The GPA Crush of First Year

Most people are pretty familiar with the infamous “Freshman 15”. The universal idea is that when you move away from home and/or are off of a set schedule for the first time in your life, you might make some decisions that aren’t in your best long-term interests. However, while the solution to putting on some weight is pretty straightforward, other long-term problems created in your freshmen year can be much more complex and difficult to solve.

Many students these days are shepherded towards university since their parents subscribe to the logic of decades past – if you get a university degree you get to work behind a desk and make good money for the rest of your life. This just isn’t true anymore, and even worse, merely getting a university degree will cost a lot more, even though it is worth less relative to your parents’ generation. The end result of this push is that we see many young students enter the post-secondary scene without being really motivated to do too much or strive to achieve anything. This wouldn’t be too big of a problem if it weren’t for universities keeping track of this dumb thing called an academic transcript and its pesky cousin the Grade Point Average (GPA).

Unlike High School, Self-Esteem Building is Not Paramount Here

From your first class in university you are on record. There is no dress rehearsal. Your very first class will help determine if you are able to get into most faculties/graduate programs or what your final GPA will end up being. If you are already in the only faculty you ever want a degree from then the old, “Cs get degrees,”cliché might actually still ring true for you, but for most new students, they will face an application barrier at some point. When you hit that barrier you don’t want an anchor of Fs from your first year to drag you down. For example, many people eventually want to become lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers, architects, physical therapists etc. The usual path to these careers usually begins with a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc) degree. In order to get into these other faculties you must first achieve a certain GPA in your initial degree. If you take a C in a class your very first semester in university, 3-4 years later it could come back to haunt you.

While living in residence, and now talking to my former grade 12 students, I have become all too familiar with the phenomenon of people being unprepared for the culture, lifestyle, and academic requirements that often accompany post-secondary education. While many eventually get their act together, there is often a lot of collateral damage done in the process. Bright, intelligent people often score much lower than they should in “intro” courses and in our numbers-focused education system that doesn’t bode well for them going forward.

Our Dirty Little Secret – The Infamous GPA

I’ll let you in on a little secret that no one in the education world really likes to admit – GPA and decimal numbers are actually a pretty bad way to measure people’s learning and knowledge, we just haven’t come up with anything else that can be applied on a large scale. It’s no use railing against “The Man” on this, you just have to sort of accept the game for what it is and use the rules to your advantage. In this day and age of mark inflation and fairly intense competition to get into certain faculties, GPA has become more and more important (which makes those seemingly insignificant mistakes from first semester fairly consequential). For example, most people wouldn’t think that becoming a teacher is all that difficult. Hey, I’m not about to sit here and tell you that teaching about the War of 1812 requires you to be a genius. That being said, I was told that given my “teachable major and minor” – my specialities in other words – were history and English, I would likely need a 3.8 GPA out of 4.5 to get into the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba. That means that I needed more As than Bs in order to get into teaching 15-year olds for a living. Now the requirements for in-demand teaching fields such as French and math were substantially lower, but these raw standards are worth being aware of.

The TM Unparalleled Problem Solving Strategy

So what can you do to make sure you don’t sink your career before it even begins? The obvious answer is to put your nose to the grindstone and get in the library from day one. Now maybe that answer isn’t so obvious because I very rarely see anyone do this, and I certainly didn’t, nor would I if I were to do it over again. If the ideal answer isn’t your thing, I actually would recommend a course of action that you are unlikely to see recommended anywhere else – get it out of your system.

Related: Party Hard, Save Hard

The first day you set foot on campus find some old friends, make some new friends and have a great time. The second day, do it again. Rinse and repeat this until your body goes into self-preservation mode and shuts down, or you lose your will to get out of your bed. This sounds insane and very few rational adults might agree with me at first glance, but I maintain that this strategy has by far the greatest success rate out of everything I have seen in a post-secondary setting. After the first week, or definitely the second week, there should be very little mystery left, and then you can really get down to work. To be honest, the first week in most first-year courses is a whole lot of preliminary stuff anyway, and you should be able to pick it up pretty quickly. After this, courses will move along quite a bit faster than you are used to if you went to most public schools I’ve ever seen, so you need to get on your game.

Survival Is the Immediate Objective

After your first semester (and after you read this article from your favourite bloggers) you will have a much better idea about how to manage your time and use certain study blocks of time vs party blocks of time to your advantage. You will learn how courses in your line of study generally flow throughout the year, and when you really need to buckle down. Surviving that first term unscathed though is fairly key, and learning the ropes is just easier if you’re not overly distracted – so get it out of your system!

Now when the worst case scenario hits and you find yourself unable to stay above water with no rescue in sight, you do need to know the last-ditch escape plan. When you register please make sure to take note of the VOLUNTARY WITHDRAWL date. I’ll be honest, I never had to use this option (Justin sure did…) and of course the ideal scenario would be to never use this option at all; however, it has to be mentioned as a legitimate tool to protect your GPA if that is an essential part your career path. Most schools will have a first and/or second date that you can drop out of course and get various parts of your tuition back in addition to not having any results counted against your GPA, and then an absolute final date for you to withdraw from a course. While the university will still get your money, it is often worth the sacrifice to not have a drag your failing grade around for the next 10 years.

The Typical Case Study

I have a friend who is way smarter than me (admittedly this is not saying much). He went into university thinking he was going to be an engineer and subsequently registered in some pretty tough courses. He had the typical first-year experience, created some great memories, and tanked a few courses. While he was able to get his studies on track his second year and eventually graduate with some pretty decent grades, he is now considering taking his master’s degree in order to substantially boost his earning potential. The only problem is that his grades don’t accurately reflect his intelligence because of the first year drag on his GPA. He is currently looking at re-taking a few of these courses and some other options, but the very fact that this probably could have been prevented fairly easily is frustrating for him.

Anyone else out there have a similar experience to my buddy and have some wisdom to share? What about my somewhat controversial stance on a realistic strategy for today’s 18-year old?

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11 years ago

I tried my best to earn the best marks I could in first year. To me it just makes sense to strive for the best while marks are easy to come by. Most of my courses in that first semester were entirely review from high school, and even second semester I still kept at it because the courses (except chemistry and calculus) did not seem too tough. This sets me up for less stressful upper years. As long as the marks from all years are weighted the same you need to get as good of grades as possible early on.

11 years ago

^Not sure what Mr. ‘Tried my best’ is doing on this article, haha, but I have seriously felt the ‘first year crush’. Getting 100 percentile on the undergraduate medical admission test (UMAT) and then deciding to go into arts instead, I currently have a gpa ~3.2/7 after my first year… Needing to get on average 6.3/7 for the rest of my 3 years is a big pressure.. for an arts degree! Really not looking good. So this will hopefully give some sort of ‘I’m not alone’ comfort to others out there. Tip? Just attend even if you don’t listen. If… Read more »

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