From straight-As to that horrifying first B. After the initial panic, it turned out to be a valuable learning experience.
When I was in high school, I was a straight-A student. You might have been too. Maybe you said things like “I didn’t study for that test, and I still got 92%.” If you did, you were a lot like seventeen-year-old me.
My Grade 12 teachers warned me that my grades would probably go down in university. But I told myself that while it might happen to some people, it won’t happen to me.
It Happened to Me
When I began my BA in Digital Communications and Non-Fiction Writing, I was expecting to get a 4.0 GPA. But the truth is, I didn’t even know what a 4.0 entailed. I was never interested in law school or anything that required a high GPA (or close to it). All I knew was that I liked describing myself as a straight-A student.
In first year, everyone who sat near me in lectures and tutorials thought I was a good student. I scribbled handwritten notes to keep up with the professor, I raised my hand, and I rarely skipped class. But those habits didn’t guarantee me good grades like they did in high school. When I got my marks back for my first midterms and assignments of the semester, most of them were in the high 60s. I was devastated. I couldn’t remember the last time I got a mark in the 60s! For the rest of the term, I worked three times as hard as I did in high school. Yet, my final marks were all in the B range.
That’s right: the once-dreaded B range. Something that would have been the ultimate embarrassment in high school had become something that I was okay with. Hell, even happy with.
My grades improved throughout my undergrad and, by fourth year, most of my grades were A and A-minuses. Now that I’ve graduated, I’m actually happy that I wasn’t a straight-A student. It helped me learn a lot of important lessons that I wouldn’t have learned without the rude awakening.
So You Got Your First B—Who Cares? Prioritize Learning, Not Grades!
When I think back to what I studied in high school, most of it was, well…boring. I wasn’t a science student, and a lot of the arts classes I took didn’t quite stimulate me. I just liked them because I knew I could do well in them. The only class I can say I genuinely enjoyed was Grade 11 American History.
Even the dry first and second year prerequisite-type classes I took in university were more interesting than any class I took in high school. Though I got lower grades in those classes, I learned more.
In fact, some of the classes that benefitted me in my early career were classes that I got average marks in.
In my third year, I took a course on blogging and content creation. It was taught by a professor who had a full-time job in online marketing. He taught me how to use WordPress and write for an online audience. While I only got a 73 in the class, I always found myself recalling what I learned so I could put it to use at my internships. That class has benefitted me more than a lot of the classes I got 80s in.
Consider Taking a Course That’s Outside of Your Comfort Zone
When I was in high school, I wanted to take an economics course. I thought that it sounded interesting but I didn’t think I’d be able to get an A in it. So I opted for some courses that I thought were easier, even though I wasn’t as interested in them.
But once university knocked me off my straight-A pedestal, I was no longer afraid to take courses that challenged me. I guess I thought I had nothing to lose. In my third year, I took a course in HTML and CSS, something I never would have tried in high school.
I struggled in the course at first, but by the time midterms rolled around… I…. I… I got it! I understood it!
To be clear, I hated the course, and I got a C in it. But I gained basic HTML and CSS skills that have helped me later on in my internships. And I discovered that I definitely don’t want to be a full-time web designer, which is something.
REMEMBER: Figuring out what you don’t want to do is often just as useful as figuring out what you do want to do.
Develop Better Studying Habits
A ride on the B-train can help you discover some things about yourself. It can also help you discover what study habits work for you, because, yes, you will likely need to improve your study habits if you want to get As in university.
When I was in high school, I often studied for tests the night before and still got 90s. In university, not so much. So I had to develop better study habits if I ever wanted my GPA to go up.
Here’s what I find works for me:
1. Start studying a week before the test, and study a little bit every day.
Say goodbye to cramming. If you study a little bit every day, you can absorb one fraction of the course content at a time and, bit by bit, you can become an expert in it.
2. Go to your professor’s office hours.
I know professors can seem intimidating, especially in first year, but most of them are eager to help you if you seek them out. And, believe it or not, they almost never have sticks up their butts!!!
Before I started university, I had this image that all professors were old white dudes in grey tweed jackets who haven’t laughed since the Monty Python movies played in theatres. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I discovered that professors are usually friendlier and more passionate than high school teachers.
Also, one day, you may need a reference letter. You’ll be happy that you made a connection with a professor.
NOTE: Professors’ office hours are especially useful if you’re struggling with an assignment. You can bounce ideas off your professor and have a constructive discussion.
3. Work smarter, not harder.
I find that I always study better when I focus on the big picture rather than the minutia of the course textbook (though I am an arts student, it might be different for STEM students).
And, when appropriate, I try to incorporate my own creativity and voice into my assignments. In high school “creativity” meant that the teacher made you draw a poster about the book you chose for your English Performance Task, and, since I can’t draw for shit, I groaned every time a teacher uttered the words “creative component”.
In university, it’s different. Creativity can mean a lot of things. You might throw a joke in your presentation, pick an offbeat topic for your Research Methods class, or throw a pun in your essay (though I would be careful with that last one, puns are hard to get right).
I’m a big comedy fan, so I often throw jokes into my assignments and presentations. I think my professors and TAs appreciate it.
REMEMBER: They have to mark A LOT, so take opportunities to break the monotony for them. It will help them remember you and if they have positive memories of you, they’re more likely to write you a reference letter or grade more favourably on a future assignment.
The Point Is…
Look, if you want to get straight-As because you’re trying to get into law school or med school that’s one thing, but if you aim for straight-As just because you want to call yourself a straight-A student, you should know that getting one B (or even a few Bs) is rarely the end of the world. In fact, that B might teach you a few things. I learned more from Bs than I ever did from As.
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