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Sometimes grades don’t come out as planned. What can you do if you receive a less-than-ideal grade? The first step is to recognize that it’s okay.

Acknowledge the Situation

Receiving a less-than-perfect grade doesn’t mean you’re lowering your standards or that you’re intellectually incompetent. Sherry H., a senior at Ashford University online, says, “I set very high standards for myself. I tend to be so hard on myself that one bad grade gives me anxiety. Being a perfectionist can make for unnecessary stress.”

Michael Hartman, an academic advisor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, says, “A low grade on an exam or even in a class is just one point in your entire undergraduate career.”

He explains, “Doing poorly in one class has negligible effects. Students should realize that one bad grade [won’t] torpedo their chances at their dreams.”

Identify the Problem

The next step to bouncing back from the hit of a poor grade is to look at the situation critically and assess what went wrong. What was different about your life as you studied for this class, exam, or project?

Any number of factors can hinder a bright student’s shot at a good grade, including:

  • A particularly challenging course
  • Unfamiliar subject matter
  • Poor time management
  • Financial stressors
  • Relationship issues
  • Family problems
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Adjusting to college expectations
  • Substance abuse
  • Ineffective study habits
  • Extended illness or injury
  • A new commitment (e.g., a job)

Mismanaging time is a leading cause of challenges for students. It can lead to stress, and stress can lead to less-than-ideal grades. Charri Boykin-East, senior associate dean of students and coordinator of academic support at Amherst College in Massachusetts, suggests finding whatever system works for you to keep your life organized, whether it’s an online calendar, a to-do list on your phone, or an old-fashioned date book.

“I had to reconsider my study habits and get to the reason why I got the grade so that I could work on fixing it and improving in the future,” says Sam B., a sophomore at Carleton University in Ontario, Canada.

Hartman emphasizes that while  ineffective study habits are often to blame for less-than-optimal grades, students don’t always know how to move forward.

Identify Resources

“Students will say, ‘I’m just going to study harder,’ but they need to study differently,” says Hartman. Simply identifying the problem isn’t enough. You have to address it, and address it appropriately.

Most campuses have a variety of resources available to help students explore issues like effective study habits and balancing multiple responsibilities. But you have to seek them out.

“It takes a village. None of us got here by ourselves,” says Boykin-East. “It’s really important as a well-educated person to know when to ask for help.”
The people around you can be a great resource as well. “Be in close contact with your faculty,” Boykin-East suggests. “Good communication is important.”

Larissa S., a senior at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, explains, “A professor may see you as a ‘good student’ if he or she sees that you’re trying and actively pursuing success.”

Crystal H., a junior at The University of New Orleans in Louisiana, learned this after she got a less-than-perfect grade. “I was extremely upset at first. I calmed down and sought out information on how to amend the grade,” she says. “In the end, my instructor and I agreed on a much better grade that we both thought was fair.”

Hartman agrees that talking with professors and graduate assistants is a great place to start if you’re having a hard time with a class, and says that students don’t need to be intimidated by them. “A lot of times I end up giving students a pep talk [so they’ll] talk to professors. They’re sometimes a little afraid,” Hartman explains. “Students think professors are so smart and they shouldn’t ask them questions, but going to visit their offices can be helpful.”

Common Student Support Resources

Your school has many offices and people who can help you if your grades aren’t what you’d like them to be. Here are some to look for:
  • Writing center
  • Tutoring services
  • Academic support center
  • Counseling services
  • Study-skills resources
  • Academic advising and counseling
  • Disability services (Ask about learning style or learning disability evaluations and support.)

Be Kind to Yourself

Remember, college is the time to challenge yourself. Samantha K.*, a junior at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, says, “I worked hard, but one class was extremely challenging. The exams covered a great deal of information. I felt upset.”

But Larissa notes, “I’ve had to learn not to let grades and academic success determine my self-worth. This is a struggle for many students.”

Boykin-East emphasizes that it’s important to take care of yourself and keep an open mind, even when your grades don’t come out as planned. “Exercise. Breathe. Sleep is so underrated. Take a break. Eat well,” she advises, going on to say that challenges can be the best learning experiences. She explains, “None of us are perfect. But maybe that class you didn’t do well in will be the one course you learn the most from.”

*Name changed for privacy

Take Action!

  • Recognize what issues affected your grades.
  • Talk with your academic advisor to put the situation into perspective.
  • Ask for help from school resources.
  • Ask professors and graduate assistants for support.
  • Develop a plan for organizing your time and taking care of your physical and emotional needs.

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