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How To Deal With Your First Bad Grade In College

Let’s be honest: College is not easy. Although classes may seem a bit more relaxed than they were in high school in terms of scheduling (goodbye, eight-hour school days!), there are many aspects of college life that can have a negative impact on your grades.

Whether you’re spreading yourself thin with a packed class schedule, falling behind on assignments, procrastinating on studying, or simply struggling with a difficult class or professor, you’re not alone. Many college students are going through the same thing. The most important thing to remember is that nobody is perfect, and life happens — including the occasional low grade in college. However, there are things you can do to deal, and occasionally turn the experience into a positive. I know that getting a bad grade isn’t fun in the slightest, so here are some tips that will help you handle it.

Don’t be too hard on yourself.

Your first reaction to receiving your bad grade may be to be mentally “beat yourself up” or be super hard on yourself — after all, you know you can do better! However, although you may be feeling down, it’s important to remember that no one is perfect and bad grades happen to the best of us. The experience doesn’t reflect who you are as a student if an exam, project, or even an entire class doesn’t go your way.

Bad grades in college happen to everyone, but if this is the first time it’s happened to you, it may come as a bit of a shock or a surprise — especially if you struggle with perfectionism, or feel that you aren’t one to earn bad grades in the first place. Again, it’s important to remember that college is an entirely different experience that’s full of unexpected surprises, and that’s okay.

Hannah Harshe, a sophomore at the University of Michigan, stresses the same idea. “Work your hardest, and remember that in college, bad grades are part of the territory a lot more than they are in high school,” she tells Her Campus.

Think of it this way: the less time you spend beating yourself up about a bad grade, the more time you can spend better preparing for improvement and figuring out your next steps.

Take it as a learning experience.

While navigating academics is obviously a huge part of the college experience, student life isn’t just about your class schedule. It’s also about having meaningful life experiences that you’re constantly growing from, and earning your first “bad” grade might be one of them. As disappointing as it may be, see if you can look at the situation objectively and consider it as an important life lesson. What, exactly, can you take away from this experience?

Reflect and take ownership of a bad grade when it’s due.

Okay, so maybe you could’ve spent a little more time studying for organic chemistry instead of frat parties every weekend, and now you’re dealing with a super low grade on an exam. Maybe your studying habits (or your academic habits in general) aren’t doing the trick, or perhaps organic chemistry simply isn’t clicking. It’s also entirely possible that you studied well for the test, but you simply didn’t get enough sleep beforehand. Regardless of the reasoning for the low test score, it’s important to be honest with yourself and take accountability while recognizing where things might need to shift.

Jun Wang, an academic advisor and the Assistant Professor of Education at Carthage College, offers some insight into attributing your efforts to your grades.

“Some students struggle or don’t know how to attribute their effort to the exams,” Wang says. “Whenever they get a bad grade they will blame the outside factors, like thinking ‘the instructor doesn’t like me’ or ‘I had bad luck.’ So, as instructors, we need to make sure that we train [students] to make positive attributions, such as thinking ‘Ok, I did bad, maybe I didn’t study that hard,’ or, ‘I had questions and confusions but I didn’t ask my peers or the instructor, or maybe I need to improve my learning strategies or my preparation strategies.’” If you’re a college student, ask yourself these questions to help determine how to deal with your low grade.

Use it as a way to learn more about which studying habits work best for you

Molly Crum, a recent graduate of James Madison University, took her bad grade as a sign to change her study habits. “I took [my bad grade] as a sign that the way I was doing things before wasn’t working, so I studied earlier and in a different, more focused way before the next test,” says Molly. “I think meeting with the professor or other students in the class can be really helpful for people as well.”

Whatever the case may be, take a moment to reflect and use this bad grade as a learning experience. You may learn that in order to improve, you need to consider adjusting a certain aspect of your life or two, such as studying more or in a different way. Worst case scenario: the class isn’t your cup of tea, and if you’re just not doing well in the class at all, it may be best to part ways—something you can always speak to your advisor about!

Consider asking for help.

