frame your argument, and whom to begin with when you do research.


Writing a strong academic paper typically comes down to research.  Indeed, you may find that the bulk of the work of writing a paper is not always the physical act of sitting down at a laptop and typing, but rather the hours spent tracking down, reading, and verifying sources, as well as the hours spent rereading texts.  It will be hard work and sometimes you may spend hours only to feel like you have not made much progress.  That’s what makes your paper valuable–you’ve gone and done all this work and now you are qualified to speak as an expert on the matter.  And you should be proud of that!

Ten Simple Ways to Strengthen Your Academic Essays

10 Ways to Improve Your Essays (1)
Concerned about how to present an academic essay that indicates that you understand how academic discourse functions?  These simple fixes can help you strengthen your papers if you are in the revision stage (though you will, of course, want to focus on major issues such as your argument and evidence before moving on to stylistic concerns).

Claim authority in your work.

Writing “I’m not sure but I think,” and “Perhaps the author meant,” and “I believe that,” suggest to your audience that you did not do the research or are hesitant to stand behind your claims.  Your readers need to be convinced that you have the knowledge and expertise to write on your topic so project confidence.  Simply state your claims as objective arguments and if you are going to use an “I” statement make it a strong one such as, “I argue that” or “I propose,” or “I will examine.”

Quote your sources.

Instead of simply informing your readers that something happened in the text, try quoting the actual text.  For example, if you state that a poet’s work contains many allusions, quote an allusion.  Then analyze it and explain how it relates to and forwards your main argument.  More specifics make your argument more convincing.

Cite your sources.

Citing your sources shows that you have done the research and are knowledgeable on your topic.  It also allows your readers to double-check your sources and see how you are using quotes, if you are taking them out of context, etc.  Always provide full citations both in the text and in your Works Cited.  Format them so that your readers can access the sources easily.  For instance, if you have a page number, a paragraph number, a scene and line numbers, etc. provide them.  You want to make it as easy as possible for your readers to locate the original quote.

Cite relevant and timely sources.

Fifteen years is probably as far back as you should go when citing sources (though some fields may ask you to only go ten or five years back).  You want to make sure your sources are current and that you are working with the latest available data.  So perhaps you can cite a scholar on Shakespeare from fifteen years ago, but if you are discussing teen pregnancy rates, you should find those rates from the most recent surveys.  You also want to make sure that your sources relate to your topic.  If you find teen pregnancy rates for Australia, you should not use those numbers to talk about teen pregnancy in Canada.

Know your seminal works and Your Major Scholars.

A seminal work is one that is considered to have greatly impacted the field.  Discussing communism?  You probably need to reference Marx.  Talking about psychoanalysis?  You probably need to be familiar with Freud.  But even if you don’t have a seminal source to work with, you should know the major voices in the conversation you are entering.  Writing about Tolkien?   You should probably know Tom Shippey.

Fact check yourself.

Whenever you make a claim in your paper, you should provide evidence for it.  This strengthens your argument, of course, but it also saves you from accidentally making false claims.  If you spend an entire paper writing about the corrupt king of a country because you just assume government corruption during the time period you are writing in, but never research this king, you might find it awkward for your paper to be returned with a note that there was actually a queen at this time, or that the country you were talking about was not even a country at that time in history and so there was no centralized government or monarchy.  In short, the king you wrote about for eight pages does not exist.  Oops!

Format Your Papers Correctly.

It may seem like a waste of time, but instructors like to see papers that are correctly formatted in whatever style their discipline favors.  Mastering the format  shows that you are trying to become a expert in the field in which you are writing.

Follow the Stylistic Conventions of the Genre.

Generally, you will want to write in a formal voice.  Avoid colloquialisms, slang, contractions, and cliches.  Refer to authors in the present tense.  Write literature papers in the active voice (but most lab reports should be written in the passive voice).  Use the citation style preferred by the discipline you are writing in.  Proofread your work and change misspellings.  If your instructor points out any small matters such as grammar, spelling, or stylistic issues, correct them before the final draft.

Leave the Thesaurus at Home.

Synonyms are not entirely interchangeable.  Words have different connotations and the longest word may not be the most suitable word.  Aim for clarity in your papers rather than a large number of complicated-sounding words.

