Let’s Talk about Success


By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Understand that success in college means much more in the long term than simply passing or getting good grades.
  • Describe situations in which grades do matter—and why it’s important to do as well as you can.
  • Describe why it is so important to be successful in your first year of college.
  • List steps you can begin taking immediately to ensure your success.

Success in college is the theme of this book—and you’ll be learning more about everything involved in success in the following chapters. Let’s first define what success really means so that you can get started, right now, on the right foot.

Group of adults holding trophies

Understand first that no book can “make” you be successful—it can only offer the tools for you to use if you want. What are you thinking right now as you read these words? Are you reading this right now only because you have to, because it is assigned reading in a course you have to take—and your mind keeps drifting to other things because you’re feeling bored? Or are you interested because you’ve decided you want to succeed in college?

We hope it’s the latter, that you’re feeling motivated—and excited, too—to do a great job in college. But even if you aren’t much concerned at present about these issues, we hope you’ll keep reading and do some thinking about why you’re in college and how to get motivated to do well.

“Success” and “Failure”

So what does “success” actually mean in college? Good grades? That’s what many students would say—at least toward the beginning of their time in college.

When you ask people about their college experience a few years later, grades are seldom one of the first things mentioned. College graduates reflecting back typically emphasize the following:

  • The complete college experience (often described as “the best years of my life”)
  • Exploring many different subjects and discovering one’s own interests
  • Meeting a lot of interesting people, learning about different ways to live
  • Learning how to make decisions and solve problems that are now related to a career
  • Gaining the skills needed to get the job—and life—one desires

When you are achieving what you want in life and when you are happy and challenged and feel you are living life to its fullest and contributing to the world, then you likely feel successful. When you reach this point, your grades in college are about the last thing you’ll think of.

This is not to say that grades don’t matter—just that getting good grades is not the ultimate goal of college or the best way to define personal success while in college. Five or ten years from now, no one is going to care much about what grade you got in freshman English or Biology 101. A successful college experience does include acceptable grades, of course, but in the end—in your long-range goals—grades are only one component of a larger picture.

How Much Do Grades Matter?

3693303191_675a22f075_oAs you begin your college experience, it’s good to think about your attitude toward grades, since grades often motivate students to study and do well on assignments.

Valuing grades too highly, or not highly enough, can cause problems. A student who is determined to get only the highest grades can easily be frustrated by difficult college classes. Expectations that are too high may lead to disappointment—possibly depression or anxiety—and may become counterproductive. At the other extreme, a student who is too relaxed about grades, who is content simply with passing courses, may not be motivated to study enough even to pass—and may be at risk for failing courses.

What is a good attitude to have toward grades? The answer to that depends in part on how grades do matter generally—and specifically in your own situation. Here are some ways grades clearly do matter:

  • At most colleges, all students must maintain a certain grade point average (GPA) to be allowed to continue taking courses and to graduate.
  • Financial aid and scholarship recipients must maintain a certain grade in all courses, or a minimum GPA overall, to continue receiving their financial award.
  • In some programs, the grade in certain courses must be higher than simply passing in order to count toward the program or major.

After graduation, it may be enough in some careers just to have completed the program or degree. But in most situations, how well one did in college may still affect one’s life. Employers often ask how well you did in college (new graduates at least—this becomes less important after one has gained more job experience). Students who are proud of their grades usually include their GPA on their résumés. Students with a low GPA may avoid including it on their resume, but employers may ask on the company’s application form or in an interview (and being caught in a lie can lead to being fired). An employer who asks for a college transcript will see all your grades, not just the overall GPA.

In addition to the importance for jobs, grades matter if you plan to continue to graduate school, professional school, or other educational programs—all of which require your transcript.

Certainly grades are not the only way people are judged, but along with all forms of experience (work, volunteer, internship, hobbies) and personal qualities and the recommendations of others, they are an important consideration. After all, an employer may think, if this person goofed off so much in college that he got low grades, how can I expect him not to goof off on the job?

How to Calculate Your GPA

Because of various requirements for maintaining a GPA at a certain level, you may need to know how to calculate your GPA before grades come out at the end of the term. The math is not difficult, but you need to consider both the grade in every course and the number of credit hours for that course in order to calculate the overall GPA. Here is how you would do the calculation in the traditional four-point scale. First, translate each letter grade to a numerical score:

A = 4
B = 3
C = 2
D = 1

Then multiply each grade’s numerical score by the number of units or hours for that course:

B in Math 101 × 5 hours = 3 × 5 = 15
B in English 4 × 3 hours = 3 × 3 = 9
C in Humanities 1 × 5 hours = 2 × 5 = 10
A in College Success × 3 hours = 4 × 3 = 12

Then add together those numbers for each course:

15 + 9 + 10 + 12 = 46.

Then divide that total by the total number of credit hours:

46 / 16 = 2.87 = GPA of 2.87.

Consult your college’s policies regarding the numeric weighting of + and − grades.

The best attitude to take toward grades in college is simply to do the best you can do. You don’t need to kill yourself, but if you’re not going to make an effort then there’s not much reason to be there in the first place. Almost everything in this book—from time management to study skills to social skills and staying healthy—will contribute to your overall success and, yes, to getting better grades.

If you have special concerns about grades, such as feeling unprepared in certain classes and at risk of failing, talk with your academic advisor. If a class requires more preparation than you have from past courses and experience, you might be urged to drop that class and take another—or to seek extra help. Your advisor can help you work through any individual issues related to doing well and getting the best grade you can.

Can You Challenge a Grade?

