The transition to high school causes academic whiplash for many students. It’s hard to adapt to a new environment and get good grades when you’re given more independence in your assignments and are expected to learn more challenging materials.
In this guide, I’ll go through the most important strategies that will help you to get good grades in high school and beyond.
Basic Academic Survival Strategies
Let's start with the most fundamental strategies for getting good grades. A strong foundation is the key to success!
Strategy #1: Read Directions and Rubrics Carefully
Read the directions thoroughly on every assignment you get. If you don’t follow the directions, you won’t get a good grade even if what you do would be considered solid work on a slightly different project. If your teacher tells you to write a seven-page essay, and you only write five, you'll get points taken off even if you do a good job. Don't sacrifice your grade just because you were careless or chose to ignore the instructions!
Sometimes when students misinterpret directions, they blame the teacher for giving them a bad grade. Even if you disagree with the structure of an assignment, being stubborn about it probably won’t get you anywhere. You should re-educate yourself on the expectations for the class so that you don’t give the teacher another chance to deduct points from your assignments. In these cases, you’re probably just dealing with a strict teacher who likes to stick to very specific guidelines. Once you know what the his or her standards are, you will be able to reliably earn high grades.
Strategy #2: Listen and Participate in Class
A trait that is consistent in people who get good grades is that they pay attention in class. You may think that you can just space out in class, study hard later, and ace the test. If school has always been a breeze for you, this might be true up to a point, but it will catch up with you when you run into something that isn’t as easy to understand.
If you pay attention in class, you’ll spend less time studying in the long run. Why is this? It’s because you’ve already absorbed a lot of the information you need to know just by being engaged while your teacher is talking.
You can even go a step farther and take notes in class to reinforce what you’re learning in a different way. It's smart to get into this habit before college so that you don’t struggle with note taking in lecture classes. If you learn how to summarize the main points of a lesson now, it will be easier for you to take notes at times when they’re even more critical.
Class participation is another big part of this. Participation is important for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it might be a part of your grade! In some cases, class participation accounts for ten percent or more of your final grade. Even if it isn't a part of your grade, participating in class will help you understand the material more thoroughly and let the teacher know that you care about the subject.
For me, class participation was always very difficult because I was shy and afraid that I would say the wrong thing. If you have this issue, I would recommend sitting as close to the front of the classroom as possible so that it feels like you’re just talking to the teacher and not addressing the whole class. Also, try not to overthink it! I can’t tell you how many times I had an answer in my head that I decided was dumb only to hear someone else say it thirty seconds later. Even if your answer is incorrect, you should view it as a learning opportunity that may help you to understand the material better.
This is what your face should look like in class. If you're extra creepy, your teacher will be afraid to give you bad grades.
Strategy #3: Ask for Help Sooner Rather Than Later
Often, the key to success is knowing when to ask for help, and high school classes are no exception. If you don’t understand a concept, don’t wait until you’ve already bombed a test to get help. Approach your teacher as soon as possible, and ask if he or she would be willing to meet you after school to go over the material. By doing this, you can avoid bad grades before they happen and build a positive relationship with your teacher.
Of course, all of this is easier said than done. It's hard to ask for help if your teacher is less friendly or you’re a super independent person. If you’re worried about approaching your teacher, stick to a script. You can just say “Teacher’s Name, I’m having some difficulty understanding this unit. I was wondering if you might be able to talk through the main concepts with me after school at some point. I’ll come up with a list of my questions.”
If you prepare a list of questions for your teacher, it will be easier for you to get the information you need and for your teacher to explain things in a way that is helpful to you. You should also remember that there’s absolutely no shame in asking for help. It’s really the smartest thing you can do if you’re struggling, and it will only lead to better grades in the future.
Strategy #4: Don’t Rely on Your Family and Friends Too Much
Another way of saying this is “don’t cheat,” but sometimes the definition of cheating can be nebulous. If you and your friends help each other on a homework assignment, that’s probably fine depending on the distribution of work. However, if you directly copy a friend’s homework (even if they say it’s ok), it’s definitely a form of cheating whether or not the homework counts toward your grade.
Avoid doing this, especially if you want to get good grades in the long term. If you copy your friends’ homework assignments, you’re committing self-sabotage. I know it’s a cliche that you only hurt yourself by cheating, but in this case it's true. If you rely too heavily on the knowledge of others for small assignments, larger assignments like tests and papers will be even more difficult since you never learned the material for yourself.
Also, don't let your parents edit your papers extensively or do the bulk of the work in figuring out homework problems. They probably mean well, but it will do you more harm than good if you’re not learning on your own terms. Eventually, you’ll have to write an essay or solve math problems on a test, and you may fall short of your potential if you don't have experience doing these things independently.
Matching jackets? Kind of cute and kind of lame. Matching homework? Unambiguously lame.
Expert Study Strategies
Many students have trouble getting good grades in high school because they don't know how to study effectively. Here are a few of the best ways to improve your test scores through the use of smart study strategies.
Strategy #5: Always Do the Homework (Even If It Doesn’t Count!)
