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.

Time for a Break: Use it Wisely

It’s that time of the semester when everyone needs a break. Luckily, Thanksgiving is only a few days away. How you are going to use your break?
You’ve spent months working hard. You’ve had classwork, homework, papers, exams, extracurricular activities, and maybe even a job. Now you need some time to calm down and recharge.
All that hard work can take a toll on your body. You’re likely feeling very tired from the hard work and the resulting lack of sleep. If you’re attending school in a climate where it’s starting to get colder, there’s a higher chance of getting sick, because students are indoors more and therefore around more people, increasing the chances of getting exposed to germs, including the flu. If you’re already weak from lack of sleep, your immune system is also weakened, which makes you get sick even more easily.
All the hard work also can take a toll on your mind and make you stressed. Instructors typically give exams just before Thanksgiving, adding to the potential for stress. Besides the extra sleep you can get during break, you’ll hopefully be able to get rid of stress by spending time relaxing, which helps decrease your risk of depression, obesity, and heart disease. It also boosts your immune system.
Even while you sleep and relax during break, don’t forget to do some schoolwork, so you don’t come back to school completely unprepared for the end of the semester. You’ll have only 2-3 weeks left, and those weeks can get extremely frantic if you don’t prepare for them correctly. You don’t want final exams and final papers to catch you off guard, and if you’re dealing with applications to graduate school or other programs like study abroad, you don’t want to find that you don’t have any time to handle them.
The key to Thanksgiving break, or any break, is to strike a balance. You definitely need to recharge and get your body and mind ready to finish the semester. At the same time, you don’t want to slide too far behind in your studies when you have (depending on your school) 5-7 open days to move forward and better prepare for the return to school after Thanksgiving Break is over. Treat the days of a break like you might treat a long weekend. If all you do during a break is work, then you miss the point of having one. If you don’t work at all, you miss an opportunity to stay on track.