Good grades open doors. Graduate school admissions officers consider overall grade point average (GPA) as well as grades in specific course work. So, too, do future employers. In fact, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers' Job Outlook 2013 survey, "more than 78 percent [of employers] Employers gpa cutoffsay that they will screen candidates by GPA." The job market plays a role here: When employers have an abundance of applicants, standards go up. If an employer has a GPA cutoff, it will likely be higher in years of high unemployment.

Good grades aren't the only way to advance. Internship experience and commitment to extracurricular activities are also highly valued. However, it's worth noting how important grades are so that you can take steps now to do well in your classes—and to maintain a solid GPA throughout your college years.

This chapter will:

  • provide an overview of grading systems
  • outline alternative grading options
  • illustrate the value of earning good grades your first year
  • recommend strategies to maintain good grades

Grading Systems

Instructors work hard to grade fairly and accurately, but the methods of grading vary widely and may cause confusion for students. Some instructors assess student performance based on one or two major written assignments; others don't grade written work but calculate students' grades based on a test or two per semester. Some instructors grade participation, some offer extra credit assignments, some drop the lowest exam grade. The course syllabus should explain how students are assessed.

Despite the variation in methods and means of grading, there are only two major grading systems that you're likely to encounter:

Absolute Grading
This is the most common grading system. The instructor sets the point or percentage range for each letter grade at the beginning of the term. For example, a score of 90% or above is predetermined to be an A. Theoretically, with the absolute grading system, every student in class could get an A on a given test.

Relative Grading
Also known as "grading on a curve." This is a more competitive grading system, as each student's performance is evaluated against her peers. There are many ways to curve grades. Here's one example: Let's say the average score in the class is a 79%. If the instructor uses a standard deviation calculation to determine the cutoffs for each grade, an 89-100% is an A, 85-88% is a B, 72-84% is a C, 60-71% is a D, and 59% or below is a failing grade.

Make sure you understand within the first week of school the processes and systems that each of your instructors use. If the grading criteria are unclear, ask your instructor to clarify.

Grading Options

There are alternatives to receiving a letter grade for a class.

Many colleges allow some variation of the Pass/Fail option, though it's usually available only for non-required courses or electives. This is a great alternative for students interested in taking a certain class who want to limit the stress of working for a grade. Some schools encourage students to pursue curiosity and passion by taking interesting classes outside of their department, using the Pass/ Fail option. For example, a History major fascinated by Physics might elect to take a Physics class Pass/Fail. Usually, your instructor will not know you are taking the course as a Pass/Fail. He or she will submit your grade to the registrar, who will convert it to a P or F on your transcript.

The incomplete is a good option for students who have experienced a major event or illness that has interfered with their ability to complete coursework. A student who is interested in pursuing this alternative needs to discuss it with his or her instructor and get permission. Usually, the student and instructor will then agree on a completion date that is sometime after the actual end of the course. An "Incomplete" will appear on the student's transcript until the comple- tion date. The student needs to submit all work and take all exams by that completion date in order to earn a letter grade for the course. A missed deadline may result in an F.

There is a window of time after the term begins when a student can add or
drop a course without the change affecting his transcript. This allows students to attend classes for the first few meetings and make an informed decision to stay in a class, switch to another class, or drop the class altogether. If a student withdraws after a certain date, however, a W will appear on his or her transcript.

Challenging Your Grade

Even college instructors make mistakes. You may find that an exam or assign- ment has been graded incorrectly. You may think that a question was worded awkwardly, which led you to answer it incorrectly. Or you may feel an instructor has treated you and your work unfairly. If any of these situations occur,

Gather the information you need to make your case. Refer to class notes, textbooks, previous assignments, and tests.

Make an appointment to discuss your concerns with your instructor.

Avoid defensiveness and anger. Listen to your instructor's reasoning carefully so you fully understand the situation.

If you are still not satisfied after meeting with your instructor, make an appointment to discuss your concerns with your academic advisor and ask for her or his advice.

If you are still not satisfied, you can petition to have the grade changed through the department committee that oversees the course.

The Value of Starting Strong

It's a lot easier to start off with a good grade point average than to dig out of a hole later. If you start strong and keep the momentum going, you won't have to worry so much about your grade slipping when you're in the really challeng- ing classes your last two years of college. Here's an illustration that tracks the progress of two hypothetical students, Alex and Pat.

Value of Starting StrongAs you can see, Alex did poorly the first term and well the second term. However, Alex has a long way to go to raise his cumulative GPA and his classes will only get more difficult.

Starting college with good grades is like an insurance policy: it protects you from potential GPA damage if you get a lower grade later in your college career.

Strategies for Maintaining Good Grades

Well, you could sign up for the easiest courses and take the bare minimum number of credits necessary to maintain enrollment and/or financial aid. It wouldn't be very rewarding, though. Here's how to challenge yourself, get an excellent education, and maintain good grades:

Focus on learning. Attend class, study, and complete course work. When you master the material, the grades will show it.

Balance your course load. Take a reasonable number of classes, and balance very challenging classes with not-so-difficult ones.

Make sure you understand the objectives of the course and how you'll be evaluated.

Connect with your instructors. Get comfortable with asking questions and asking for assistance. Discuss any concerns you have with your instructor. If you feel an error has been made, bring it to your instructor's attention.

Lose focus as you enjoy your college freedom. First-year grades do matter and they can be hard to make up for later.

Overload yourself with too many challenging classes in the same term.

Give up. Any improvement you make in your grades—either in a specific course during a term or in your overall grade point average—will help and is worth the effort.

Get defensive or angry if you disagree with a grade you have received. Become familiar with how your college handles these kinds of situations and participate in the process.

Grades Exercises

  1. Review the syllabi of the classes you're enrolled in this term. What are the grading procedures of each instructor?
  2. Research alternative grading options available at your college and the requirements for electing those alternatives.


for more resources and exercises.