Most teachers in high school assign regular homework, although some may not check it or incorporate it directly into your grade. Some students view this as a free pass to ignore homework assignments, which can is a very bad idea. In subjects like math and science in particular, homework assignments are critical if you want to gain full comprehension of the material. In math, your understanding of one unit of study is often a necessary foundation for your understanding of the next unit. Knowledge builds on itself.
If you start skipping homework assignments, you may get confused when the teacher moves on to a new unit. Ultimately, you could become completely lost and perform poorly on assignments that do count towards your grade.
Doing homework assignments will also help you psychologically. If you’re staying on top of things in a class, you'll be more confident in your knowledge. Homework assignments are a way of studying consistently over time. If you do the homework, you may not have to study as much for tests because you’ll already have a solid understanding of what you need to know.
This is what will happen on tests if you don't have a strong homework-based foundation of knowledge.
Strategy #6: Know the Difference Between Reading It Over and “Getting It”
Just reading over the material before a test won't cut it unless you have a photographic memory. You need to actively absorb the information, not just skim over it and hope it will stick in your brain. Surface-level knowledge won't help you, especially when you're dealing with open-ended questions on a test. You should be able to recall the facts without any hints or prompting.
If you have review sheets to study before a test, I would recommend reading them in small, manageable sections. After you read each section carefully, look away from it and see if you can repeat the facts back to yourself. Don’t move on from a section until you’re able to do this.
One thing that I’ve found very helpful in cases like this is to make up some sort of weird mnemonic. It can be an acronym or just something memorable that has a random association with the information you need to know. The more bizarre the memory device you come up with, the more likely you are to remember the facts.
After you’ve read everything over yourself and feel relatively confident, you can have someone else step in and quiz you on the information. To be sure that you have a full understanding of what you need to know, you should be able to answer questions about how different facts connect to each other rather than just regurgitating the facts themselves. For example, if you’re studying for a history test, you might have someone ask you a question like “what were the main factors that led to the French Revolution” that requires you to draw from a few distinct facts to reach a separate conclusion.
Strategy #7: Study Between Tests, Don’t Cram
There is a certain glamour for some students in the late-night pre-test cram session. However, sacrificing your sleep and sanity will not get you a better grade on the test (no matter how much cooler it might be than planning ahead).
The best way to ensure that you don’t panic before a test (or on the test itself) is to make a habit of going over the material that you’ve learned regularly and not just when it gets down to the wire. You’ll retain it better, and you’ll get a good night’s sleep to recharge your brain.
In the week before a big test, you can study for an hour or so every night rather than studying for five hours the night before. As you build up your knowledge, you’ll feel more and more confident. On the night before the test, instead of trying to study every little detail that you need to know, you can do a quick review of the main concepts to reassure yourself that you’re in good shape.
If studying responsibly is too uncool for you, try getting a good night's sleep while wearing sunglasses to keep up the illusion of detached nonchalance.
Strategies for Structuring Your Work
Strategy #8: Make Project Timelines (Don’t Procrastinate!)
If you hope to earn high grades without suffering from excessive amounts of stress, you must overcome your procrastination habits. It's especially hard to manage your time responsibly on long-term projects. It may seem like you have forever to complete the assignment, but time will always catch up with you.
If you're a procrastinator, I highly recommend making a timeline whenever you get a long-term assignment. If you have a project that’s due in a month, set aside the first week for brainstorming, make a rough outline of the project in the second week, flesh it out as much as possible in the third week, and spend the rest of your time perfecting it. This is a vague timeline because it depends on the type of project you’re doing and what it involves, but you get the idea.
If you save the last week for polishing your work and fixing mistakes, you’ll end up with a final product that’s a much better representation of your abilities. Sticking to a schedule like this can be tough, so you might want to ask your teacher to help monitor your progress by checking in with you periodically. Some teachers already set up checkpoints for longer term projects because they know students have trouble avoiding procrastination. If this is the case, stick to the schedule and avoid falling behind!
Strategy #9: Stay Organized
Many of these tips will be useless if you don’t keep track of all the materials for your classes. Cultivating good organizational habits will not only help you succeed in high school; it will pay off in spades when you get to college as well.
Always mark the beginning of each new unit in your notebook, and keep a binder or folder for each class. This way, when you study for tests, you won’t be freaking out about where a certain review sheet went or why there seems to be nothing relevant in your notebook. Avoid just throwing papers into your backpack. I’ve made the mistake of doing this many times in the past, and you WILL forget where you put them when you need them most.
It's also a good idea to write down your homework assignments in an agenda book so that you don’t miss anything. It’s easy to forget about smaller assignments if your brain is focused on a big project or test that’s coming up. Even if you don’t have a concrete homework assignment in every class, you should make note of any potential work you might do that night. If you have light assignments in your other classes, this will remind you to catch up on a long term project or start studying a bit for a test that’s coming up in a week.
Planners/Google calendars/whatever you kids are using to manage your time these days are your friends!
Worried about your GPA? Here are four strategies for raising your GPA in high school fast.
If you're not sure whether your GPA is high enough for your goals, read this article on what a good GPA means for college.
Still trying to figure out your courses? Check out our expert guide on which classes you should take in high school.
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.