Fix simple mistakes.

Make sure your dates are correct, the names of authors are spelled correctly, you have used the correct title of the work you are quoting ,etc.  Readers will be wary of a work that repeatedly refers to a book or author by the wrong name.  Doing a quick proofread can do wonders for your credibility.

Your Grades Might Matter Less Than You Think

College Advice

In October, I discussed how to deal with a poor grade in college.  Even though college is supposed to be more difficult than high school and students theoretically expect working longer and harder, the grades they receive can still cause a bit of a shock.  Indeed, many students feel like giving up even when they receive a good grade such as a “B” or a “B+” simply because they’ve spent their entire lives receiving “A’s.”

However, while grades are important and you undoubtedly need to maintain a certain G.P.A. in order to apply to certain grad schools or academic programs, receive certain scholarships, remain in Greek life, or be accepted into various honor programs, in the long run, your grades may matter a whole lot less than you think.  It’s a difficult thing to accept when you’re in college and everyone is fixated on grades and the stakes of doing poorly are drilled into you.  And yet, plenty of people do not have 4.0 G.P.A.’s and go on to lead successful and fulfilling lives.  The reality of life is far different from what you might think.

Most Jobs Don’t Ask for a Transcript

The saying is that “C’s” make degrees and this is largely true.  Most jobs ask that you have some sort of B.A., but they do not ask what grades you received to earn this B.A.  You can include your G.P.A. on your resume if it’s high, but if it’s missing it’s not likely most employers will think too much about it.  Likewise, you can include your honors societies, but probably most employers don’t know what those letters stand for, anyway.

in reality, employers are likely to care much more about other things: the name of your school, your work experience, and your recommendations.  If you want to be cynical about your prospects, you can be bitter that many employers are still likely to higher an Ivy grad over another applicant even if the Ivy grad doesn’t know anything about the job, or to hire someone just because they recognize the name of the school.  And that does not necessarily mean that they know your school has a prestigious history department.  People who know your school because of the football team will probably accept that as valid name recognition. You can also be bitter that entry level jobs ask for 3-5 years of experience.  And you can be bitter that most people get jobs because they know someone.  But your G.P.A.?  No one cares about it if you can do the job they’re hiring for.  So your best bet for landing your job is internships and networking, not your G.P.A.

Many People Change Careers

It’s almost laughable that colleges ask students to know what they want to do in life when they are eighteen- or nineteen-years-old.  Most people don’t know what life holds for them.  Most people don’t even know at such a young age what the profession they might want looks like.  Years later, it suddenly becomes clear that they find coding boring or that the job they once wanted is not compatible with the lifestyle they want.

You don’t need to have it all figured out as a freshman and lay out a four-year plan for success.  Plans change.  Maybe you received a grade you didn’t like in your major.  You can decide to change majors–that’s okay!  Or you can also decide to try to stick it out.  If you ask the people around you what they majored it, a surprising number will likely hold degrees that have nothing to do with their current jobs.  For instance, I’ve heard of an artist who works in a public library, a religion major who is now a doctor, and a medievalist who taught Spanish.  I have also heard of a professor who initially failed out of his undergrad college.  Your life is not set in stone and a poor grade does not have to stop you from following your dreams, or finding new dreams.

Taking Risks May Be More Valuable Than the Grade

To maintain a certain G.P.A., you may also be tempted to stay in “safe” classes, the ones where you know the instructors grade easily or the ones you know you will do well in.  However, taking a course outside your comfort zone can be immensely valuable and you should free to explore that creative writing or ceramics class, or to learn about something you know nothing about like economics, music, or world religions.  You can’t quantify the kinds of value these experiences have or the impact they might have on your life down the road.  Even if the value you get out of them is learning that you aren’t really good at something, but you still have the strength to persevere.


Of course everyone wants to do well in school and to earn the types of grades that will leave as many doors open as possible.  However, receiving poor grades do not mean you are a failure.  They are simply a learning opportunity.  Don’t be discouraged if you aren’t yet where you want to be.  You can make it.  Plenty of people have failed before you and made it, too.  You are still strong and smart and valuable!

