Have you ever taken an extremely awful class, pretty much the worst class in the world? The senile professor lectures unbelievably slowly, with long pauses and confusing tangents that leave your notes an endless mess. The pop quizzes aren’t even on the reading or lectures, just random facts you could never possibly know. And the Teacher’s Assistant (TA) is no help at all, consumed with their own work. Imagine getting an A in that awful class!
Despite all odds, it’s possible. I know, because I did it; in fact, I ended up getting the highest grade in the class. It was a course on Chinese history, and I came into it with absolutely zero knowledge on China. I came out with a 94%. At this point, you may be wondering, “Holy crap, how did you do it?” In this article, I’ll give you seven easy steps so that you too can succeed in literally any class you take in college.
I need to preface this article by saying one thing: this stems from my experience as a humanities/social sciences major. Although some of the methods for earning an A will transfer to STEM and computer science courses, I cannot guarantee that these methods will get you an A. In fact, I cannot guarantee these methods will get you an A in any class. The information in this article may improve your scores, but the key factor is personal effort. You must make the active decision to commit yourself to the work. Once you make that decision, these seven easy steps will help you succeed in all your courses.
1. DO YOUR RESEARCH
Take classes with professors that have good ratings, not classes that sound interesting. As the saying goes, a professor can make or break the class.
For example, I saw a class on the roster at my school called “Constitutional Law.” As a pre-law student, I thought it sounded fascinating. However, when I looked up the professor’s ratings, I was immediately discouraged from taking the class. He had terrible ratings that cited unclear lectures, difficult tests, and an unresponsive, unsympathetic attitude. Therefore, I steered clear, ultimately to my benefit. I discovered later in the semester that his midterms tested material that wasn’t even covered in lecture or reading, and that he often went off on confusing side stories.
I also saw a class on the list called “Southeast Asian Politics.” That sounded pretty boring to me, but the professor’s ratings were insanely high, with amazing reviews on various ratings websites. So I ended up taking the class, and it turned out to be a great experience despite my initial lack of interest in Southeast Asia. I found myself really enjoying the course and getting engaged in the lectures.
So, get familiar with the ratings websites that your school uses. A universal, commonly-used website is ratemyprofessors.com, which usually has reliable information. One tip to be aware of, however, is the date of the review. Anything earlier than 2013-2014 could be nearing unreliable because of its obsolescence. It’s better to rely on more recent reviews. Another popular website is ninjacourses.com, on which I personally rely heavily. It’s saved my GPA more than a few times, so much that I should probably mention it in my graduation speech.
2. INTRODUCE YOURSELF TO THE PROF/TA ON THE FIRST DAY OF CLASS
This is KEY. I know, I know, sometimes it can be embarrassing and a little awkward. But this will save your grade later in the semester by making a fabulous first impression with your professor or TA. Introducing yourself has two positive functions. First, it demonstrates that you have a friendly and proactive attitude. Second, introducing yourself signals a deeper interest in engaging with the course material and the professor, above and beyond any other student.
Since it can be hard to introduce yourself, especially if you’re shy, here’s a quick and easy template: “Hi Professor ______. My name is ______ and I am a (year) (major) student. I’m really looking forward to your class this semester because (insert real or fake reason here).”
Just do it, seriously. Every single class. It takes no more than 15 seconds, and it will make such a positive impression on your professors and TAs. They will remember your initiative and good attitude for the rest of the semester.
3. INCREMENTALLY READ/WORK ON ASSIGNMENTS
Do not cram or leave things to the last minute. I know that can be hard, but hear me out: You retain so much more information when you’re not cramming/rushing.
For example, it will be difficult for you to retain any information if you try to cram hundreds of pages of reading. Therefore, you should plan a long reading assignment out over a few days to a week, rather than putting it all in one day. For instance, as a Political Science major, I usually have about 400 pages of reading a week. How do I get through it all without going insane? I spread it out. 60 pages a day for 7 days is much more manageable than attempting to skim it all in a day or two. Plus, you’ll feel good when you achieve each little daily accomplishment.
