At this time of year when school grades come in students either rejoice or are devastated by the outcomes. First it is good to know what your school grades are. They are important, but they need to be understood for what they measure and what they mean. 

They are measures of performance, reflecting how well you have understood material, done assignments according to instructions, and engaged in the class.  School grades reflect how hard you work, how well you know the material, and perhaps also whether you have chosen the right field or course of study for yourself. 

An A signals outstanding work, a B signals work that is above average and a C is satisfactory whereas a D or F is clearly not. A goal is to try to be above a 3.0 GPA (solid B country or better.)

School grades are not given out lightly, and in fact, grading is one of the more difficult things faculty have to contend with. 

They must plan their courses knowing how the school grade structure will be built.  They must seek ways to assure objectivity, so that they can defend their grading decisions if necessary, especially in more interpretive courses, as in the humanities. 

Grading papers or other work that can be objectively measured, such as right or wrong answers in math, is more straightforward.  It does not serve you well to demand certain school grades because you want or need them.  If you have not done the work, done well on tasks assigned, or engaged in class activities, you cannot expect a professor to change a C grade to a B because, say, your scholarship is at risk. 

school gradesYour school grades also really should not come as a surprise if you have kept up with the work, understand what the professor is seeking, and have looked at the syllabus to see how the school grades will be calculated.

So if you failed a midterm you should know and have planned what you needed to do to salvage the course. Hiding out does not fix it. Talking to your professor might.

A poor school grade is not the end of the world—a whole bunch of them are not the end of the world. They are a message that you need to do things differently. If you are working like crazy on your own, but not doing well, it may be a signal that you need to get more help from professors or tutors or even study groups. 

If you are struggling to get good school grades in a category of courses that you may think could be your major, then that field may be a bad choice for you. 

The courses that seem easy may be the ones where you are playing to your strengths, interests, and aptitudes—where higher school grades come with less effort because you “get it.” 

And concentrating on those courses should be where you will be best served.  This is where you will be able to build a strong GPA.

So look at your courses for the coming semester and be sure you are in the right ones. Look for faculty that are not necessarily easy, but those with a reputation of being helpful, clear and supportive. Talk to upper classmen to find out who those are.

Think about what you did this semester that you could do differently. Write down changes you want to make and share that list with a friend so you can support each other.

If you turn around a bad term and the trajectory going forward is all up then you have a good story to tell to employers or graduate schools about what lessons you learned and how you bounce back from adversity.

If you, on the other hand, have had a stellar semester then see what perks that may bring you. Should you be applying for special programs that reward excellence (sometimes with money.) Talk to the dean about your options. They love students like you and will help keep you on a solid path of success.

Marcia CantarellaDr. Cantarella is the author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide and a consultant on higher education, access and success.  Contact Dr. Cantarella at

See Chapters 4, 8  and 9 of I CAN Finish College for more information on school grades.