Help! Can I Salvage Low Freshman Grades?

Question: I am a first-year college student. My first semester is in great danger. I already dropped one of my classes because I didn’t want to get a really low GPA, and now my grades in my other four classes are low, too. It’s almost the end of the term. What can I do to save my grades? I’m scared!

The bad news is that low freshman grades can dog you for many years thereafter if you don’t act now to reverse the trend. They’ll drag down your GPA, even if your marks improve, which may ultimately have some impact on graduate school admissions and even on job opportunities and career paths. The good news, however, is that, if you’re able to dig out of this hole, your struggle this semester will not play a starring role in your future–or perhaps not any role at all. Grad school admission committees will note a “rising record” and pay minimal attention to a rough beginning. So you’re smart to address this issue promptly, to confront your fears instead of burying your head in the sand.

What can you do at the last minute?

1) Ask yourself if your grades are really low or just below the lofty goals you’ve set for yourself. Many students today seem to be disgusted with C’s (or even B’s) although those who were straight-A students in high school often find that college is a big wake-up call, and A’s may not be at all easy to earn. As noted above, most graduate school admission officials recognize that the transition to college work can be huge, and they tend to over look spotty freshman transcripts. So, for starters, consider that perhaps you’re being too hard on yourself and try to lighten up.

2) Schedule an appointment with each of your professors to ask if you can complete an extra-credit project over the holiday break to improve your grade. Even if they must give you a low grade now, perhaps they have the flexibility to change it if you do additional work.

3) Talk to your advisor about your course choices for the next term. Even if it’s too late to change the grades you have earned this semester, you want to make sure that you’ve chosen wisely for the next. Don’t overload your docket with courses in your major, if you don’t have to. For instance, if you’re considering medical school, admission committees will be far more interested in how you fared in your science classes than the grades you earned in Art History, Intro to Acting, or Intermediate German. So, as you adjust to college life, don’t go overboard taking classes that might “count” the most until you’re better equipped to handle them. On the other hand, do be sure that you’re taking courses you like and not just trying to get requirements behind you.

4) Take advantage of free college resources. Make an appointment with the school counseling services immediately to discuss your fears about this semester. Even if your grades can’t change, you may find it comforting just to have someone to vent to about this, who will probably also remind you that countless others have been in your shoes and have gone to great things afterwards. If you’re currently studying for final exams or writing final papers, connect with the campus academic-assistance center to get some guidance. Again, simply feeling that someone is in your corner can be a huge relief at this stressful time of year.

Finally, use your vacation time ahead to think about what you are studying and why. Are you taking classes that excite you or are you fulfilling parental expectations? Is your college the right fit for you or should you be exploring other options? For example, if the burden of five courses (which sounds as if it may be the norm at your school but definitely isn’t elsewhere) seems too much, consider choosing a college with a different average load. For example, colleges on the “trimester” system typically expect students to take three classes per trimester. Colorado College and Cornell College (in Iowa) offer a “Block Plan,” where students take only one class at time (!) for mini-terms that last about a month. For those who don’t like to multitask, the Block Plan can be a super way to focus all efforts on just a single subject for a short period of time. (I once took a “Block Plan” grad school course. It met 13 hours/week for just three weeks. It was the only time in my college career that I did all the required reading and all the optional reading, too.)

Although you may be scared right now, you may someday look back on your current situation as the catalyst that inspired you to dig inside yourself and figure out where you really want to be and what you really want to do.

Good luck with your finals and with your decisions ahead.