Krysta 64


Should You Challenge Your Grade in College?

College Advice

I know many students ask instructors to raise their grades as a matter of course, whether that means attempting to guilt the instructor by telling them they need to maintain a high GPA for a scholarship or application, or simply trying to earn back a few points (also known as grade grubbing).  Some students take a more indirect approach by making comments like “I hope all my hard work pays off!”  Still, I think most students realize that asking for a grade raise is a futile endeavor but do it just in case.  They assume it’s worth asking  five instructors to raise their grade if one of them might actually do it.  However, though the strategy seems worthwhile for that minor boost, there might be other repercussions these students never see.

What Happens When You Challenge a Grade?

First, of course, you should realize that, actually,  most instructors do not change grades as a matter of policy simply because they spent a lot of time grading your work and stand by their decision and changing your grade because you asked them to is unfair to your classmates.  Also, if you challenge a grade and bring it to the department or program head, they will likely not raise your grade for the simple reason that they do not want to undermine the authority of their instructors, who will be more familiar with your work than they are.  Thus, your grade challenge is almost guaranteed to be unsuccessful.  In the end, it’s probably not worth challenging a grade unless you have strong grounds to do so.

But What If Another Student Has a Higher Grade for the Same Work?

This is tricky.  Unless you’re in some sort of math or science course where the grade can be objectively compared (as in you filled out the same multiple choice bubble for the answer and your friend got points but you did not), it’s still unlikely that your grade challenge will be successful.  First of all, instructors do not like to change other students’ grades based on student complaints.  That is, they are extremely unlikely to lower Student A’s grade because you complained that Student A did not write a strong paper or contribute much to your group work.  But will they raise your grade?

Again, this is hard to know.  First of all, if you are complaining about something like an essay because you think your paper is as good as Student A’s but Student A received an “A-” but you got a “B+,” you might not know what factors went into grading.  It may actually be true that Student A wrote a more original and complex argument than you did, and provided stronger evidence, even though you believe your paper is pretty good.  It may also be possible that Student A did significant revision and went to office hours, leading the instructor to acknowledge this effort in the grade even though the paper was on the cusp of a “B+” and an “A-.”

Your instructor is unlikely to discuss all this with you because, frankly, what Student A does and what grades Student A receives are not your business.  So, the instructor might offer to review your work but they are not going to compare your work to another student’s.  Most likely they will offer to explain to you why you earned the grade you did, but will refuse to consider a grade change at all.

But What If You Still Want to Challenge Your Grade?

If you remain convinced that your grade is wrong or you deserved more points, you have to be careful about the way you present your case.  Here are some helpful tips:

  • First of all, acknowledge that you earn your grades.  Suggesting that an instructor “gave” you a grade is going to make them skeptical about your claim before they even read it.
  • Frame the conversation as you wanting to know how you can improve rather than as you wanting to know why the instructor gave you a grade you don’t like.  Now you’ve impressed your instructor.
  • You can also ask them if they can explain the point system to you so you understand how they calculated your grade.  Be sure to frame this in a way that suggests  you want to understand, not that you disagree with the way they set up their grade percentages.
  • If you begin with “I am not complaining” or “I am not grade grubbing,” you have primed your instructor to assume you are complaining or grade grubbing.  Don’t raise these possibilities for them.
  • Don’t try to guilt instructors.  If you tell them you need a certain GPA , they’re going to remind you that you earn the GPA.  They also hear these complaints all the time, so it’s unfortunately difficult to exploit this as you needing extra help since everyone in the class likely wants a good grade for some reason or another.
  • Remain polite.  If the instructor refuses to listen to you but you truly believe your grade is too low for whatever reason, you can ask if there is someone above them who can arbitrate.  You don’t have to get into an argument with them.  There are policies in place for these sorts of things.


Grade challenges are unsuccessful in almost all cases, which should make you question whether you want to spend your time pursuing one. So choose your battles wisely.  Begin by asking your instructor to explain your grade to you and asking how you can improve your performance.  After that, if you remain unsatisfied, you should seriously consider the pros and cons of raising a grade challenge.  Don’t rush into one just in case.

Krysta 64