How to Succeed in College and Reach Your Academic Potential

Wondering how to succeed in college and get the grades you want? Plenty of students have lofty ambitions when it comes to their grade point averages (GPAs), but they often ask themselves, "What is a good GPA anyway?" And they frequently aren't sure how to go about improving their marks. So seeking out more concrete information about how to be successful in college is a smart move. It's always wise to take charge of your goals and research effective ways of achieving them.

To be a successful college student, you need to be ready for a new way of learning. College life is not like high school life, and the more you're prepared to adapt and adjust, the easier your transition will be. Ever heard the saying, "knowledge is power"? Putting in the legwork to prepare yourself for what you'll find in college can really pay off. Getting good grades in college may not be as difficult as you think.

It's important to understand how college grades are awarded and how your grade point average can affect your future plans. The information below can help with that. We've also included seven practical and easy-to-follow tips to help you boost your grades and elevate your academic performance. So read on to discover how you can generate greater college success!

  • Is college hard?
  • The facts about college grades
  • Why does GPA matter?
  • What is a good GPA?
  • 7 tips for getting better grades

Is College Hard?

Going to college generally means adjusting to a lot of big changes all at once, which can be challenging. It's understandable that some students struggle and find themselves wondering, "Why is college so hard?" You have more freedom than ever before, but you also have more responsibilities. For many students, the toughest part is having to manage their own money, do their own laundry, and handle all the other everyday tasks that Mom and Dad used to do for them. (If it gets too overwhelming, check out our tips for dealing with college stress). But if you've handled those kinds of chores before, adjusting to the college experience might be a relatively smooth process.

Academically, college can also present new challenges. Many students find that they spend fewer hours in class than they did in high school, but they spend more time reading, completing assignments, and studying. And, of course, no one is going to organize your timetable for you or force you to write your paper when you'd rather be watching Netflix. You have to manage your time and plan out your tasks. By developing effective study skills, you can learn how to be academically successful in college.

Be careful not to set your expectations too high, though. College is a new learning environment, and it takes time and effort to adjust. Even if you were used to getting A's in high school, you may start getting B's or C's in college. But don't panic. A mediocre grade on an assignment or two may not necessarily hurt you in the long run. We succeed in our lives by adjusting to changing conditions. As you get used to the demands of college classes and complete more assignments, exams, and courses, one bad grade won't matter as much.

The Facts About College Grades

Most colleges use the grade point average (GPA) as the benchmark of a student's academic achievement. GPA is measured on a scale from 0.0 to 4.0. If you're used to getting percentage or letter grades, you need to understand how they translate into GPA. Here's a handy conversion chart:1

  • A+ = 97 to 100 percent, or 4.0 GPA
  • A = 93 to 96 percent, or 4.0 GPA
  • A- = 90 to 92 percent, or 3.7 GPA
  • B+ = 87 to 89 percent, or 3.3 GPA
  • B = 83 to 86 percent, or 3.0 GPA
  • B- = 80 to 82 percent, or 2.7 GPA
  • C+ = 77 to 79 percent, or 2.3 GPA
  • C = 73 to 76 percent, or 2.0 GPA
  • C- = 70 to 72 percent, or 1.7 GPA
  • D+ = 67 to 69 percent, or 1.3 GPA
  • D = 65 to 66 percent, or 1.0 GPA
  • E or F = less than 65 percent, or 0.0 GPA

Your GPA is what counts for things like scholarships and athletic eligibility, but many college instructors will still assess your work using percentages or letter grades. And several studies show that the average grade handed out at college has actually been rising over the past few decades. Consider these statistics:2, 3

  • From 1940 to 1960, C was the most common college grade, and the combined number of D's and F's was higher than the number of A's. Today, A is the most common grade handed out by both four-year and two-year institutions.
  • D's and F's, combined, make up less than 10 percent of grades given at four-year colleges.
  • Private colleges and universities hand out more A's and B's than public schools do.
  • Humanities and liberal arts programs tend to give higher grades than science and engineering departments, possibly because non-STEM fields naturally have a more subjective grading process.

Some researchers argue that college grades are artificially inflated and thus have less value. However, one study indicated that high grades still lead to better employment outcomes after graduation, so a high GPA still counts for something.3

Why Does GPA Matter?

You can succeed as a student by getting grades that are good enough to graduate. But your GPA can matter in other ways, too. At some colleges, students who fail to maintain a certain GPA are put on academic probation. Dropping below a certain level can mean losing scholarships or becoming ineligible for loans. Student athletes may not be allowed to participate in sports if their academic performance is not up to snuff. And depending on your major, you may have to keep your GPA at a certain level (in all subjects or sometimes just in courses that are specific to your major) in order to remain in the program.

On the other hand, a high GPA can get you on the Dean's List or earn you other academic honors that will make your resume shine. It can also lead to internships that can help you get valuable work experience.

