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When April of the coming academic year arrives, do you plan on looking at your final grades with pride and a sense of accomplishment? Of course! This is what most students aspire to do. But, to get there, you need a plan. Work harder and study more? That will help, but it’s certainly not a plan. Get smarter? Well, if you figure this one out, please share your secret with me.

Strong grades and academic advancement don’t happen by accident. Students who excel do so because they set goals and work towards meeting those benchmarks. Beyond this, successful undergrads know their environment and they know how to do all of the things that complement hard work. Below you’ll find what some of these facets of the undergraduate experience are. If you’d like to feel a great sense of academic accomplishment in April, consider the points in the following list:

1. Building a Rapport with Professors

This is one of the most overlooked parts to academic success. While professors and TAs host office hours every week, most will spend the entire time without speaking to any students. Despite having created a course and having the final say over all grades in that course, most students do not visit their professors for one-on-one consultation. What a tragedy!

Remember, your professor is an expert in the course that they’re teaching. In a conversation during office hours, you’ll probably learn more than you would sitting in a few lectures. Most professors are passionate about what they teach and they’re delighted when students express an interest.

Also consider that professors have complete discretion over your grade. If you’re actively engaged in your course, readings, and you’re displaying this by visiting office hours, you’ll probably be rewarded for it. In this way, a moment of your time can advance your learning, but also your standing in the course. Moreover, you may need a reference letter at some point in the future, but if you haven’t taken the time to speak with your professor, this opportunity will be wasted.

In the past, I have written on various issues on why building a rapport with professors is important. Click here for more on why you should visit office hours regularly, here for how to send emails to professors, or here if you want to know more about how to contest a grade.

2. Drop Dates

Knowing how to navigate drop dates is crucial for your academic success.

For a variety of reasons, but particularly to guard your GPA, you may need to consider dropping or switching a course. In this case there are two kinds of drop dates, which seem similar, but have very different consequences.

Drop date without financial penalty: This date, which will be clearly indicated on your academic calendar, means that you can drop a course and receive a full refund of your money. It is important to know that after a given time, your university may refund 75% of your money, then 50% of your money, and then zero. In other words, this type of drop date has a financial consequence that you should consider when making a decision.

Drop date without academic penalty: This date, also clearly indicated on your academic calendar will allow you to drop a course without any academic penalty. This means that your enrolment in the course will be fully removed from your academic record. If you decide to exit a course after this date however, your grade will be entered ‘as is’ and this will remain on your transcript forever. There is a process where you can petition to have a grade removed, but it’s arduous and time consuming.

3. Know the Supports Offered by Your University

Like most students, you may run into a course, an assignment, or maybe even a personal issue that requires outside expertise. This isn’t a problem and you shouldn’t deal with things that may have long-term consequences without all of the information you need. In fact, your university has many support mechanisms to help you. My advice, familiarize yourself with them.

The writing centre, for example, is a place where you can take assignments to get feedback before you hand them in to your professor. This is a proactive measure that can help you work out the kinks in your writing before a permanent grade gets inked on your academic record. Wouldn’t you want to hear constructive feedback before you receive your grade? I sure would.

Supports for mental health are also increasingly available to students. Irrespective of whether you currently have a mental illness, seek out your university’s mental health services before you actually need them. In a time of need, you’ll know exactly where to go. For supports outside of your university’s networks, check out several links I provided in a previous post.

4. Scholarships

Are you working part-time to offset the cost of university? Beyond this, are you looking for a financial boost that can complement your academic record? Scholarships are the answer.

Every year, there are countless scholarships that receive few or even zero applicants. This means that there is money to be given away, but nobody is there to accept it. Tragic! Invest some time and try to find scholarships that are being given away for reasons that you are uniquely qualified. For example, do you play an instrument? Try to find scholarships for students who play, write, or engage with music. When you do this kind of research, it will drastically reduce the amount of students who can apply and you can present a compelling reason why you are the ideal candidate.

If you want some tips on how to create a stellar scholarship application, check out some advice I provided in a previous post.

5. Read the Syllabus

Your professor invests a lot of time constructing the syllabus for your course. Trust me, I have done it and it’s a tremendous amount of work. There’s a reason why it is so detailed and you should consider reading it closely.

The syllabus is the contract between you and your professor. In it, you will find the course expectations, due dates, and a breakdown of the grading scheme. Use this information wisely.

In your planner, chart due dates for assignments and pay attention to the parts of the year where you know you’ll have a lot to do. As a proactive measure, you should know how to ask your professor for an extension, which is justified in some circumstances.

If there is anything unclear in the syllabus, meet with your professor or TA to discuss it. Remember, all of the expectations for the course should be clearly explained and if they’re not, you may not have a complete understanding of what’s to come. Do your research and your future self with thank you for it.

Final Word

If you’re hoping to celebrate a great academic year this coming April, try to ensure that you know what it will take to get you there. There are a lot of things that you should consider outside of merely working hard and depending on your natural smarts. These two things are only part of the equation of academic success. In short, consider implementing strategies outside of the lecture hall that will contribute to a successful year. If you run into anything that could be helped by expert advice, you can always contact us.


Christopher Grafos, Ph.D., is the founder of BridgesEDU. He is a firm believer that students can perform much better in their undergraduate studies if they have a complete understanding of what is expected of them by professors.