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Grades: How to Identify Problems and When to Ask for Help

Grades are the most important factors that admissions officers consider when evaluating applications, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, so when a student comes home with a bad grade, it’s important to know how to address it.

Colleges look at grades from all four years of high school. They want to see an upward grade trend, that is, grades improving from year to year, as students take more difficult courses. This shows they are able to perform well while handling a challenging course load. It also shows maturity and that students are taking responsibility for their academic performance.

With college admissions becoming more competitive, and students striving for academic perfection, it can be a little disconcerting when a student comes home with a low score on a test, paper, or other assignment. This can leave students feeling disappointed and parents concerned; however, it’s important to keep a positive outlook and work together to improve.

Know When There’s a Problem

There’s a myriad of non-academic reasons why a student might perform poorly on a test or assignment, and often the problem can be identified right away. Maybe he or she didn’t study well enough, or felt under the weather that day. Maybe he or she was distracted by another personal or academic problem. It’s not uncommon for a student to have a bad test or assignment here and there – no one is perfect.

However, there might be a problem if the poor performance persists. In this case, it might not be a distraction or a bad day. Rather, there might be a disconnect between what’s being tested and what the student understands.

When a bad grade shows up, sit down and get to the root of the problem. If it’s an issue of studying, get organized and plan out a structured study schedule to make sure the student stays on track. Explore alternative study methods like outlines, dictated notes, flash cards, etc.

If it’s an issue of a distraction, either something going on in the student’s personal life or another commitment taking up focus, work out a solution. It may be as simple as talking through it or reprioritizing extracurricular activities.

Sometimes, these simple adjustments can help get a student back on track. However, if it’s an issue of comprehension, and new study methods aren’t working, it’s time to seek some outside assistance.

Ask for Help

After identifying the problem, don’t be afraid to seek help. Often, going directly to the teacher can help tremendously. If a student is struggling with a particular concept or problem, he or she should ask the teacher to work through it step-by-step in order to gain a better understanding of the material. Teachers want students to succeed, so it’s not a mark of failure to seek their help. Some teachers might even offer after-school lessons to help students catch up. Students should ask what their teacher is willing to commit to in order to help.

Teachers only have so much free time, however, so if assistance from the instructor isn’t helping, it might be time to look into a professional tutor. In addition to standardized test prep, IvyWise offers academic tutoring to help students struggling with subject material.

Academic tutors can often meet with students at any time of day, over Skype or other video-based platforms, and work with students for an extended period of time. This can allow students to get the personalized help they need at times that are most convenient for their schedules.

Know When to Scale Back

Help from teachers and tutoring can go a long way to remedy bad grades, but sometimes students take classes that they’re just not ready for, and it’s important to recognize when it’s time to scale back those difficult classes and reassess the student’s course load.

If tutoring and extra assistance from teachers just isn’t working, sit down with the student’s college or independent counselor and discuss the options available. Maybe the student can switch into a different course level. For example, if the student is struggling with Honors or AP Calculus, a regular calculus class might provide the support and pace a student would be more comfortable with.

Counselors can help students and their families consider their options and how these will affect a student’s transcript when it comes time to apply to college. Don’t despair – situations like this, while not ideal, won’t significantly hurt a student’s chances of admission to his or her best-fit college. Colleges understand the academic pressures students are under, and that learning is an experimental process. Many colleges offer students the opportunity to explain any academic issues, dips in grades, or course changes right in the application. That will be taken into consideration when evaluating the student’s applicant profile.

Grades and course rigor, while not the only factors admissions offices take into consideration, are two of the most important. While rigor is important, if a student is not performing well, that might work against him or her. Students should take a challenging course load, but also make sure it’s reasonably within their academic abilities. By knowing when to identify grade problems and when to ask for help, a student can put their best academic foot forward when it comes time to apply to college.

IvyWise is here to help you navigate your educational journey. IvyWise counselors and tutors can help you build a strong profile of academic performance before you begin the college admissions process. Contact us today to see how.


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