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How to Recuperate From a Bad Freshman Year in College

Students who identify the bad habits and ineffective studying strategies that led to poor grades are more likely to succeed in the future, experts say. (Izusek/Getty Images)

It takes longer for some students to adjust to the demands of college. As a result, teens who earned A’s and B’s in high school can end up with C’s and D’s as an undergrad.

Earning bad grades as freshmen can be disappointing, but it won’t prevent students from getting accepted into research programs, internships or graduate school, experts say.

Competitive research programs and internships for upperclassmen may have GPA requirements. But schools that offer research positions to underclassmen will likely have options for anyone in good academic standing because they know these programs can help students excel, says Catherine Chan, director of the University of Wisconsin—Whitewater‘s undergraduate research program.

Likewise, graduate schools pay more attention to how a student progresses than to the grades they earned at the beginning of their college experience, experts say.

“The freshman GPA, whether weak or very strong, is a poor predictor of subsequent performance, and reflects more on the preparation that the student had in high school than on their innate academic ability,” Fiona Doyle, dean of the graduate division at theUniversity of California—Berkeley, wrote in an email.

UC—Berkeley requires grad school applicants to have a minimum 3.0 GPA in undergraduate work completed after the first two years of college, according to a university spokeswoman.

Sophomores may have time to raise a low GPA before they apply to grad school, but there are consequences to earning below-average grades during the first year of school.

Students who have academic stipulations on scholarships risk losing financial aid if they can’t maintain a specified GPA. And earning below a 2.0 average at many schools will land students in academic probation, which can lead to expulsion. A poor transcript can also make it difficult to transfer into other schools.

To improve a low GPA, sophomores should start by setting clear goals, prioritizing their responsibilities based on those goals and monitoring their progress, experts say. Academic advisers can help students identify their interests and the benchmarks they have to meet to accomplish their goals.

For example, a student interested in medical school may need a higher GPA than a student who plans to go straight into the workforce – and understanding that early on can help students prepare adequately, so they’re capable of meeting graduate admissions standards, experts say.

A suggestion from an academic adviser helped Faith Côté, 21, discover her passion for teaching. Earning just above a 2.0 her first semester, Côté knew she needed to do better, but struggled to connect with her coursework until she took an intro class her adviser recommended after they discussed some of Côté’s interests.

[Use these strategies to determine how to handle bad grades in college.]
“My intro to education course made me love education and made me want to be a teacher. That’s what motivated me to want to transfer and improve my grades,” she says.

With a clear focus in mind, Côté transferred to a school with an education program and campus environment that she desired. Côté, a senior at the University of North Carolina—Charlotte, now has a 3.5 GPA and is working toward finishing her degree in elementary education.

Students need to use resources – such as tutoring, office hours, study groups and time-management workshops – early in the school year to see sizable increases in academic performance, experts say. It may be too late to make huge strides in class if students wait until after they fail a midterm to get tutoring, says Mary Napoli, tutor coordinator and academic specialist at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Until you get that 100 percent on your first exam or assignment or whatever it may be, you should be taking advantage of all of the resources that are out there for you,” Napoli says.

Undergraduate coursework can require more critical thinking that teens are used to, and the study methods that helped them succeed in high school might not work in college, she says. Tutors can help undergrads learn how to study effectively, but students will need to take ownership of the mistakes they made in freshman year and be willing to build new habits, she says.

Mentors can also be invaluable assets to students who may need to explain their grades for grad school, internships and jobs by providing guidance and letters of recommendations.

“Mentors can be a crucial support to bring other lines of evidence that a student’s ability and potential is not accurately reflected in one exam, one course or one semester’s GPA,” the University of Wisconsin’s Chan says.

Experts encourage students to remember that they still have time to improve their college experience.

“Freshman year is only one year out of one’s life. Many take four or even more years to graduate,” Chan says. “It’s never too late to get help, but as early as possible is always good.”

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