A bad grade is just as much a learning experience as it is a signal to consider seeking out a helping hand. No one wants you to fail in college, so there are tons of resources you can use to your advantage to learn more about why you earned the grade that you did and how to better prepare for the future. Your professor, a teaching assistant, an advisor or a tutor are just some of the many people you can consult! Plus, many professors offer office hours where they’re open to discussing your grade, and will sometimes even go as far as to let you retake things like a quiz or a test you weren’t satisfied with.

Seek out tutoring, guidance, or support from your professor

“I was really stubborn about speaking with my professors and accepting help from a tutor when I failed my first test in college,” says Emma*, a junior at Carthage College. “Finally, I came to terms with the fact that asking for help isn’t a sign of stupidity or failure. It only means that you care about your education and learning from your mistakes!”

There’s no shame in asking your professors for help as well. Wang suggests talking to your professor as well as your peers to help clear up any confusion you may have. “I would advise students that for the future, if you have any questions relating to a study [guide], go to your professor or talk to your peers. From an instructor’s perspective, if a student comes to me, then maybe next time I will do some preventive measures.” Talking to your professor about your confusion with an exam or a quiz may lead them to approach their teaching in a different way to better prepare you for future exams!

When in doubt, consider extra credit

Extra credit is another option to consider. Say it’s nearing the end of the semester and your grade is on the borderline of a C+ and a B- and so on; you can always meet with your professor to discuss the possibility of extra credit to help balance out a bad grade. It helps to become familiar with their policies of extra credit at the beginning of the semester, but if you haven’t, it never hurts to ask!

Asking for help isn’t always easy, but at the end of the day, it’s a part of taking control of your life in college. Being proactive about your grades and taking corrective measures against the bad ones will only help you moving forward!

Use it as motivation.

Your first bad grade in college can stir up a whirlwind of emotions such as anger, guilt and sadness. Rather than succumbing to these emotions and feeling down, why not channel them into getting fired up and motivated? One of the best ways to handle a bad grade is to use it as fuel for your next quiz or exam. Life is too short to get hung up on one bad grade, and since your college years may go by faster than you can blink, it’s best to make the most of your time in your classes, learn from the grade you received and get pumped up for your next opportunity to earn a better one.

Hannah reminds students to not take themselves to seriously, either. “I got a 4/10 on a quiz the other day and hung it up on the fridge!” she adds. “That’s a reminder that no matter how badly I fail, I’m still so lucky to go to college and learn so much and get an education, and I just want to keep working to make the most of it!”

Sometimes, failure pushes us to be the best versions of ourselves better than our successful moments do.

Learn to embrace the “failure.”

Speaking of failure, repeat after me: I am not a failure. Regardless of what that letter or number reads in red ink at the top of your assignment, one grade does not constitute your entire life. Although everyone has a different definition of what counts as a “failure,” the important thing to realize is that you acknowledge the fact that you are more than just your college grades.

One bad grade does not equal complete failure

Embracing the failure will allow you to accept what happened and move on knowing that the life skills you’ve learned from the experience can take you way further than the questions on your quiz. Most of the time, your professors care way more about what you’ve learned from the class in experience rather than what your letter grade says you’ve learned.

“Learning how to embrace failure and move forward is probably one of the most important lessons I’ll get in college, because I’ll never have to know the dates of the Haitian Revolution for my career but I have no doubts that I’ll have to know how to move forward from inevitable failure,” Hannah explains.

Plus, embracing your first bad grade in college doesn’t always mean that you have to accept your bad grade, because that’s not always the case. Challenge yourself to improve your grade and don’t accept anything less than your best effort!

Sometimes, we take hard Ls in life, especially when it comes to college academics. However, getting your first bad grade in college doesn’t mean you’re a failure.

*Name has been changed

Amanda graduated from Carthage College with a Bachelor's degree in both Communications and Public Relations. She also proudly served as the Editor in Chief of her college's Her Campus chapter, and as a Her Campus Editorial Intern. She is from Chicago, Illinois, which she can confirm is indeed a windy city. Today she can still be found furiously tapping away at her laptop keys and producing content for the internet. In her spare time she enjoys reading books (before watching their Netflix or movie adaptions), running for fun (yes, it can be fun) and spending time with her friends and family.
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