The road to a good GPA can be paved with setbacks, but if you figure out where your problems lie and put in the effort to get yourself back on track, you can overcome these obstacles. In this article, I’ve compiled a list of dos and don’ts that will be helpful to you in combating academic pitfalls (and learning to avoid them in the first place!).
Read on to figure out how you can improve your GPA by paying attention to your areas of weakness, taking responsibility, and cultivating better study habits.
This list includes my best advice on how to change your behavior to reverse negative trends in your GPA. It's best to start by getting a good handle on the fundamental grading structure of the courses where you're having trouble and work your way up to better study habits and strategies.
Understand the Course's Grading Scheme
The first step in improving your GPA is understanding how you will be graded and which assignments carry the most weight. In some classes, for example, homework assignments might be worth 30% of your grade. If you consistently forget to do homework assignments, you'll be in for a world of hurt when you see your report card even if you did well on all of the tests. That’s why it’s critical to pay attention to the grading methodology.
Read the grading guidelines for each class thoroughly. Your teacher probably handed them out to the class at the very beginning of the year, so if you can't find yours just ask for another copy. The guidelines are there to tell you what the expectations are and where you need to focus your effort in the class. Don’t ignore the emphasis that a teacher places on certain aspects of your work and class conduct. If you’re aware of the expectations, it’s impossible to remain in denial about what’s causing your bad grades, which means you can start fixing your bad habits and improve!
Focus on the Most Important Areas
Once you’ve reviewed the grading guidelines, you'll have a better sense of where you should be focusing most of your efforts. Some classes emphasize tests and little else. Others include lab assignments, homework assignments, or papers that strongly influence your final grade. Whatever the case may be, you should align your study schedule with the grading policy.
This means you shouldn't spend tons of time on a small project that will have minimal impact on your grade or toil away at ungraded homework assignments late into the night. Though I always recommend at least trying to do the homework (as you’ll see in the next piece of advice), don’t waste hours of your time trying to figure out a tough problem that has stumped you if homework isn’t a large part of your grade. Do as much as you can while making time for more important tasks. If you have trouble on a homework assignment, most teachers will go over the answers with you later to help you understand the material. They'll appreciate that you at least made an honest effort to complete it on your own.
If a project, paper, or test will comprise a large fraction of your final grade, make sure you put yourself in the best position to do a good job. This means planning out your studying far in advance or setting up a schedule for when you will complete each stage of a project. If you put in the time, your efforts will be reflected in your grades.
A disturbing street sign to see if you're actually driving, but an inspiring one for the purposes of this article
Always Do the Homework, Especially in Math and Science
I had many math classes in high school where it didn’t technically matter if you did the homework problem sets. We would go over them together in class, but the teacher never went around and checked whether each person did the assignment. In such a situation, it’s tempting to skip homework since it doesn’t seem like it will impact your grade. But the fact is that this WILL have an indirect negative impact once you're faced with tests and other large assessments.
With math and science in particular, knowledge builds on itself. If you don’t understand one unit in math because you didn’t bother figuring out any problems for yourself in the homework assignments, chances are you’re going to have an even tougher time with the next unit. This is how people end up falling farther and farther behind. By the time they’re faced with a test that covers multiple units that they didn’t understand, they realize too late that they should have put in the work earlier. If this tends to happen to you, you may need to be stricter about forcing yourself to do homework assignments even if they “don’t matter” in and of themselves.
Ask for Help If You Don’t Understand Something
If you’re struggling with a concept in any of your classes, speak to your teacher as soon as possible to clear up any confusion. It can be difficult to swallow your pride and admit that you don’t understand something, but it’s much easier than dealing with a failing grade later. Again, this is especially important in math and science classes where knowledge builds on itself. You absolutely need to understand basic concepts at the root of what you’re doing before you can progress. Don’t let these concepts pass you by and hope that you’ll somehow catch on later.
