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October 16, 2019
3 mins read

Pushing ahead in the face of lower grades

Your midterm grades are out.

Whether you have taken AP or IB exams in the past, midterms—and the way they're graded in university—may be new to you, and you may not have received the marks you anticipated, despite the work and time you put in.

Sometimes it can be easy to feel unmoored, unanchored, like a lost boat floating amid the tempest. These feelings of inadequacy, alienation, and internal pressure can make you question if you really do belong in this new learning environment.

Remember: You do. You worked hard to get here, and many university students—just like you—share these feelings, too.

During my first year, I walked into and out of my first few midterms with the expectation that I would achieve the grades that I did, back in high school.

Only later—when the marks came out and I learned that I’d taken a handful of Ls—did I realize that the demands of the work here at university were more intense than I was used to and that I had to avoid letting my high school transcript and my entrance average get to my head. It’s university now—the level of difficulty has changed, and so have my expectations.

Learning from your midterm experience

Some profs have told me that giving students back their first marked midterms is one of the hardest things they have to do in their roles. They have also said that many students are able to rebound from low midterm marks, do well on the final, and end up with a strong average.

If you're feeling discouraged by your current grades, consider seeing your midterm marks as a half-way checkpoint to help you determine what to change about your learning.

Your performance on the final is more likely to improve if you make an effort to take what you've learned from your midterm experience and strive to avoid repeating habits that may not have worked out (e.g. cramming and pulling all-nighters)—and try some different strategies, which can include:

As Prof Wickenden, the instructor for my chem lab, puts it, “Students often take it as a personal affront that they are not smart enough to be here. It’s usually that they are not preparing properly for the exams. Alter the way you’re prepping. Make sure that you have adequate time. Seek help immediately if something doesn’t make sense. Don’t leave things to the last minute. Spread the work out over the term.”

To that end, even if it’s too late to change your past performance, carry the feedback into your next academic challenge.

What your grades actually tell you

Prof Wickenden shares that “grades are a reflection of how well you’re doing at that moment, not a comment on your intelligence.” He advises students to approach their grades as a piece of information, not so much as a point value, as your marks may fail to account for any personal circumstances going on at the same time.

And sometimes, you may feel like everyone else is doing much better than you are—or you aren’t as smart as you used to be, or as smart as you think you should be. Know that you’re not alone. Many individuals just like you share these feelings and may be having similar experiences with their own midterms. 

Where you now stand in academics can improve—if you put the effort in. Take it from me, your grades by the end of the term can change (a lot!) for the better.

How to push forward

Here are a few ways to push forward that I personally find helpful:

  • Aim for the best while being prepared for the worst (self-immunizing, as I call it)
  • Avoid being so hard on yourself when you don't meet your previous standards, but continue to work hard and use the feedback to see what you can change
  • Reframe all feedback (beyond just grades) as learning experiences, so that you can better approach similar challenges next time
  • Talk to others—they may be going through experiences similar to yours

First year doesn’t have to be a solitary journey, and you have the potential to rebound from academic setbacks—and lift one another up. Stay strong as you progress in your first year.