Grades are sometimes arbitrary and, at their worst, meaningless: Any freshman can tell stories about working his ass off for a B minus and barely cracking a book to get an A. Unfortunately, much of the world — parents and graduate schools, most significantly — views grades as the hallowed, sacred code by which it assesses the success of the college experience. Which is why you’ve read this far.
First, the good news: grade inflation. Yes, more A’s and B’s are being handed out today in U.S. colleges than at any time in history. As of 1995, 90 percent of all letter grades at Stanford University were A’s or B’s; the average grade at Harvard was an A minus/B plus, and the number of A’s given at Cornell doubled in the last 30 years. The bad news is that if your grades don’t happen to be inflating, you’re really getting screwed — future employers and graduate-school admissions offices are raising their standards to adjust for this inflation. As if that weren’t bad enough, many colleges are trying to counteract grade inflation with grade quotas and new requirements that make it harder to drop classes.
It’s no wonder, then, that the services and products claiming to raise grades continue to proliferate faster, and more shamelessly, than new diets. “Improve your grades instantly!” is an advertising claim as exploitative of college students as “Increase your penis size instantly!” is of shortchanged men. And when you start looking at the dizzying number of services behind these claims, it’s easy to get lost. What follows is an overview of those resources that claim to give CPR to a G.P.A. — from the conventional to the unconventional to the, well, sleazy.
Method I: Take a Course
You’ve just started a tough class in a subject you’ve already received a lousy grade in, but you’re not worried, because this time it’s going to be different. “The least-effective strategy is saying, ‘I’m gonna do different this semester,’ ” says Tom Seals, director of the counseling center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “You haven’t changed anything except the wish to do differently.”
In other words, you need to take action. Most universities now offer study courses and tutorial services, such as the University of Illinois’ Reading and Study program. “The first thing we do is assess why someone isn’t getting better grades,” says Seals. “Does it have to do with the way they read? The way they study? The way they take tests? Or does it have to do with the way they manage their time?” The program tries to improve reading speed and comprehension for particular areas of study — “Obviously, you need to learn to read chemistry differently than English lit,” says Seals — as well as teach students how to take better notes. “But the biggest single important thing we teach in this program is time and stress management,” Seals says.
“All campuses around the country offer standard academic-skills classes that include reading skills, memory improvement, time management and better note taking,” says Dennis Matthies, a lecturer in academic skills at Stanford. “They’re catching up for what was not done in high school. We don’t do that here.” Instead, the Stanford curriculum offers classes designed, Matthies says, “to teach students to be observant about themselves and improve what they’re doing.” He says that “if you spend two to three hours reading, you should be able to learn something about the way you read and how to improve it. At the end of every study period, we try to get students to reflect on their underlying study process and to learn one lesson from it.”
The emphasis of all the courses, with such names as Accelerated Learning and Reading Smarter, is on asking the right questions — of yourself and your teachers — and away from a reliance on memory. “A memory-based strategy will rarely get you out of C range,” says Matthies. He dismisses the quick fixes offered by most grade-improvement programs. “What people want are tip sheets,” he says. “Tip sheets for memory, tip sheets for reading. But tip sheets are a failure. What works is self-observation and experimentation. The goal is not to get done but to get better. That’s why you need to learn to coach yourself.”
Method II: Hire a Coach
If you have trouble coaching yourself, you won’t have any problem getting someone to do it for you. A grade coach is someone between a tutor, a drill instructor and a motivational speaker, who, for $50 to $100 an hour, will prescribe a game plan for classroom achievement. Now give me 10, kid.
“A coach helps a student overcome obstacles and so become the student he’d like to be,” says Amy Watson, media director for Coach University, which was founded in 1992 in Salt Lake City to train its students to coach in fields ranging from finance to education. “Coaches work as both a taskmaster and a mentor, a kind of student personal trainer. It’s not about rescue, it’s about growth.” If you can’t locate a coach near your campus, Coach U grads are happy to jump-start collegiate careers over the phone and, for some deserving students, will work on a pro bono or reduced-fee basis.
But, warns Ted Sutton, who runs a tutoring and consulting service in Cambridge, Mass., “one risk with these new people who are popping up is, they tend to beat their own drums. They can be dangerous.”
Method III: Reaffirm Yourself
There are many ways to increase your ability to concentrate on the task at hand other than hiring a guy with a whistle to look over your shoulder. Like “re-scripting,” a technique preferred by Dr. Alice L. Hamachek, director of the Reading Arts Academy, in Okemos, Mich., and professor emeritus at Central Michigan University’s College of Education. Hamachek helps struggling students discover the key point at which their negative attitude started — “It could have been a bad eighth-grade teacher,” she says — so that they can move beyond it. That’s where the affirmations come in.
That’s right: affirmations.