Do your college grades make a difference to your job prospects? Some employers (particularly large companies like investment banks and pharmaceutical firms) do ask for your GPA as part of the application process; smaller companies often do not. Recruiters use GPA as a basis for comparing candidates, but they'll also take factors like work experience and reference letters into account. In fact, one survey showed that a high GPA ranked below choice of major, leadership experience, and extracurricular involvement on the list of attributes employers look for.5

Your grades certainly do matter if you want to pursue graduate studies. Grad schools want to know that you are dedicated to academic excellence, and your GPA is seen as an indicator of your ability to perform at the college level. Many graduate programs look for at least a 3.0 GPA, though the top schools often require 3.5 or higher. If grad school might possibly be on the horizon for you, it's a good idea to focus on your GPA right from your freshman year.

What Is a Good GPA?

"Good" is, of course, a subjective term. At public four-year colleges, the average GPA is about 3.0; at private schools, it's closer to 3.3.3 That means most college students have averages in the B or B+ range. But average GPAs can vary dramatically from one school to another, or from one program to another. Here is a list of average GPAs broken down by major:6

  • Education—3.36
  • Foreign language— 3.34
  • English—3.33
  • Music—3.30
  • Religion—3.22
  • Biology—3.02
  • Psychology—2.98
  • Economics—2.95
  • Engineering—2.90
  • Math—2.90
  • Chemistry—2.78

So, what is a good college GPA? That depends on your post-college plans. If you're aiming for a spot in a top-ranked graduate school to study law or medicine, you'll likely need a GPA of at least 3.7; other graduate programs may accept students with a 3.0. If you're hoping to land a position at a large corporation, you may need a GPA in the 3.0-to-3.5 range.

But in some cases, as long as you stay in good academic standing and graduate from your program, your actual GPA won't matter much to employers.

7 Tips for Getting Better Grades

Understanding how to get good grades is crucial for succeeding in college. Many students find that the study habits that got them through high school don't produce the same kinds of results at the college level. But take heart. Even if you're struggling, you can get your grades up by following a few concrete steps. Here are seven tips to help you improve your transcript:

1. Manage your schedule.

Don't try to do too much. Some students fill their schedule with as many courses as possible, but four or five classes at a time is plenty. If possible, you may want to take a couple upper-level courses early on (maybe in your second year) so that you can spread them out and not have to do them all at once. And get to know the syllabus of every course you take so that you understand due dates and instructor expectations.

2. Go to class.

You can sometimes earn credit just for being there, which is an easy way to bump up your mark. But you can help yourself even more by going to class prepared to learn. Pay attention to the subject being discussed and take notes about what the instructor thinks is important. Don't chat with your classmates or text your friends or read the news online. Dial in to whatever is going on at the front of the room.

3. Participate.

Some instructors offer extra marks for speaking up in class. Even if yours doesn't, getting involved in course discussions is a great way to boost your confidence and enhance your learning. Whether you ask a question or offer a comment, the simple act of engaging with the course material can help you better remember key concepts when it comes time for exams.

4. Do the prep work.

Complete all homework assignments and hand them in on time. Don't discount the value of short assignments that are worth a tiny percentage of your final mark—they can really add up. If your instructors offer special assignments or projects for extra credit, you should make every effort to fit those into your schedule too. Every little bit counts when it comes to boosting your grade.

5. Read instructions carefully.

On homework assignments and especially on exams, make sure you're answering the question fully and completely. Many marks have been lost because students didn't read the directions properly. The brain has a funny way of making us see what we want to see, so be absolutely sure you understand what you're being asked to do.

6. Ask for help.

College instructors have office hours for a reason: They want to help you do well in their classes. So don't be afraid to seek them out if you're struggling to figure out how to study for an exam or how to structure a homework assignment. Many schools also have tutoring centers where you can get extra assistance with writing or math. Give yourself every opportunity to achieve college success.

7. Maintain your focus.

It's easy to lose steam as the semester goes on, but it's often the case that the most important stuff comes near the end. Many classes leave the bulk of the grade reserved for assignments or exams that come in the last month of the course, so make sure you gear up for the home stretch. It's essential to stay motivated even if you think your grades are "good enough."

Reach Your Full Potential

Learning how to succeed in college can boost your confidence and energize your ambitions. Developing good habits like the ones described above can set you on the path to academic success at any educational institution you choose. By the way, have you chosen that institution yet? A vocational college, technical institute, or trade school could be a great match for you. These types of schools offer job-focused training in a wide range of occupational areas. And finding one near you is easy. Just enter your zip code into the search tool below to get started!

1 The College Board, "How to Convert Your GPA to a 4.0 Scale," website last visited on October 17, 2017.

2 Teachers College Record, "Where A Is Ordinary: The Evolution of American College and University Grading, 1940-2009," website last visited on August 31, 2017., website last visited on August 31, 2017.

4Educational Researcher, "Is the Sky Falling? Grade Inflation and the Signaling Power of Grades," website last visited on November 26, 2019.

5 National Association of Colleges and Employers, "Job Outlook 2016: The Attributes Employers Want to See on New College Graduates' Resumes," website last visited on November 25, 2019.

6 PrepScholar, "What's the Average College GPA? By Major?," website last visited on September 29, 2017.


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