If you feel nervous about asking for help and aren't sure what to say, you might start with something like this, "I'm having trouble with [subject] and was hoping you could give me some extra guidance. I'll come up with a list of my questions if you're willing to meet sometime after school this week." If you're really shy and don't want to ask your teacher in person (although I would recommend that you do), you can send an email instead so you have more time to think of what to say. Remember that you shouldn't be worried. Even if you ask the grumpiest teacher for help, you're likely to be met with a positive response. Teachers love to see students who are engaged with their classes and are making an honest effort to understand the material.
Push the button.
Know What’s Being Tested and How
Before any test, ask your teacher what concepts will be tested and which types of questions you’ll see. This will help guide your studying and lead to less stress and anxiety when it comes to actually taking the exam.
Some teachers might be willing to show you examples of their old tests with similar formats but different questions. These are very useful study materials. Teachers may also offer extra review sessions for students who are looking for more guidance before the test. If this is the case in any of your classes, take advantage of it. You can also ask the teacher if he or she would be willing to do this for a specific test that makes you especially nervous.
There are some teachers out there who don't like to tell you what types of questions will be on the test. Don't panic if this is the case. Even these teachers will at least tell you the gist of what's being covered. Even though you'll have less information, you'll still know which materials to study. Just make sure you're as thorough as possible in your review sessions.
Study Smart: Know the Difference Between Reading It Over and “Getting It”
So you have to study for a history test, and your teacher gives you some review sheets of the information you need to know - what do you do now? Some people think “oh, I’ll just read the review sheets a couple of times, and I’ll pretty much know everything I need for the test”. Unless you have a photographic memory, this isn’t the most effective method. You have no way of knowing what will happen when you're asked to come up with this information after it’s no longer in front of you. Twenty-four hours later it might be completely lost.
While you’re reviewing information that you need to know for a test, read each section or set of facts in your notes, and then look away from them and test yourself. Restate the information in your mind to yourself and/or come up with a totally ridiculous way to remember it (the more absurd and stupid the more likely it is to stick in your brain). After you’ve done this exercise a few times, have a friend, sibling, or parent help you by asking questions about the information.
If you know the test will have open response questions, practice connecting different pieces of information in conjunction with basic memorization. Tell a study partner to ask you questions like “what were the causes of [historical event]?” This will force you to connect different details and gain a more solid grasp on the knowledge you’ll need for the test.
Study Smart 2.0: Practice Responsible Study Habits
I mentioned above that getting your peers to help you with studying is a good strategy. However, this only works in moderation. Studying with your friends can be great, but studying shouldn’t always be a group effort. Sometimes the focus gets diverted, or you end up convincing each other that you all understand something when only one person really does. Reserve time afterwards to briefly review the information on your own.
Also, turn your phone off or put it away while you're studying. Believe me, I know how hard this is. I sleep with my iPhone under my pillow. But if you're going to get some high quality studying done, you can't allow yourself to be distracted by SnapChats or whatever other examples of popular apps I might give that will soon sound ridiculously outdated. The best thing you can do to make the most of your study sessions is to turn off your phone and block distracting websites from your computer so that you won't be tempted to veer off course.
Instead of studying, let's just make fun of the one person who isn't here today.
Review Your Mistakes
In the process of improving your GPA, you’ll probably face some setbacks. How you react to those setbacks makes a big difference. If you get a bad grade on a test, you might not even want to look at your mistakes, but to improve you need to understand where you went wrong. Reviewing mistakes thoroughly is the only way to ensure that you don’t make them again.
Even abstract mistakes, like failing to fully explain your ideas in a paper, are worth reviewing. You might not fully agree with your teacher’s opinion about your writing, but it can provide valuable insight into what he or she expects from you. You can then make an active decision the next time you write something to do it in a way that follows the appropriate standards (I know, this is not very punk rock - I’m sorry).
I know people who procrastinate to severe panic attack levels while managing to do very well in school and work. The truth is, however, that these people are in the extreme minority. If you’re already struggling in your classes, resist the allure of waiting until the night before to do a project or cramming for a big test.
