Ten Ways to Get A's in College
Tuesday, October 3, 2006; 10:00 AM
My college professors are all pretty much retired, or dead. There is little chance any of them will see the headline above, which I wrote myself. But if they did read it they would, in their dry professorial way, be deeply amused.
That is because I did not appear to them when I was in college to be the kind of student capable of giving advice on getting A's. I spent most of my time at the student newspaper -- playing reporter, staying up all night editing my friends' stories, enjoying my steady diet of ice cream sandwiches and Coke, and chasing a certain blonde.
Getting A's was not high on my to-do list. To this day I don't believe getting good grades in college is as important as getting good grades in high school. High school, for most people these days, is about getting ready for college. You cannot do that if you do not apply yourself to your studies. College, on the other hand, is about getting ready for life. Unless you have your heart set on med school or law school or some other form of grad-school trauma, your extracurricular activities in college are often more important than your courses.
But getting A's is better than getting B's, B's are better than C's, and so on. For those who want to get the best grades they can in the time they have allotted for study, a new book, "Professors' Guide to Getting Good Grades in College," provides wonderfully useful and easily digestible wisdom.
The authors are Lynn F. Jacobs, associate professor of art history at the University of Arkansas and formerly an instructor at Vanderbilt, California State University-Northridge, Redlands and NYU, and Jeremy S. Hyman, an expert on early modern philosophy who has taught at Arkansas, MIT, UCLA and Princeton. Their 352 page-paperback, available for $10.85 on amazon.com, is playful, clear and well-organized. Portions can be found online at http:/
You may have concluded that getting A's is relatively easy at many campuses in this era of galloping college-grade inflation, and you would be right. But Jacobs and Hyman point out that some colleges have begun to enforce limits on the numbers of A's that can be dispensed, and some measure of reality may soon return to the college-grading scene.
Here are 10 bits of advice from the book I thought were particularly helpful. Some of these actually worked for me, on those startling occasions when I got an A. They also have merit as success-producing habits in endeavors other than making your transcript look good to employers, and might even work in high school.
1. Show up the first day and pay attention, and if you don't like a course, drop it fast and pick another one .
"Sure, it would be nice to extend your summer or winter vacation by a day or two," say Jacobs and Hyman. But you have to be there the first day of class and, they emphasize, "you have to be on." You need to be particularly attentive to what you are told about how the course will be graded, and what the course is about. Sometimes catalogues or your friends or even your adviser are misinformed. If the professor is incomprehensible or boring or assumes you know a lot of stuff you don't know, you should get out of there and find something else.
2. Don't load up on easy courses to increase your supply of A's. Jacobs and Hyman thankfully give permission to take a few guts. My favorite easy course was Astro 2: Celestial Navigation. It had almost no homework, ended with a cruise in the local harbor and was a guaranteed A. The authors note there are a limited supply of such courses, that your major is going to require you to get deeply into something rigorous and even courses that seem easy are not always so. Jacobs, as an art history professor, has apparently enjoyed skewering more than a few undergraduates who thought her course would be nothing more than a stroll through the museum.
3. Don't shy away from courses with lots of papers . Most people, like me, don't learn to write until they get to college. It is an important skill for life and should not be avoided. But the authors offer an even more practical reason for putting some of these courses on your list: "Taking courses that include papers will allow you the freedom to stagger your workload and avoid test overload."
4. Don't give up if they say the course you want is booked up . Jacobs and Hyman give very precise and intelligent advice on what to say and what not to say when dealing directly with college professors and their teaching assistants -- who in many cases are the actual graders and thus key players in this book. To get into a closed course, you should say it's your last chance to take it, or you've always wanted to take the course, or you took the prerequisite and enjoyed it or more simply you just heard great things about it. Don't say, the authors advise, "I need something on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 2 p.m. would be really sweet."
5. Use office hours intelligently, and often . At most campuses, professors and teaching assistants MUST have office hours during which they are available for questions. They find it a sign of interest -- not incompetence -- if a student shows up. To get a good grade, and to enjoy that often-overlooked byproduct of actually learning something in the course, regular conversations with the people who are teaching it, and grading your work, are very useful.
6. Go to lectures and take notes yourself . The authors put great emphasis on this. They say not to worry about what note-taking format you use and about getting down every word, but be legible and focus on the lecture's structure and the technical terms. And don't rely on those lecture notes you can buy in some campus book stores, or get from your roommate in return for doing her laundry for a month.
"Knowing you'll have to take notes is one of the main things that gets you to go to the lecture in the first place," the authors say. Taking notes keeps you alert. The professional notes -- and particularly your roommate's notes -- often leave important stuff out.
7. Use section meetings for more than identifying attractive classmates . The discussions are very helpful in understanding the course, and getting your grades up. Stay on topic, talk less if you are talking all the time, prepare for sections but apologize and pass if asked a question about which you have no clue. Don't view section discussions as a competitive sport, don't ask questions just for the sake of asking questions and don't announce that you are not prepared.
8. Find some old exams in the course . Jacobs and Hyman title this tip: "Get Your Hands on the Treasure." They say they do not want you to break into the professor's office to steal the actual upcoming exam. Instead, students should recognize that some professors give out their old exams, or they can be found in library, in fraternity, sorority or dorm files, or from friends who have already taken the course.
9. Before you start work on your paper, do the analysis in your head. I thought this was one of the smartest suggestions in the book. College students have a tendency to think they have to go to the library before they do any thinking on a paper topic, but in reality the best papers will be those that grow from the student's personal thoughts. Reflect on what experiences you have had that relate to the topic. Kick it around with friends at dinner. Explore views you have heard on the topic that make no sense to you. Graders often gives A's for original takes on old issues. The only place to find such fresh thinking is in your own head.
10. If you challenge a grade, be careful . The authors say most grade disputes are pointless. You are better off using the time with the grader to talk about ways to improve your work. But if you must challenge a grade, use the right reasons. Jacobs and Hyman say these are good: the grader made a calculation error, or didn't notice a page of your answer, or misread some numbers, or misidentified the question you were answering. These reasons are bad: the test was unfair, the grading scale was too hard, your friend who studied the same amount did better or you need a C to stay on the softball team.