“I need an A in this class”

AGradeIf you have uttered this phrase to an authority figure at college, you have already hopelessly screwed up your chances. You’re doing everything wrong. I mean it: there’s no way to lighten up this message. You screwed up. I’m sorry.

It’s unfortunately already long past time to back way up and adjust your thinking, and your strategies.

Yes, I know what you’re going to say: you REALLY need an A. Without it, you’ll be put on academic probation, or lose your scholarship, or your internship, or your chances for grad school. I know that the stakes might be very high.

But here’s the thing. Once you’ve reached the point where one grade in one class will entirely make the difference in any of those high-stakes scenarios, you have already had a problem for a very long time — through different courses, with different professors, with different things going on in your life. And that is your responsibility. So right now it may be time to face the worst case scenario. No one owes you an A.

In fact, no one is ethically allowed you give you an A no matter how much they might want to, unless you earned it. Only you can earn the A. It’s entirely about you, and the choices you make.

An A simply indicates that you have demonstrated certain skills and knowledge to a degree generally recognized as exceptional as compare to your peers. Someone among your peers is getting that A, and therefore demonstrating those skills and knowledge at an exceptional level. It’s unfair to that person to give you an A for doing less than they did. It’s also unethical. When you ask for an A, you are asking someone in authority to do something unethical for you. You are asking that they do something totally unfair to your classmates, both those whose earned As would mean less, and those who don’t get the same unfair advantage you’re asking for. Think about that for a minute.

It also doesn’t ultimately help you. Because the only point of grades is to tell some future employer or admissions committee that you know certain things, and can do certain things. If you fake it with grades you didn’t earn, sooner or later in a job or grad school it will become obvious that you don’t actually have the knowledge or skills to do what is asked of you. You’ll fail then, and it’ll hurt even more then, and you’ll have wasted more of your time.

Okay, okay, I know what you’re going to say — some classes are just hoops you have to get through, and you’ll never need what those classes are teaching. That may not be as true as you think. It’s at least worth asking your instructor or a professional mentor in the field you hope to be in about the specific ways a course might be useful. But I’ll concede that in some cases there might be such a thing as a useless hoop. I would point out that learning for its own sake — because knowledge makes your life richer — it always worthwhile, but I’ll also concede that I can’t make you care about that. I might also point out that perhaps the most important professional skill of all is learning how to show up, follow instructions, and follow through on the tasks given to you, and by definition that’s what you’re not practicing here. But you can say this one instance is exceptional, there were circumstances beyond your control, blah blah, yadda yadda. Fine. I’m perfectly happy to believe you, I really am. So you need a class for some reason, and the content of the class will never be of use to you.

That still doesn’t entitle you to a free grade. Again: other students are doing the work, and demonstrating skills and knowledge you don’t have. They earned the A, you didn’t.

Again: if you needed that A to meet some outside goal, you should have planned ahead, and maintained a high enough average in other classes that an A isn’t necessary now.

But, you say, you paid your money for this class.

That ain’t how it works, friend. A grade is not a prize, or a product. It’s a certification of what you can do. Think of tuition like a gym membership — you can pay up, but if you don’t work out, you’re not going to lose any weight.

But, you say, you only got into this mess because a few classes went badly, and that’s only because you had a terrible prof who hated you. Please see this post about Rogue Professors and this one about Stupid Professors. I will concede that sometimes — far more rarely than you imagine, but sometimes — a prof makes your life harder for no good reason at all. But you still have to demonstrate knowledge and skills to earn a grade. Most of the time one hopes that the professor is helping you get there, directing you to what you need to know, the best ways of achieving it, and pushing you to practice valuable skills. But if the professor is not helping, you still need to do it, you just need to do more of the work yourself. That’s a bummer, but if you do it right, you’ll actually learn a lot more than you bargained for, and in the long term that’s not a bad thing. Life is not always fair.

Wait, what if the prof is just a mean grader, and you did earn an A? Well, the prof is by definition far more qualified than you to make that judgment. But I’ll concede that very rarely that is the case. But if you’re getting a C, D, or F and think you deserve an A, that’s such a huge disconnect that either a mistake was made somewhere along the line (by all means find out! Contact the prof, and if that doesn’t work, the department chair), or you’re fooling yourself (if that’s the case, you also want to find out — talk to the prof, and if you can’t, talk to another prof or the department chair). If you think you deserved an A and you got a B, calm down. It happens. The occasional lower-than-deserved grade should not affect your future as long as you have established a pattern of performing exceptionally.

Okay, so you’re ready to concede that getting an A is about what you do, not what anyone else can (or in this case can’t) do for you. So how do you get an A?

1. Go to class every day, and while you’re there, listen and take good notes

2. Do all the reading. Don’t just read, but think about what you read

3. Always. Follow. Instructions. All of them. Pay particular attention to your syllabus. It is your bible in this course. Know it well.

4. Talk to the professor. Speak up in class, ask questions when you don’t understand or things are going too quickly. And go to office hours for help. If you’re not sure you are taking “good” notes, go to office hours with your notes and ask. If you’re not sure what’s expected of you on assignments, go to office hours and ask. If terms or concepts keep coming up and you don’t get them, go to office hours and ASK.

5. Start assignments early. At least a week early for a short paper (3-5pp), and more than that for anything longer. (No, I’m dead serious. Do you want an A or not? This is what A students do.)

6. Finish a draft of any assignment at least 24 hours early. Preferably earlier than that, ask if you can show it to the professor or TA and discuss how you’re doing. If you can’t do that, take it to your campus writing center. Read some of my other posts about writing.

It is possible that you are really, truly, doing all of these things and still not getting As. This is something you should discuss with a professor you like. Go to their office hours, bring samples of the notes you take, and some assignments that you worked really hard on that didn’t get a grade you hoped for. Getting to the bottom of this problem needs to be really specific to the work you’re doing, so I can’t tell you the answer. It may be that you’re beavering away in the wrong direction — putting your energy into fruitless work and not seeing more productive ways of using your time. It may be that you’re simply misunderstanding a few key terms or concepts, without realizing it, and that’s causing you to miss the main points you’re supposed to be learning. It may be that you have persistent problems with reading comprehension, or writing, or both, and need to work with a tutor to get up to speed. It may be that you’re in over your head — that the competition in a class, a major, or even a college is just really intense. Your grades are usually given more or less in relation to how other students are performing in the same class, and it may be that you’re doing well, but a proportion of other students are just always doing better. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, though if you’re ambitious about grad school, especially, in may be an indication that you should think about whether you’re in the right field. Be careful before you change majors or even transfer schools, though — most people learn more when they’re not the smartest person in the room.

Finally, what not to do when you need an A in a class:

Do not, ever, under any circumstances, say to anyone including yourself, “I need an A in this class.” When you say that, it tells the world that you are going about the class in entirely the wrong way.

What you should be telling yourself is, “This class is a priority for me. I need to devote time and attention and effort to it.”

What you should be telling your professor is, “This class is a priority for me, but I’m worried that I don’t know how to make the best use of my effort — can you help me?”

It should go without saying (but sadly often does not) that you should be saying these things AT THE BEGINNING OF THE COURSE. After even one major formal assignment has gone by, it’s probably already too late. To get an A average for a whole course, you have to do A work throughout — that’s just math. If you bomb one early assignment, it MIGHT in some cases be possible to make it up and still reach an A average, but you would need to talk to your instructor immediately about whether that’s possible, and if so what you need to do.

There is absolutely zero point in telling anyone that you need an A when the course is almost over. Just don’t do it. It won’t get you an A, it’ll only cause whoever you say this to to lose respect for you. Just don’t.

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