Are there realistic techniques for getting better grades beyond going to class and studying hard? Indeed there are, says Harvard professor Richard J. Light. Light and his research team interviewed 1,600 college students at ninety schools for his new book, Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds. His study found that the three keys to doing well at college are to “make an effort to get to know one faculty member in the field that interests you,” to focus on time management and, most surprising, to commit to an extracurricular activity.
A great way to meet professors is to find out if your school matches students with faculty seeking research assistance. Dustin Frame, a 2001 graduate from the University of Washington who majored in mechanical engineering, came to love doing collaborative research on fuel cells because “you’re doing something where the answer’s not in your teacher’s book.” The relationships he developed had an added benefit: “I think that’s what got me into grad school.” Though his GPA was average, “I got really good letters of recommendation because the professors got to see me working on stuff.”
Make the effort to visit your professors during office hours. To put it bluntly, “The sad, sad fact is the way you get better grades is by grade-grubbing,” according to an Ivy League literature instructor speaking on condition of anonymity. Ask to rewrite papers. “Make it so it’s easier for them to give you a good grade” by participating in class, he says. The instructor described one particularly persistent student who handed in “A B-/C+ paper, but I gave him a B+ to shut him up.” Getting to know professors outside of class will also help build a network of resources for thesis projects that may seem deceptively far in the future.
Many students get overwhelmed because, when a professor gives them an assignment, they don’t immediately decide on and record the next step. “As simple as this sounds, most people haven’t been trained how to make next-action decisions when assigned a project,” says Wall Street time-management guru David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. “Consequently, this creates a growing sense of anxiety and underlying stress because of all of the unknowns that are subliminally pulling on your energy, instead of being clarified and managed.” Allen notes that creative students procrastinate the most, because they have the imagination to consider all that’s involved in getting something done right. What they should do, he says, is “intelligently dumb down the assignment to the next physical action, such as borrowing a book, and stay focused on that, so that the process gets kick-started and they bypass their mental block.”
Web resources include mygoals.com, which takes students through a step-by-step process in identifying goals and obstacles to achieving them, and then implements a reminder system (for $9.95 a month after a free trial period); and questia.com, a great site for students who are commuters or attend colleges with small libraries. This service ($19.95 a month) provides the full text of more than 60,000 books and journal articles – all online and available at any hour.
Lastly, even if you’re juggling other obligations such as a job, extracurricular activities provide an important support network. According to Light, “Students who tended to become engaged with at least one major extracurricular tended to be happier personally and also to have exactly the same grade-point average – to the second decimal place – as those who didn’t get involved.”
Of course, if all this serious advice sounds like far too much work, there’s always the lazy-yet-honest route: Take easy classes. Many students have built a great GPA by packing their schedule with gut courses. It’s not noble, but it works.