Tag Archives: grades

CollegeQandA asks: Should I be gaming the college system?

Should I be gaming the college system?

Gaming, in this sense, is pursuing an activity by satisfying requirements, but looking for and exploiting flaws in the rules of the system to easily and/or quickly achieve them outside the spirit of the system.  My definition does not make any mention that gaming a system is good or bad, and rule based systems are very difficult to make perfect and are almost all exploitable.

stacks of atari games

Gaming is fine depending on the goal

You have to have your own goals set to determine if gaming a system is a good or bad thing.  For example, in the tax system, if your goal is to maximize how much you and your family earn in a year, then any gaming rules that makes you pay less tax would be considered good.  Alternatively, if your goal is to help fund your societies infrastructure, then you should avoid loopholes and pay the tax that you believe your system requires.

What about education?

Again the goals you have are your guide.  Here are some examples of goals that suggest you should game the system and just get what you want:

  • I want a degree
  • I want to be called “Dr.”
  • I want letters beside my name
  • I want a 4.0 GPA
  • I want to say I’m an alumnus of school X
  • I want  degree Y so I can do activity Z

Here are some goals that suggest you should not worry about gaming the system, but instead learn the material and work hard:

  • I want to better understand how our world works
  • I want a career in field X
  • I want to develop my intellectual and cognitive abilities

Again, your goals are your goals, and I’m not here to judge there goodness or badness.  I’m, personally, biased to the later goals.  However, I think understanding the educational system and gaming it at certain times is a valid tactic.  For example, there are times in higher education where you are overwhelmed with work.  Tactically, selecting the highest priority/value work at those moments is a smart choice in my book.

Credits: photo titled: Games; by Axel Tregoning

CollegeQandA asks: What should I do to get into graduate school?

What should I do to get into graduate school?

For a four year undergraduate program, asking this question in the fourth year is almost too late.  Getting in to a good graduate program (if that is the path you want to take) takes some planning.  Here are some basic ideas on grades, early, research and recommendation letters that may differentiate you for  graduate school admission.

Desk with person and many papers

Where to go is first

The reality is you need your reasons to go to graduate school.  In engineering, the typical Ph.D. reason is “I want to be a professor”.  In other fields, there might be other reasons, but you are going to want to go to the best school possible since the trickle down of academic pedigree will likely impact your future career options.

Grades aren’t the whole game, but they matter

Now that you have picked a top school to attend, you need to get accepted there.  The base bar to being admitted to the school is your grades and how you perform on any admittance tests.  For most US universities this test is the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).  You need to do well on the test and have a high GPA.  However, this is only the base bar that you must meet.   The reality is that students across the country and throughout the world are meeting this base requirement.  How are you going to separate yourself from this large group?

Undergraduate research helps

If you can get an academic paper, presentation experience, and research training in your undergraduate time, then you are in a better spot than most.  This is why the fourth year is not a great time to get into research since the time it takes to complete research and submit work is not a short period such as a semester.  It can take a year or more to complete a worthy research project or even participate in a large research team.  However, the experience of performing research will not only improve your chances, but will show you some idea of what graduate school might be like.

Letter of recommendations

Probably, the biggest step to get into certain programs is the relationships between your recommending professors and your target schools.  If one of your recommendation letters comes from a tight relationship with your target school and the professor writing the letter, then there is a significantly greater chance of you being put to the top of the pile.

The reason for this is that all professors write letters of recommendation for their students.  If I know the person who is writing the letter when looking through graduate applications, then I know I can trust their opinion, and a strongly recommended student carries more weight from someone I know than a letter from a random professor.

In this light, I highly recommend looking at where your professors came from (in their graduate and post-graduate work) as this may help guide you on where to apply for your graduate future.

Credits: photo titled: E.D Morel, ca. 1900-1915 (IMP-CSCNWW33-OS10-23); by Ashley Van Haeften

CollegeQandA asks: How important are my grades?

How important are my grades?

Package with eggsI’m from Canada and I like to say, “we grade eggs, but we assess people to give them feedback on their learning”.

I, personally, think public grades as a measurement device of people is a bad idea.  Of course, I’m one of those weird people that is focused on this idea of learning.  From my perfect world perspective, I think that grades can be a summative indicator of your performance on an assessment(s).  As a private feedback measurement a grade is useful in helping the learner have a summary indicator that shows their performance on learning.  The summary grade with detailed feedback on what other aspects of the task that need to be worked on is a useful way for the learner to try and move forward.

Forget your utopia, how important are grades

In a credentialist (not sure that’s a word) based society, grades are important.  The reality is that grades are used by institutions to quickly evaluate people.  For example, a company with an entry level position might receive 300 applications for this job.  One simple way to filter these 300 candidates is to make a grade point average (GPA) mark and cut everyone who hits below that line.  This is needed since it is difficult and time consuming to evaluate all 300 people for a single position efficiently.

