1.4 Planning for Success

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand that success in university means much more in the long term than simply passing or getting good grades.
  2. Describe situations in which grades do matter—and why it’s important to do as well as you can.
  3. List the basic steps you can begin taking immediately to ensure your success.
Figure 1-7: Be sure to attend your institution’s orientation events to meet people, find your way around campus, and learn important details about your program. Free food, swag, and entertainment are usually available, too! First-year orientation at the University of Saskatchewan. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/usask/14994333058/in/album-72157647372444322/ Permission: CC BY 2.0

So what does “success” actually mean in university? Good grades? That’s what many students would say—at least at the beginning of their time in university.

When you ask people about their university experience a few years later, grades are seldom one of the first things mentioned. University graduates reflecting back typically emphasize the following:

  • Enjoying the complete university experience (sometimes described as “the best years of my life”)
  • Exploring many different subjects and discovering one’s own interests
  • Meeting a lot of interesting people, learning about different ways to live
  • Learning how to make decisions and solve problems that are now related to a career
  • Gaining the skills needed to get the job—and life—they desire

A successful university experience does include acceptable grades, of course, but in the end—in your long-range goals—grades are only one component of a larger picture. Interestingly, students who are motivated to learn (intrinsic motivation) than to get a good grade (extrinsic motivation) will get better grades (see Ryan and Deci, 2000).

How Much Do Grades Matter?

As you begin your university experience, it’s good to think about your attitude toward grades, since grades often motivate students to study and do well on assignments.

Valuing grades too highly, or not highly enough, can cause problems. Expectations that are too high may lead to disappointment—possibly depression or anxiety—and may become counterproductive. At the other extreme, a student who is too relaxed about grades, who is content simply with passing courses, may not be motivated to study enough even to pass—and may be at risk for failing courses.

What is a good attitude to have toward grades? The answer to that depends in part on how grades do matter generally—and specifically in your own situation. Here are some ways grades clearly do matter:

  • At most universities, all students must maintain a certain average to be allowed to continue taking courses and to graduate.
  • Oftentimes, financial aid and scholarship recipients must maintain a certain grade in all courses, or a minimum average grade overall, to continue receiving their financial award.
  • In some programs, the grade in certain courses must be higher than simply passing in order to count toward the program or major.

After graduation, it may be enough in some careers just to have completed the program or degree. But in most situations, how well one did in university may still affect one’s life. Employers often ask how well you did in university (new graduates at least—this becomes less important after one has gained more job experience). Students who are proud of their grades may include their average grade on their résumés. Students with a low average may avoid including it on their resume, but employers may ask on the company’s application form or in an interview (and being caught in a lie can lead to being fired). An employer who asks for a university transcript will see all your grades, not just the grade average.

In addition to the importance for jobs, grades matter if you plan to continue to graduate school, professional school, or other educational programs—all of which require your transcript.

Certainly, grades are not the only way people are judged, but along with all forms of experience (work, volunteer, internship, hobbies) and personal qualities and the recommendations of others, they are an important consideration.

If you have special concerns about grades, such as feeling unprepared in certain classes and at risk of failing, talk with your academic advisor. If a class requires more preparation than you have from past courses and experience, you might be urged to drop that class and take another—or to seek extra help. Your advisor can help you work through any individual issues related to doing well and getting the best grade you can.

Can You Challenge a Grade?

Yes and no. University instructors are careful about how they assign grades, which are based on clear-cut standards often stated in the course syllabus. The likelihood of an instructor changing your grade if you challenge it is low. On the other hand, we’re all human—mistakes can occur, and if you truly feel a test or other score was miscalculated, you can ask your instructor to review the grade. Just be sure to be polite and respectful rather than confrontational.

Most situations in which students want to challenge a grade, however, result from a misunderstanding regarding the expectations of the grading scale or standards used. Students may simply feel they deserve a higher grade because they think they understand the material well or spent a lot of time studying or doing the assignment. The instructor’s grade, however, is based on your actual responses on a test, a paper or other assignment. The instructor is grading not what he or she thinks is in your head, or how much effort you made, but what you actually wrote down.

If you are concerned that your grade does not accurately reflect your understanding or effort, you should still talk with your instructor—but your goal should be not to argue for a grade change but to gain a better understanding of the course’s expectations so that you’ll do better next time. Instructors do respect students who want to improve. Visit the instructor during office hours or ask for an appointment and prepare questions ahead of time to help you better understand how your performance can improve and better indicate how well you understand the material. If your meeting is unproductive, and you still feel that you’ve been graded unfairly, read your college’s policies regarding grade appeals, and follow its procedures accordingly.

A major aspect of university for some students is learning how to accept criticism. Your university instructors hold you to high standards and expect you to have the maturity to understand that a lower grade is not a personal attack on you and not a statement that you’re not smart enough to do the work. Since none of us is perfect, we all can improve in almost everything we do—and the first step in that direction is accepting evaluation of our work. If you receive a grade lower than you think you have earned, take the responsibility to learn what you need to do to earn a higher grade next time.

Succeeding in Your First Year

The first year of university is almost every student’s most crucial time. Statistics show a much higher drop-out rate in the first year than thereafter[1]. Why? Because for many students, adjusting to university is not easy. Students wrestle with managing their time, their freedom, and their other commitments to family, friends, and work. It’s important to recognize that it may not be easy for you.

On the other hand, when you do succeed in your first year, the odds are very good that you’ll continue to succeed and will complete your program or degree.

Are you ready? The next section lists some things you can do to start right now, today, to ensure your success.

Getting Started on the Right Foot

  • Make an appointment to talk with your academic advisor if you have any doubt about the courses you have already enrolled in or about the direction you’re taking. Start examining how you spend your time and ensure you make enough time to keep up with your courses.
  • Check for tutoring assistance if you feel you may need it and make an appointment or schedule time to visit tutoring centers on your university campus to see what help you can get if needed.
  • Pay attention to your learning preferences and how those jive with your instructors’ teaching styles. Begin immediately applying the guidelines discussed earlier for situations in which you do not feel you are learning effectively.
  • Plan ahead. Check your syllabus for each class and highlight the dates of major assignments and tests. Write on your calendar the important dates coming up.
  • Look around your classroom and plan to introduce yourself right away to one or two other students. Talking with other students is the first step in forming study groups that will help you succeed.
Figure 1-8: Start getting to know other students right away by talking before or after class. This is often a good way to initiate a study group or form a note-sharing alliance. Source: Flickr Permission: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
  • Introduce yourself to your instructors, if you haven’t already. In a large lecture, go up to the instructor after class and ask a question about anything in the lecture or about an upcoming assignment. Take advantage of office hours.
  • Participate in your classes. If you’re normally a quiet person who prefers to observe others asking questions or joining class discussions, you need to take the first step toward becoming a participating student—another characteristic of the successful student. Find something of particular interest to you and write down a question for the instructor. Then raise your hand at the right time and ask. You’ll find it a lot easier than you may think!
  • Vow to pay more attention to how you spend your money. Some students have to drop out because they get into debt.
  • Take good care of your body. Good health makes you a better student. Vow to avoid junk food, to get enough sleep, and to move around more.

Excellent! Start doing these few things, and already you’ll be a step or two ahead—and on your way to a successful first year!


  1. Freeman, S. (2009, September 20). 1 in 6 first year university students won't make the grade. The Toronto Star. Retrieved from: thestar.com

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