Procrastination can seem glamorous (we all want to be the cool kid who never does anything until the night before and gets all As), but it’s not a wise strategy for most students. If you have problems with procrastination, plan out a schedule beforehand when your teachers hand out assignments. For a project that’s due in a month, set up informal deadlines for yourself that cover different aspects of the project. You might even be able to ask your teacher to check in with you and hold you accountable. If you have a test coming up and you don’t feel prepared, set up a study schedule a week in advance so you can avoid cramming.
What procrastination will do to you
This second section is all about the pitfalls to avoid when you're struggling with your grades. Surrendering to these negative attitudes and patterns of behavior will only hurt you in the long run!
Blame the Teacher
The first thing many students do when they get a bad grade is blame the teacher. It’s understandable - you don’t want to think that you genuinely earned a bad grade. It’s easier to shift responsibility away from yourself so you don’t have to make any difficult changes. What you need to understand is that when you do this, you’re ultimately sabotaging yourself (unless your teacher is Dolores Umbridge or something).
There are bad teachers out there, but they can’t just decide to give you bad grades if you follow their standards. This goes back to understanding how the course will be graded and how much weight is given to certain assignments. Make sure you ask your teacher exactly what is expected of you. It might feel like you're pandering to someone you don’t respect, but if you end up with a bad grade, you’ll be the one who loses out in the end.
Obviously, you should speak up to people in higher authority if your teacher is being grossly unfair. If you’re honest with yourself you should be able to tell the difference between malicious injustice and differing standards.
She should have been fired just for this outfit, am I right?
Compare Yourself to Others
There’s nothing more frustrating than hearing that one casually smart kid in your class say that he didn’t study at all for the test and got an A. When you hear stuff like this, you should keep in mind two things:
- This person is probably stretching the truth to show off.
- Everyone has different learning styles, and it’s better to learn good study habits now so you can figure out what works for you.
You know what you’re already good at and what you need to work harder to master, and you shouldn’t consider yourself dumber than another person if it takes you a little longer to understand something. Persevering through these challenges will give you the type of mental strength that is critical in college and the real world beyond. Kids who breeze through high school may have trouble dealing with setbacks later on when they have to really stretch themselves to succeed (believe me, I’ve experienced the stress of this first-hand).
Remember, regardless of the effort that anyone else is putting in, only you know yourself well enough to judge how much time you need to study for a test or learn a new concept. This type of self-awareness helps build skill sets that will help you later in life!
Throw in the Towel
If you have a GPA that seems hopelessly low, you may be tempted to stop trying to fix it and just give in to the “I’m not cut out for school” mentality. Yes, it’s discouraging to have a low GPA, but before you give up, think about whether changing your habits could make a difference.
What caused you to end up with a low GPA? It could be anything from struggles in your personal life to irresponsible study habits to misunderstandings about class requirements. Whatever the case, nothing that you’ve done in the past to end up with a low GPA has to define what you do going forward (unless you’re still struggling with personal issues - please get help if so!).
You have the ability to turn over a new leaf, especially if it’s still early in your high school career. Also, not everyone HAS to go to a four-year college. You might have a professional field in mind that requires hands-on training but not a bachelor’s degree. No matter what, don’t lose hope for your future!
Don't throw me in, you're my beeeest friend
Here's a consolidated list of all the tips included in this article:
1. Understand the course's grading scheme
2. Focus on the most important areas
3. Always do the homework (especially in math and science)
4. Ask for help if you don't understand something
5. Know what's being tested and how
6. Know the difference between reading something over and actually understanding it
7. Practice responsible study habits (avoid distractions)
8. Review your mistakes
9. Avoid procrastination
And if you find yourself struggling, try to avoid blaming the teacher, comparing yourself to other students, or giving up entirely. Perseverance is everything!
Hoping to raise your GPA very quickly? Read my article on how to raise your GPA fast for some helpful strategies.
If you're worried about getting into college because of your GPA, check out this list of the best colleges with low GPA requirements.
Not sure whether your GPA is too low for college? Learn more about what's considered a high or low GPA in the college admissions process.
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
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.