7 Secrets to Better Grades: Part 1

Let's be realistic: we can't all be masters of everything. We each have strengths and weaknesses, and this is true in academics just as much as in other areas of life.

So, while it's a recipe for disappointment to think that you will ace every subject every term, there are definitely some things you can do to improve your chances of higher grades, even in the classes that challenge you the most.

If you read last week's post on How to Talk to Your Teachers (So They'll Actually Listen!), you know that the key to better grades is not asking for them. In fact, that tactic is likely to hurt, not help!

But you also learned that the most successful students are the ones who are proactive. The ones who take their educational opportunities into their own hands. The ones who make plans and follow through on them. If you're ready to commit to a more stand-out GPA, there are seven important areas to think about. Since these are not simple, we're going to look at them in small chunks. Here are the first two! 

1. Define Your Goal

It's really hard to achieve a goal that is poorly defined. We can't see it in our mind's eye to move toward it, and we don't know when or if we have achieved it. Imagine trying to score a goal in soccer. You would want to choose a specific part of the net to aim for so that you could concentrate all your effort on getting the ball to where the goalie was least likely to block it. The better you visualized this spot, the more focused you would be when you wound up to take the kick.

Eliminate the Negative

Many students make the mistake of setting a negative goal. They say, "I don't want to get a C in chemistry" or "I can't get below a B+ on the final if I want to pass geometry". The problem with those types of goals is that our brains are kind of like three-year-old children. As soon as you say to a three-year-old, "Don't eat those cookies!", the only thing on his mind is cookies. The word "not" doesn't register. Instead, every thought starts with "cookies" until the temptation is overpowering and he rips open the package of cookies and eats every last one.

Our brains are good at focusing on clear, concrete details, but they are kind of bad at abstracts. Since a "not" goal is abstract, it is rarely effective. What does "not eating cookies" look like? We can't imagine it because it is so open-ended. If you wanted the little kid to leave the cookies alone, a much better strategy would be to get out a box of plastic dinosaurs and ask him to put them into two piles: ones with wings and ones without.  All of a sudden, he would have a concrete goal to focus on, and the thought of cookies would naturally fade away. 

 In the cookies scenario, the three-year-old probably enjoyed thinking about what he was supposed to be avoiding. But if you are creating negative goals, the thought of what you are trying to avoid is probably unpleasant and even stressful. Every time you think about how you don't want to get a C, your mind imagines what that C would be like. Maybe your coach has threatened to take you off the tennis team if you don't raise your grades. Maybe you know Mom and Dad are going to put some of your privileges on hold. Or perhaps you are really focused on a long-term goal, like getting into an AP or honors class, or having a GPA that will qualify you for a scholarship for college. Imagining the C is going to put your mind into a state of anxiety as you also imagine all the opportunities you are going to miss.

If you want your brain to focus on a goal, make that goal as concrete as you possibly can. Forget the "not" doing something and focus on what you do want to have happen. This will not only help you move toward your goal, it will also help reduce your negative thinking and stress. 

Be Specific

When you want to aim for higher grades, choose a specific goal. And make sure that you frame the goal in relation to where you are. "Getting an A" might be the universal goal for all students, but believe it or not, that's not specific enough! If you currently have a D in a subject, your goal would actually be "raising my grade 8 increments" (moving first up to C-, then through each subsequent grade, through A- and eventually up to a solid A).

All of a sudden you can see the goal in the context of where you are. It's not that moving from a D to an A is impossible, but when you see all the stages you'll have to move through, you can see that it will take not only effort, but also time. Are there enough weeks and assignments left in the term to make such a big shift? If not, you need to choose a different goal.

If you give yourself a goal that is unachievable, you're not doing yourself any favors. It's really a bummer to fall short (especially really short!) of a goal. Make sure you're not setting yourself up for failure. Enlist help from your parents and your teacher to determine a realistic goal. A perfect goal is one that is possible for you to achieve but that also challenges you to work your hardest. 