In her helpful guide Coping With College: A Guide for Academic Success (Allyn & Bacon/Simon & Schuster, 1995), Hamachek lists various “affirmations for a positive mental attitude,” phrases that students can repeat to themselves, such as “I am a confident and capable student.” How did Hamachek come upon the idea of using affirmations with college students? “Students who come to me have some kind of difficulty or goal they want to achieve,” Hamachek says. “They can achieve it with the right strategies and support system. The affirmations become a support system for our attitude.”
Hamachek says that her favorite affirmations include “Life holds great promise” and “I am on the road to success,” but that your favorite affirmations should be individualized to your particular needs. So will sitting alone in your dorm room, loudly chanting, “I am on the road to success in organic chemistry,” actually raise your grade? “You move grades by studying hard, then by affirming yourself,” Hamachek says. “Yes, I believe that can happen.”
Method IV: Get Hypnotized
So let’s say that you’ve got the study classes, the coach and the affirmations, but you’re still struggling. Well, there are still options open to you. “Hypnosis can be a tool in helping you get better grades,” says Dr. Lynne Hornyak, a psychologist who specializes in hypnosis and who has hypnotized college students to improve their academic performance. “You can learn how to be focused on ideas to enhance reading, math – whatever you’re working on.”
If a student gets the jitters while taking a test, Hornyak says she will walk him through the test, then have him walk through it himself. “It’s a mental rehearsal for good study skills, so that you can focus inwardly and not be as distractible,” she says.
According to Hornyak, hypnosis is most effective when it is practiced regularly. She often puts her sessions on tape for a client so that he can practice self-hypnosis whenever he wants to study. “Ten to 20 minutes daily can be very beneficial just in terms of getting calm and relaxed,” Hornyak says.
Method V: Work the Prof
But maybe better grades depend less on getting your head in the right place than getting your body in the right place: A study conducted in the 1980s by sociologists at the University of Michigan found that “students who report sitting in the first few rows in a class have a significantly higher G.P.A. than other students.” Why? Experts like Andrew Bushko, dean of freshman programs at Widener University, in Chester, Pa., have claimed that students who become faces instead of names will improve their grades. “I’ve always said that grading is an art, not a science,” Bushko has said. “There’s always a judgment call when you’re grading a paper … trying to make a call between a C plus and a B minus. A student who’s made a positive impression will get the benefit of the doubt.”
“Communicating with your professor is really important,” says Alex de Guia, a learning-skills counselor at the University of California at Berkeley. “A lot of students tend to get scared walking into a professor’s office, and they’re too inhibited to ask questions. What students don’t understand is that professors want students to talk to them.”
There is, in fact, a whole school of grade-raising thought that believes the key to a good grade lies in that mysterious, ritualized relationship between student and teacher. In other words, it’s all about buttering up the prof — and these days, a mere apple is not going to cut it. “There are a lot of bullshitters at Harvard,” says Jennifer Hanson, a senior at Harvard University and the author of The Real Freshman Handbook (Houghton Mifflin, 1996). “You need something to distinguish you from the others, and sometimes it takes something a little extra to stand out.”
Hanson suggests giving your professors glowing evaluations (“Don’t check the anonymous box on the form,” she hints) and nominating them for teaching awards, as well as sending them thank-you notes. Here’s the hardest part: You have to laugh at their jokes. “Make a chuckle or have a twinkle in your eye,” she advises. “It makes them feel good.”
Older experts like Sutton, however, are skeptical about this approach. “Professors know who the Eddie Haskells out there are,” he says. And it may occur to you at the end of the day, when you’re back in your room, trying to scrub the brown off your nose, that actually doing the course work suddenly doesn’t look so bad.
Method VI: Buy a “Study Aid”
The week after midterms is panic season. “It’s a part of the cycle called ‘midsemester collapse,’ ” says Tom Seals. Let’s assume that you are hammered with a major case of M.C., that you feel like you’re sliding down a greased chute toward finals, completely out of control, and no amount of affirmations or swinging gold watches or mowing your professor’s lawn is going to make time stand still long enough for you to do all the reading you have to do to get a decent grade.
But wait — don’t panic. Welcome to the wonderful world of study aids. As if by magic, those barely decipherable thousand-plus pages of Ulysses become — shazam! — a 46-page edition of those highly readable Cliffs Notes. But wait. . . . “You shouldn’t buy Cliffs Notes with the idea of taking a shortcut,” says Kelly Jo Hinrichs, marketing director for Cliffs Notes. Then, uh, what’s the point of buying them? “The intention is to heighten knowledge in an area and to help get better grades,” she says. But if you’d read the book, you would already … aw, forget it.
Maybe cutting down on your in-class hours will give you the time you need. Many colleges now offer an in-class version of Cliffs Notes – professional note-taking services. Students at Stanford, Berkeley and UCLA, among other institutions, can buy weekly notes for the most popular introductory classes, such as human biology and psychology.