Yes and no. College instructors are very careful about how they assign grades, which are based on clear-cut standards often stated in the course syllabus. The likelihood of an instructor changing your grade if you challenge it is very low. On the Two men talking about a piece of paperother hand, we’re all human—mistakes can occur, and if you truly feel a test or other score was miscalculated, you can ask your instructor to review the grade. Just be sure to be polite and respectful.

Most situations in which students want to challenge a grade, however, result from a misunderstanding regarding the expectations of the grading scale or standards used. Students may simply feel they deserve a higher grade because they think they understand the material well or spent a lot of time studying or doing the assignment. The instructor’s grade, however, is based on your actual responses on a test, a paper or other assignment. The instructor is grading not what he or she thinks is in your head, but what you actually wrote down.

If you are concerned that your grade does not accurately reflect your understanding or effort, you should still talk with your instructor—but your goal should be not to argue for a grade change but to gain a better understanding of the course’s expectations so that you’ll do better next time. Instructors do respect students who want to improve. Visit the instructor during office hours or ask for an appointment and prepare questions ahead of time to help you better understand how your performance can improve and better indicate how well you understand the material.

A major aspect of college for some students is learning how to accept criticism. Your college instructors hold you to high standards and expect you to have the maturity to understand that a lower grade is not a personal attack on you and not a statement that you’re not smart enough to do the work. Since none of us is perfect, we all can improve in almost everything we do—and the first step in that direction is accepting evaluation of our work. If you receive a grade lower than you think you have earned, take the responsibility to learn what you need to do to earn a higher grade next time.

Succeeding in Your First Year

The first year of college is almost every student’s most crucial time. Statistics show a much higher drop-out rate in the first year than thereafter. Why? Because for many students, adjusting to college is not easy. Students wrestle with managing their time, their freedom, and their other commitments to family, friends, and work. It’s important to recognize that it may not be easy for you.

On the other hand, when you do succeed in your first year, the odds are very good that you’ll continue to succeed and will complete your program or degree.

Are you ready? Remember that everything in this book will help you succeed in your first year. Motivation and a positive attitude are the keys to getting off to a running start. The next section lists some things you can do to start right now, today, to ensure your success.

Getting Started on the Right Foot Right Now

  • Make an appointment to talk with your academic advisor if you have any doubt about the courses you have already enrolled in or about the direction you’re taking. Start examining how you spend your time and ensure you make enough time to keep up with your courses.
  • Check for tutoring assistance if you feel you may need it and make an appointment or schedule time to visit tutoring centers on your college campus to see what help you can get if needed.
  • Like yourself. You’ve come a long way to reach this point, you have succeeded in taking this first step toward meeting your college goal, and you are fully capable of succeeding the rest of the way. Avoid the trap of feeling down on yourself if you’re struggling with any classes.
  • Planner with pen and iPodPay attention to your learning style and your instructors’ teaching styles. Begin immediately applying the guidelines discussed earlier for situations in which you do not feel you are learning effectively.
  • Plan ahead. Check your syllabus for each class and highlight the dates of major assignments and tests. Write on your calendar the important dates coming up.
  • Look around your classroom and plan to introduce yourself right away to one or two other students. Talking with other students is the first step in forming study groups that will help you succeed.
  • Introduce yourself to your instructors, if you haven’t already. In a large lecture, go up to the instructor after class and ask a question about anything in the lecture or about an upcoming assignment.
  • Participate in your classes. If you’re normally a quiet person who prefers to observe others asking questions or joining class discussions, you need to take the first step toward becoming a participating student—another characteristic of the successful student. Find something of particular interest to you and write down a question for the instructor. Then raise your hand at the right time and ask. You’ll find it a lot easier than you may think!
  • Vow to pay more attention to how you spend your money. Some students have to drop out because they get into debt.
  • Take good care of your body. Good health makes you a better student. Vow to avoid junk food, to get enough sleep, and to move around more. When you’re done reading this chapter, take a walk!

Excellent! Start doing these few things, and already you’ll be a step or two ahead—and on your way to a successful first year!


  • While success in college involves many benefits and experiences, grades remain one important measure of success.
  • Acceptable grades are important for continuing your college program and financial aid, for graduate school or other future educational opportunities, and for obtaining a good job in most careers.
  • Succeeding is especially important in one’s first year of college because this is the most critical period to avoid the factors that lead to many students dropping out.
  • You can launch yourself on a path of success immediately by taking the first steps for help with studies, developing a positive attitude, taking advantage of your personal learning style, starting to practice time management, meeting your instructors and other students, participating actively in your classes, and taking control of your personal health and finances.

Checkpoint EXERCISES

  1. In your college or your specific program, do you need to maintain a minimum GPA in order to continue in the program? (If you don’t know, check your college catalog or Web site.) What is that minimum GPA? What was your cumulative GPA in high school? Because college classes are usually more difficult than high school classes, figure—purely as a starting point—that with the same effort, your college GPA could be a full point (or more) lower than your high school GPA. Does that give you any cause for concern? If so, what do you think you should work on most to ensure you succeed in college?
  2. For each of the following statements about success in college, circle T for true or F for false:
    T F See your academic advisor only when it’s time to register for courses or when the college requires you to.
    T F The best way to get help with a class is to pick whoever looks like the smartest student in class and offer to pay that person for tutoring.
    T F A positive attitude about yourself as a college student helps you stay motivated to work on succeeding in your classes.
    T F Understanding one’s own learning style makes it easier to understand how to apply one’s strengths when studying and to overcome obstacles to learning by adapting in other ways.
    T F Meeting other students in your classes is important early on because you can skip classes once you arrange to borrow other people’s notes.
    T F Participating in class is a key to being successful in that class.