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Recently, I have spoken with a few grade twelve classes about the high school to university transition. One of the most common questions I have heard is, “is it true that grades decline in university?” The question is almost always followed by some horror story of someone they know dropping to a D average in first year or completely flunking out of school.

Are you fearful of your grades dropping? Do you want an honest take on grades in university? If so, here’s my perspective. Do grades drop in university? Typically, yes, but it doesn’t necessarily have to happen.

Doing well in undergraduate studies takes hard work, but beyond that, it requires you to up your game in some skills that high school is less effective at developing. In university, you will be expected to do a lot more work on your own. You will not receive a warning or a stern talking to if you don’t hand something in or you’re simply not performing to your potential. To put it simply, there is far less academic oversight in university. Without knowing how to seek out help from professors or university services, many students struggle. These are the cracks that so many undergraduates fall into. In huge classes where no one seems to care, it is hard to pull yourself out of the abyss, but trust me, it absolutely can be done.

The other thing that university asks you to do on a much higher level is analytical thinking. This is where many students really have a tough time. In your undergraduate courses, it will no longer be sufficient to simply restate what you read in your textbook or what the professor has shared with you in lecture. In tutorials, exams, and written assignments, you’ll need to show an ability to think critically about what you are reading. Answering the question, “so what?”, rather than simply memorizing the points or facts made by others. If you’re unsure how to do this, send me an email and I’ll show you how.

Let’s get back to grades. Here’s the reality for many (but not all) first- and second-year classes. Typically, a class average will be a C+. Life science courses are very transparent about this and they often use a bell curve to ensure that this is the

 case, but it is a hidden element of liberal arts courses. While there is no formal rule that each class should have a 67 average, it is common for large undergraduate classes to end up around this mark. Oh, and yes, all of these students were strong performers in high school, which should be evident by the fact that they were admitted to university. However, competing against one another, some students thrive and others struggle.

To put this all into context, let’s consider the following example. Let’s say we have an undergraduate class of ten students. From a grader’s (professor or teaching assistant) perspective, each student will be competing for a position in the following chart. Now, keep in mind that this is only an example and things can move around slightly, but only slightly. At the end of the term, this is what our class report card will most likely look like:

A – 1 student
B – 3 students
C – 4 students
D – 2 students

Let me just say that this information is not meant to scare you, it’s meant to empower you. Now that you know this information, it is up to you to figure out how to get to the place that you want to be. This requires a plan and an understanding of the skills that will get you the grade you desire. Be mindful of the fact that simply being smart and working hard is not a plan. If you are concerned about how to read in university, how to write, how to execute on an exam, or any of the other skills that will earn you grades in university, ask for help!

Final Word

If you’re fearful about your grades dropping in university, or you’ve already experienced this, know that the challenge of raising your grades is definitely manageable. You just need to work on refining the right skills that will make you successful in university. Also remember that your initial grades do not necessarily represent your real capabilities. Learning how to do well in university can be similar to learning a new sport or language. Progress takes time and occurs through repetition and skill development. The help of a good coach who knows exactly what they’re doing and has a track record of helping students achieve excellence will greatly accelerate this process, too.