In many ways, we use grades as a quick indicator of how a person is performing in topic areas.  From a student perspective, grades are important since they impact what possibilities are available once completing a degree in particular for that first job.

Still important?

The odd thing with your GPA is it becomes almost irrelevant once you get your first job.  This is because your next job or promotion will be based on what experience you have at getting things done.  Or as I like to say, “Can you do things?”

The grade is a very poor measurement of your doing stuff ability.  However, if your job is taking tests, then it is a great indicator.

Going forward

So, yes, grades are important, but learning and doing is much more important for the long game.  The grade is a single measurement signal of how you have performed.  Going forward though, the portfolio is becoming  a more appropriate signal of your ability (and not just for artists).  In college, every major project you do, create, and build is a better signal that demonstrates what you can do.  This includes your activities outside traditional class and you should be curating a web presence to host this portfolio.

If your GPA is not as good as you need it to be, then not all is lost.  If you have a portfolio of what you can do, you can work your way into entry jobs at smaller and lesser (in the eyes of the public) institutions.  People who can learn and do things are valuable.  So, it’s not all about grades, but good grades tend to correlate to people who learn, work hard, and do things.  And that’s the chicken back to the graded egg.

Credits: photo titled: Eggs; by bunnicula

CollegeQandA asks: When should I panic about school?

You need to track and extrapolate your progress

Unicorn statue

When should I panic about school?  Well, you should use the tools available to you to help you predict how you are performing and avoid disaster.  The first tool is the syllabus.  In the syllabus, you should find what are the assessment activities, how much are they worth to your overall grade in the course, and when will they be administered.

This information is about all you need to predict how you are doing in a particular course (and then all your courses).  Based on your current point of time in the course, extrapolate what you should get overall.  For example, if there are 10 assessments in the course and you have performed at an average of 60% on half of these, you should assume that on your current trajectory you will get 60% in the course unless some major change happens.

For some reason, however, students have an optimistic belief that they will perform better than what they have achieved so far.  This is an unrealistic belief.  To change future performance you need to make major changes, and these changes must happen soon and just don’t come with luck.

Panic shouldn’t happen

When a student walks in to my office hours half way through a course and asks, “What can I do?” the reality is it is too late.  We can try to help, but having completed half a course that builds upon itself, this point of discussion is a bad point to be at.  At this panic point, option one is to drop, and I think this is the best option (all the excuses such as financial aid, full-time standing, etc. should have been taken into account way earlier).  Option two is to try and get as many points from the rest of the course to finish with a “C” over a “D” or “F”.

This point should never happen to you, but if it does, then you have to realize that it was your choice and you have to deal with the consequences.  Avoiding this point is simple.  Learn throughout the course, do your work, and seek help when one assessment is not a success so you can figure out how to master the material.  Arriving at this point means you need to mitigate your losses, but you will suffer losses.

Still, I was like many of my students.  For some reason, I didn’t go to office hours when I needed help.  My fault was my laziness.  If you want to succeed, though, you can not get to the panic point, and you need to evaluate your performance at every point of a course.

Extra credit and other unicorns

Life happens.  In these situations, if you are prepared then you can mitigate the problems.  Most teachers and administrators understand that things come up that can wreck a semester, but when they do, you need to seek administration help and withdraw from the semester.  Also, you can drop some courses and put your energy into a smaller subset of others.  Yes, none of these situations are perfect, but that is the reality of the scenario.

Otherwise, excuses, pleading, and “what can I do for a better grade” are not real options.  There must be professors out there that provide these options, but all the ones I know don’t provide such things.  They’re unicorns, as in, they don’t exist.

If you needed a good grade in course X, then you need to work for a good grade in course X.  An “A” in a course demonstrates excellence in the material.  In theory, (is Harvard an exception) the “A” is difficult to earn without putting a significant work effort into the course.

Credit: photo titled: Unicorn ; by: Lemon~art

CollegeQandA asks: How bad is it to drop a class?

What does it mean to drop a class?

Parachute dropDropping a course means removing that course from your schedule before certain dates such that you will not get a traditional letter grade in the course that impacts your overall record, and there might be some monetary refund (if you pay per course).  Depending on dates at your university, a dropped course might appear on your transcript (official record) as dropped, and you might not get any money back.

Typically, in the early part of a semester (first few weeks depending on the university), you can drop a course with no transcript record or cost.  Later in the semester (normally before the half-way point) you can drop the course and this tends to be recorded with an annotation such as “dropped”, “withdrawn – W”, or something similar.  Also, this later type of drop usually does not result in any refund.  Check your universities “academic calendar” that should list these specific dates.

Why would you drop a course?

First off, most early drops are done because a student is still adjusting their schedule and figuring out what their course preference is for the semester.  These types of drops are minor in the big scheme of dropping, so I won’t deal with them and let’s move on to the other types.