2.  Break Down Your Goal 

Once you have a realistic goal--let's say to increase your current grade in English by one grade increment--it's time to take apart that goal and see what it will entail. In most classes, your grade is made up of a few components. These might be participation, tests, daily homework, and projects or bigger assignments. Find out your percentage or grade on all of these parts. You can check your most recent report card or go to your school's portal to see a breakdown of your current grade.

Accentuate the Positive

Where are you doing well? Is participation easy for you because you feel comfortable raising your hand in discussion? Are you getting 100% on the daily homework? Narrow down the goal to reflect where in your performance you need to improve. Even if it is across the board, thinking about each aspect of your grade separately is going to be a lot more effective. (It will also be motivating and feel less hopeless if you can see that some areas of your performance are stable or even good!)

Seeing where you are holding your own can also be a useful way of reminding yourself what your best skills are. Are you more comfortable writing than speaking? Would it make sense to ask your teacher if you can submit some extra credit work writing paragraph responses to the class novel, since you know you haven't been participating much during class discussion? 

Do the Research

Get out paper and pens and create a sheet for each area where you need to improve. Put the name of the skill at the top of the paper. Next, dig out the class syllabus from the beginning of the year (this might also be online in the school portal or your teacher's home page). Write down on each skill page the requirements and any rubrics that will help you see what your teacher is expecting. Was there a minimum word limit for daily assignments? Are there class rules you haven't been following? What are the big objectives for student performance for the semester?

Once you've gathered some intel from printed class materials, it's time to ask for help from your teacher. (Make sure to do the research first, though! Most teachers' biggest pet peeve is having to repeat information that they have already given out to the class!) Use the strategies you learned about how to talk to your teacher to ask for help in setting goals that will really make a difference in your grade.

Letting your teacher be in on the planning ensures that the skills your're working toward are actually the right ones to achieve your ultimate goal! You can ask direct questions such as, "What is one thing I could do differently on my daily assignments to better meet the expectations?"

Ask specific questions about the grading rubrics as well. Make sure you understand what the terms mean and how to apply them. If your English teacher has put a ban on "to be" verbs in essays and you are replacing them with other weak constructions like "it seems", you might still be losing points. Get clear on your teacher's expectations so that you aren't putting a ton of effort into futile changes.

Part of your research should also be to see what your desired grade looks like. Many teachers are willing to share samples of student work that meets certain expectations or that achieves a particular grade. If you have no idea what a 5/5 in "Organization" looks like, how will you write an essay that scores it?

If your peers are willing to share their grades and let you read their returned essays, assignments, or tests, that is another excellent way to conduct research. What does a full-credit short answer on a test look like? How does your homework compare to someone else's? What else could you be adding? 

Be careful not to get defensive, though. Remember that grading is not a democracy and it is never appropriate to present your own work next to another student's and demand that your teacher explain the difference in the grades. Instead, you can enlist your teacher's help: "I'm really impressed by the project that Maya and Eliot turned in. What do you think made their project so good? What do you think I could focus on for the next assignment so that I could produce work like that?"

Write it Down

Now that you have a breakdown of the areas where you need to put in more work and also a clear picture of what you want your work to look like, it's time to set down your goals on paper. Write out a specific, concrete goal for each area where you want to improve. If there is more than one goal for each area, that's just fine, but make sure to separate them.

Here's a sample of what you might end up with:

Class Participation

  • Raise my hand once each class to ask a question or make a comment


  • Write a minimum of six sentences for short-answer questions
  • Write a topic sentence for each short-answer question
  • Write complete sentences for the true / false section


  • Use vivid action verbs to describe what the author is doing (use my resource from tutoring!)
  • Write three sentences of commentary for every quote

Now you are armed with very concrete goals that you can really focus on. You'll be aiming for something really specific and you'll know right away whether or not you're meeting your goals.

Setting and achieving goals is one of the most difficult tasks in life. But if you're really motivated to make a change in your grades, this is the only way to make it happen! There is no magic wand you can wave to improve your performance. It's going to take dedication and commitment! So check back for Part 2 in this series to hear about how to stick with your goals and stay motivated, even when the going gets tough!