Rick Hernandez, project manager for Stanford’s lecture notes, says that most of the note takers he hires are TAs in the courses. “They talk to the professors about the best way to take notes for the class,” says Hernandez. (This is something any student can do — hint, hint.) “The professors give them their overheads and visual aids, and talk to them after class to clear up any problems.” The professors cooperate with the note takers — unless there is a substantial drop in class attendance, at which point the instructors assume that students are using the notes as a substitute for going to class and cancel the service.
“Students should not use notes from a professional service as a substitute for going to the class,” Hernandez says. Then what’s the point of buying them? “Most students should not be sitting in a room taking notes,” says Matthies. Instead, he says, students should be able to listen without taking notes and look at the professional notes afterward. But the expert de Guia disagrees. “I used the notes as a substitute for my own notes, and it didn’t work for me,” he says. “If the notes clarify your own notes, then use them. But they won’t work if used as a substitute.” All right. Now, you can panic.
Method VII: Cram Smartly
It’s now the week before finals, the tension is palpable, you’re paralyzed with fear, and nothing seems to help. That huge term paper and/or final is due tomorrow, and you haven’t even started it. Although the experts discourage cramming, what the experts don’t seem to understand is that those who cram rarely have a choice.
Your choice of cramming technique has a lot to do with the amount of time you have. If you have two hours, you’ll need to spend it looking at last year’s final — the best indicator of your hell to come. If you have five hours, you’ll need to spend it going over last year’s final with a friend. If you have an entire night, you’ll need stimulants. Experts advise students who’ve used a stimulant for studying to use the same substance when taking the test. “It’s called ‘state-dependent learning,’ ” says Professor Ed Yeterian, who teaches psychology at Colby College, in Waterville, Maine. “If you’re in one state when studying, you’ll better recall the information in that state.” He’s quick to add, “Of course, if a student feels anxious after using caffeine, then it can be detrimental overall.”
“I think stimulants do help some people get through one night of studying,” says Hanson (who prefers coffee to No Doz). “But there’s a big crash after these things, and you can’t afford the crash if you have another exam in a couple days.”
“A lot of students screw up big in their final exams because they don’t get enough sleep,” says Sutton. “If you wait until the week before finals to start studying, there’s no way you’ll be able to structure it to get enough sleep.”
Many experts think that you can get a bigger boost out of exercise than chemicals. Matthies says that physical exercise will give you mental clarity for studying. “It’s not necessary to exhaust yourself,” says Matthies, who also is a big advocate of showers and fresh-air breaks. “Five to 10 minutes of calisthenics will do it. You need to do something to change your mental state.”
Method VIII: The Sleaze Factor
Of course, there are options open to you other than cramming and grinding out that final term paper. If you’re rich and desperate enough, you can call your friendly local term-paper mill. You can find the ads in the back of magazines like this one, bristling with forced optimism (“Call 800-A-SURE-A-l”). At Research Assistance, based in Los Angeles, a student can have term papers custom-made (at $20 to $40 per page, depending upon the level of sophistication) or can order pre-written reports ($7.50 per page) from a catalog that lists more than 20,000 titles. Owner and founder Barton Lowe, who has operated the business for 26 years, says his term papers can “absolutely” improve your grade. Though he himself has never written a term paper in his entire life, he says that he “learned a lot from reading the reports.” Lowe, however, cautions that “the papers can’t be used for anything other than research.”
In other words, even though these term papers look exactly like term papers and read exactly like term papers, they shouldn’t really be used as term papers. This is all beginning to sound familiar: Cliffs Notes are no substitute for reading the book, professional note takers are no substitute for going to class, and professionally written term papers are no substitute for writing your own. Sure, and masturbation is no substitute for sex. So only use it for research.
“For those looking for an easy way out, it’s all gonna catch up with you,” Matthies says. “People don’t understand what will happen when they’re out of the university. Students have no idea how people are expected to learn and improve in the workplace.”
The class is over, you’ve gotten your grade, and it sucks. There are still, believe it or not, options open to you. Most colleges offer a grade appeals process, in which you can go over the head of your instructor to other members of the faculty, who will, of course, side with you and not your professor — whom they lunch with and have little professor parties with — and immediately give you a better grade. And then you wake up.
But the action that might actually get results is to try to learn from your experience. “If you get a bad exam back, don’t throw it away,” says the tutor Sutton. “Treat it like it’s a corpse and you’re Quincy.”
After the post-mortem, you may very well discover that the problem isn’t your lack of ability so much as your lack of interest in the subject matter. “For some students, they are in a curriculum someone else wants them to be in,” expert Seals says. “Extrinsic motivation will only carry you so far. You have to ask yourself, ‘Do I like this? Is this something I care about?’ “
“As much as everyone wishes for a magic pill for academic success, they must reckon themselves to the fact that there isn’t one,” says Sutton. “There are no Top 10 tips for everyone.” And even if there were, they’d probably say you couldn’t use them.