What to Expect from Your College Student’s First Semester Grades

Many college parents wait expectantly, hopefully, and sometimes fearfully for those first semester college grades as a measure of how their student is doing in college.  Although many students may have a better inkling of what to expect when the grades arrive, they, too, wait anxiously to hear the final verdict.  For many students, and their parents, those first semester grades may not be what they expected. 

 It is important that both college parents and their college students keep first semester grades in perspective.  For many students, they may be all that they hoped for.  However, if your student’s grades are lower than anticipated, there are several factors to consider.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that you student is incapable of college work, or that he has been slacking off all semester.  Grades are certainly important, but the first semester of college involves both tremendous transition and, for some students, a “reality check” about college in general. 

 For many students, college grades may be lower than what they were accustomed to receiving in high school.  Here are a few important things to keep in mind as you and your student consider first semester grades:

  • Some students may be surprised by their grade because they have had less information leading up to the final grade than they are used to receiving.  In high school, many students receive daily or weekly homework grades.  They may have many assignments or tests during a term.  A college class may have only one or two tests or papers, a final exam may count as a substantial portion of their grade, or they may not have received class work back.
  • College level work is different from high school work in many ways.  Throughout much of their K-12 education, many students have been taught material needed for test taking.  Students have been prepared for the SAT, the ACT, AP exams, and state mastery tests.  College coursework may be very different.  There may be less focus on accumulation of information and more focus on using information and thinking in a new way about subjects.  The learning may be very different, and many students need some time to make the adjustment.
  • The first semester of college is a time of tremendous transition for most students.  It may have taken a while for your student to understand what is required of her in her classes.  She may have suffered from homesickness during the semester and not been able to concentrate on her work.  She may have been focusing on making new friends and experimenting with her new-found freedom and not been focused on her coursework.  She may have needed this first semester to learn some important lessons about time-management.
  • Your student may not have a clear understanding of the time required for college coursework.  Students spend much of their high school day in class and then do a bit of homework outside of school.  Students in college spend relatively little time in class, but they are expected to do significant work outside of class.  Students often underestimate the amount of time required outside of class to be sufficiently prepared.
  • Many students are used to year-long classes in high school and find the semester long classes an adjustment.  For a student who may be a “slow starter”, the semester may be over before he has truly settled in.  Some students need a semester to realize the new time-frame of college coursework.  This is especially true if your student’s school uses a trimester or term calendar.  Some courses may be only a few weeks long.
  • Your student may not have realistic expectations about college grades.  Unfortunately, because of their experiences in high school, many students equate effort with grading.  They may feel that they deserve a high grade because they worked very hard.  They may confuse their level of effort with the quality of their work.  In one study conducted by the University of California at Urvine, 1/3 of students surveyed felt that they should receive at least a B in class if they attended all lectures.  Nearly 40% of students surveyed felt that they should receive at least a B in class if they did all of the reading.  Nearly 2/3 of students said that they thought that working hard should be a factor in their final grade.  This disconnect between these student expectations and the reality of much college grading sets many students up for disappointment when they receive their grades.
  • Perhaps your student did not take advantage of a college pass/fail or course withdrawal policy to help with a course in which he was having difficulty.  He should investigate this option for future semesters.
  • Perhaps your student did not realize how important attendance is in many classes.  Although many college instructors may not take attendance, students are held responsible for what happens during classes. 
  • Perhaps your student has done well in some classes but has poor grades in one or two classes.  It is important that he remember that not all classes or all subjects are equal.  If he did his best work and put forth his best effort, there may simply be some subjects that will give him difficulty.  As he chooses an area of study and progresses through his college career, he will hopefully be taking more and more classes in areas he likes and in which he has strengths.  It is important that your student, and you, look at the entire picture of grades and not dwell on one poor grade amid several acceptable grades.
  • Finally, some students may not be prepared for college level work.  If your student has done poorly overall, he may need to step back and consider more preparatory or developmental classes.  He may need to be sure to take more advantage of tutoring or support services offered by the college.  Most schools offer significant help to students, but the student must take the initiative to access the services.  It will be up to your student to seek the help he may need.

 If you and your student are disappointed or unhappy with first semester grades, it is important that you talk about the situation.  Try to determine whether you both have a realistic picture of what college work entails.  Try to determine why grades may be lower than expected.  If your student can discover where the problem lies, he can formulate a plan of action for the next semester.  Fortunately, a new semester means a clean slate and a fresh start for students.  The second semester can be significantly different for many students.

 Of course, if your student has done well during her first semester, be sure to congratulate her.  She has overcome some significant odds to succeed.  She should feel good about what she has accomplished and be prepared to continue to apply her new-found skills to her future classes.  Her coursework will get increasingly more difficult as she moves past the introductory courses in many areas, but she’s off to a great start.

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