Withdrawals later in the semester are the types of drops we are really talking about.  The first factor in dropping is can you drop?  There are different university rules for full-time standing, financial aid, scholarships, staying on campus, etc. which can impact your situation.  Depending on your course load dropping a course can have repercussions beyond academics, so be knowledgeable about the rules for your case.

If you can drop, then the question is should you?  From a repercussion stand point, dropping means that you potentially will delay graduation, which in turn means it may cost you more to complete your degree.  For example, dropping can result in a prerequisite challenge where you can’t take other courses since you are missing the prerequisite, and beware that there are things called prerequisite chains where course A is needed for course B is needed for course C and so on.

On the other hand, you are usually dropping a course because the workload and likelihood of success are, respectively, big and bad.  Given your circumstances, continuing in the course will have a significant impact on your grades, and as little a fan I am of grades, “F” and “D” are not good letters to have on your transcript (“F” is way worse than “D”).  My question as an adviser to students in this situation is, why are you on the edge of failure – knowing that it is probably because you haven’t been continually working on the course.

All sorts of things happen in life that can result in needing to drop a course.  Beyond delaying graduation, what impact might this have on your career?  My perspective is that a few drops have no impact on your career.  An interviewer might ask you why you dropped course X, but these can should be able to be easily explained.  For example, I was overwhelmed that semester and chose to drop that course.  However, multiple withdrawals of the same course Y or a large number of withdrawals can be a red flags for recruiters.

Bottom line

Drop a course if you have to.  Life will throw curve balls that make this choice completely reasonable given your situation.  It’s not a sign of failure, personal value, or anything other than you dropped a course.  Just beware of the rules and repercussions, and try to stay with each of your courses from day one so that this is not an issue.

Credits: photo by: Program Executive Office Soldier; title: Maneuverable Canopy (MC) Personnel Parachute System


CollegeQandA asks: What is the difference between high school and college?

What is the difference between high school and college – Are they different?

Yes.  Let me highlight a few reasons why, and how the transition can be challenging for many students.

highschoolFirst, the most common idea in popular cultures is that of the: First-year 15 (more usually called the freshman 15, but I’m against the word “freshman”) – the idea that your grades will go down by 15 points and your weight will go up by 15 pounds.  I suffered from only one of the two in my first-year, and I didn’t gain any weight.

Your life

The first major change, independent of the academics, is the life change (for most people).  Until now, many of you have relied on your family to do much of the “life stuff” – laundry, food, bills, doctor, etc.  University life is a first-step, though still sheltered, into you running your own life and becoming an adult.  This includes the all important You choose when, what, and where to be since it is Your life.  Nobody is responsible for you attending class, getting your homework done, sleeping, eating, showering, etc.  The great freedom you have been searching for is now here, but you now have to take full responsibility for your actions.  This includes legal consequences for breaking the law.

University vs. High School teachers

Another major difference is that the people that teach you have different responsibilities in university versus high school.  In both cases, the teachers want you to do well and achieve great things, but in high school your teachers see you 5 days a week and they have a much tighter relationship in your learning process.  They can check if you have done your work each day and are progressing in learning.

Let’s assume that you spend 6 hours a day in high school equaling 30 hours a week.  In college you will have between 12 to 20 hours a week of class/lab/studio time with an instructor (not necessarily the professor).  The expectation is that instead of in-class learning, that much of your new found free time will be spent studying.  College classes are, likely, larger than your high school classes, meaning the professor has less time to spend with you.

The major crux, though, is that a college professor has no responsibility to give you a passing grade just because you attended.  A college course sets a bar of success that you must satisfy, and depending on your demonstration you will be graded accordingly.  High school teachers, on the other hand, are pushed to make sure you pass your course, and to move you on through the system.

Is that it?

Those are just two reasons why the two institutions are different.  There are many more, but keep in mind that the biggest step in succeeding at this transition is you getting organized, disciplined, and working hard.  I have seen many people avoid the first-year 15.  Also, minor hiccups in this transition are not the end of the world.  Try and avoid a disastrous first year (failing courses) since this will cost you both financially and academically.


Photo from creative common license: City of Boston Archives;  titled: Roslindale High School – Exterior View 1, Poplar St., Roslindale, Boston, MA. School building photographs circa 1920-1960 (Collection # 0403.002)

CollegeQandA asks: What is a syllabus?

What is a syllabus?

Let’s start with this simple question of what is a syllabus?  A syllabus is a document that outlines the details as related to a class and is the contract between you and the instructor.  This can include what will be covered in class, when will it be covered, how you will be assessed, rules of behavior, and other details as related to the class.  The syllabus can be anywhere from one page to many pages depending on what the instructor needs to layout to the learners.  From a student perspective, the syllabus is the first place to look for information about the course, and if ignored it is  a quick way to look bad in front of your professors.

Should you read the syllabus?

Continue reading CollegeQandA asks: What is a syllabus?