5 Tips For When Your College Freshman Gets Bad Grades

Today I received the email confirming the final grades for the three classes I instructed this semester were posted for students to view.

And now I wait. I wait for the emails asking (or begging) if there is anything I can do to help them get to a better grade:  a C to a B, a B+ to an A-, or sometimes even an A to an A+ (it takes all of my willpower to not hit reply to tell that student to please go have some fun).

For every request, I review the student’s grades to ensure I did not miss anything. And then I write them back to let them know that unfortunately there is nothing I can do and the grade they earned (not that I gave them) stands. While I wish these students exhibited this much concern about their academic performance before final grades, I still sympathize with their plight, especially when it’s first-year students.

Teens can rebound from making bad grades at college.
If you’ve had a disappointing first semester at college, all is not lost. (wk1003mike/Shutterstock)

The first semester of college is one of the biggest transitions a young adult will encounter. And while the emotional and social transitions for a student can be daunting, so too are the academic changes. Even the high school all-stars can struggle as they adapt to the pace and workload of college classes.

If your first-semester teen is hesitantly logging on to see their grades over winter break and are disappointed with their performance, below are some tips to discuss with them for what they can do next.

Five Steps to Take After Receiving Bad Grades at College

1. Assess the immediate damage. Is there any financial aid or scholarship that is now at risk? Is your membership in an honors or scholars program dependent on a certain GPA? If so, it is important to find out what you need to do. Do not wait for someone to contact you ─ be proactive and set up meetings with relevant advisors to ensure clear requirements, set goals and learn about options.

For example, if you failed a class, check to see what your school’s policy is about re-taking the class and, if available, replacing the original grade. Many university offices are open over winter break so if you are close to your school, you do not need to wait until classes have resumed to meet.

2. Reflect. Before immediately blaming external circumstances (“The class was boring!”, “I didn’t like the professor!”, “I don’t function at 8 a.m.!”, etc.), get honest with yourself. Usually the biggest grade-reducing culprits that students can identify are they didn’t study enough, they didn’t manage their time appropriately to submit quality work, and they just didn’t think it would be so different from high school. This is your chance to make some changes.

Use winter break to get organized (buy a planner!) and devise a plan for healthier study habits. Ask yourself where you will study, how you will maximize time between classes for productivity, and what campus offices and tutoring resources can help you (please, please, pleaseidentify your campus writing center and have them review your assignments before submitting).

3. Do more with less. Perhaps you did it all in high school ─ top of your class, leader in every club, star volunteer. It is natural to think it will be the same in college, but it’s okay to give yourself more transition time and take your ascent slow. If you can, register for fewer classes (be sure to check your school’s requirements for the minimum hours you can take and still be considered full time or still be eligible for financial aid/scholarships). And while you do not need to swing the pendulum the complete other direction and quit all of your extracurricular activities, maybe just focus on one that is really meaningful for you while you concentrate on improving your grades.

4. Get to know your professors from the beginning. The tricky thing about college is that once you finally figure out how one professor works, it’s time to change classes! So, every semester you need to pay attention to what your professors are paying attention to. And stopping by office hours before you need something is critical. It’s not that professors will give you a better grade if they know you (at least I hope not), but you will feel more comfortable asking for help during the semester should the time come.

Students often tell me they are intimidated by their professors, so they do not go directly to them when they are struggling in class. I promise you ─ almost every professor wants you to succeed. Let them learn your name ─ this is easier when you talk to them face-to-face.

5. Don’t give up hope! Your first semester is a critical one that can often feel like it sets the tone for the rest of your time at the university. But it is often the wake-up call needed to make some positive changes early on in your college journey while you still have ample time to right the ship. Unlike later semesters, there are still plenty of grades left to be earned that can improve your GPA. Like the emotional and social growth you will experience, so too will you get to see how far you can grow academically.


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About Caryn Berardi

Caryn Berardi has worked in higher education for 10 years as both as a career counselor and currently as an associate director for an undergraduate honors program. Her role enables her to engage directly with students (and parents) and help them succeed academically, professionally and personally. Her writing has been seen on The Huffington Post, Kveller, Scary Mommy and Modern Loss. When she’s not working or chasing her twin toddler boys (usually in opposite directions), she can be found musing on her blog or Twitter.

Read more posts by Caryn

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