The same goes for assignments and problem sets: plan them out over a week or weeks, rather than waiting until the last day. Especially with problem sets and essays, which often pose difficult questions. If you start thinking about those questions early, you have time to come up with innovative answers. For example, with essays, I like to sketch out some possible arguments and evidence the day I get the prompt. As the days go by, I’ll build an outline, constantly modifying and developing my argument so it becomes stronger and reflects a more complex, nuanced thought. I’ll bring my argument to the professor or TA, get feedback, then keep developing it. I’ll write a first draft at least a week before the essay is due, then continue to edit and revise incrementally, a little bit each day.
If you start a task soon after it’s assigned, rather than waiting until the very end, the answers produced will be so much more clear, thought-out, and innovative. Essentially, you’ll produce A answers.
4. SKIP READING WHEN YOU CAN AFFORD IT
This is for the humanities majors out there. History majors often receive hundreds, if not a thousand pages of reading a week from all their classes combined. This is an impossible amount. You cannot be expected to do all of this and still have a social life/sleep. Therefore, skip reading where you can afford it. Be strategic about how you read.
Learn from midterms and assignments that you get back. Figure out which readings to focus on and which readings to avoid. For example, if the midterm or final paper is an essay, you can skip certain readings and just focus on the ones that are interesting or pertinent to your essay. Not only does this reduce your workload, but it makes incremental reading of the important books easier.
5. GO TO OFFICE HOURS
There is no excuse for not attending office hours. Seriously, go to your professor’s or TA’s office hours. It’s so simple, yet so beneficial. If you have class during their office hours, they will be more than happy to schedule another time you can meet. Literally, just go. to. office hours. Not only is it prime one-on-one time where every question you have gets answered directly, but it’s also a perfect time to show your professor or TA how invested you are in the course.
With my Chinese history class, I went to the TA’s office hours every single week. Sometimes, I didn’t even have questions; I would just sit and listen to other people and try to learn from them. Now, I’m not saying that you have to go every week; that’s a feat reserved for the super-nerds. All I’m saying is that the simple act of going and getting key questions answered not only boosts your understanding of the course material, but boosts your professor’s/TA’s evaluation of you as a student. They will view you as more hard-working and committed than other students in the class.
6. MAKE A GOOD IMPRESSION
Make a good impression on your professor or TA. When they grade your work, even if they try their best to remain objective, there’s subconscious subjectivity to grading. They will evaluate your work not only by what’s on the page, but also, unconsciously, by their knowledge of you as a person. If you don’t make a good impression, it could be fatal to your grade.
So how do you make a good impression? Make sure your professor sees you’re trying, even if you’re not answering questions right. Sit near the front (or in the front row). Take notes. Don’t get on your phone. Be engaged in the lecture by looking at the professor while he/she lectures. Show up on time. These are very, very easy things to do that can boost your grade immensely. Your professor/TA will notice these things, and will subconsciously take into account these habits when they grade you. Sure, these habits make you look like a nerd. But if you really want the A, you won’t care how you look.
One last note. If you get a midterm back and it’s a bad grade, don’t go to the professor or TA complaining about it or arguing with them. That’s another fatal mistake that students often make. When you get a bad grade, go to your professor or TA asking how you can improve. This is beneficial for two reasons. First, they’ll probably give you good advice in ways to improve your work that you can transfer to other courses. Second, they’ll evaluate you more positively by your apparent willingness to learn from your mistakes.
7. GRADES DON’T DEFINE YOU
In 30 years, what are you really going to remember from college? The midterm that you got an A on, or the amazing times you had with your friends at game day?
Although classes seem like the end of the world right now, your undergraduate GPA probably won’t matter that much when you’re applying to jobs, at least in comparison to other traits and experience. Make sure that you enjoy the fun experiences that college has to offer while you’re here. Cherish the friendships, the clubs, and the shared experiences with your peers. You only go through undergrad once, so you might as well enjoy it.
That has been the 4.0 Student guide to getting an A! Ultimately, it’s up to you to put in the effort for each class. If you combine your personal effort with these tips, your course performance will be sure to improve. Happy studying!