Are Some Grades More Important Than Others?

As finals approach for many students, I keep hearing students talk about how certain grades are more important than others. They talk about this level of importance in terms of how much time and effort they plan to put into their preparation for final projects/papers and exams. For example, I had a student talk to me about how it was much more important for her to get an A in her Chemistry class because she was pre-med than for her to get an A in my Psychology course. Because of her ranking, she told me it was doubtful that she would be able to spend much time studying for her Psychology final. Her hope was that she would end up with a B in my class.

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I gave what she had to say a lot of thought, and have tried to determine what might be the advantages and disadvantages of taking this ranking approach to classes. A clear advantage to ranking courses is that you can focus your resources on courses in your major or program of study (e.g., pre-med). If you are trying for high grades in these courses then making them the highest priority will insure that you spend the greatest amount of time possible studying for these courses.

Sadly, however, the ranking approach only goes so far and there is a major cost associated with it. Of course, when you prioritize some courses over others you will not be spending a lot of time studying for these lower ranked courses. The end result of this strategy is likely to be a decrease in grades in these lower ranked courses. In high school this might seem like a reasonable plan because certain courses, such as AP courses, are typically weighted more than other classes and thus impact your GPA and class rank. However, in college, courses are not weighted. Thus, getting a low grade in any college course is going to impact your GPA.

Related to the above I should add that I have also heard students who rank courses rationalize this strategy by saying that the only courses that really matter for getting into graduate school or professional school are those in your major or program of study. My opinion (and that of colleagues I have talked to about this) is that thinking like this is very risky. When you apply to graduate or professional school, faculty will review your entire record. Yes, they will want to see if you did well in specific courses, but faculty are generally not willing to dismiss poor performance (in my thinking anything less than B) in general studies courses (which often seem to get a low rank).

Let me give a final example that students may want to think about. As I have said in other posts I have been teaching a long time—now in my 28th year—and each year I teach Introduction to Psychology. Almost every year I have at least one pre-med student who has used the ranking strategy and does poorly in my course. I believe that students like this would have done well if they had put just a little more time into my course. Instead, they keep thinking that my course will be a “bunny” course, and they end up with a poor grade. Regrettably, these students do not realize that this low (but avoidable) grade will potentially haunt them when they apply for medical school.

In the end, my advice is to consider all of the consequences of ranking some college grades as more important than others. As I said, there may be some value to earning high grades in only courses in your major. However, you may end up taking a big risk–in my opinion a risk not worth taking.

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