David Brooks, Ph.D.
POST #9 - FRESHMAN YEAR (THE OPENING): 32 STEPS TO EARN HIGH GRADES THROUGHOUT & BEYOND HIGH SCHOOL.
Mastering the First of Two Academic Index Elements - The Grade Point Average (GPA) - Post #9 of 21
With all the caveats and warnings of the earlier posts of this blog firmly in place, we are ready to get to the meat and potatoes. How exactly does a student achieve all “A”s when facing down an all-honors schedule? And are these honors and AP courses really all that hard? The answer is that about half of all AP courses and honors courses are quite easy and the other half are grueling gauntlets that only the fittest half of a given classroom survives with an “A.” What then, exactly, do we do to be among the fittest in a given classroom when we are battling Honors Chemistry, AP Calculus, Honors English, AP Spanish, AP Government, and Honors Debate, all at the same time? Geez. How does a teenager juggle six tigers and come out alive? Easy. You go into the tiger-juggling with a clever, pre-thought-out tiger-juggling plan.
Remember, since you will be taking not six regular courses, but rather, six honors classes, you already have the GPA bump and the GPA bonus to lean on. GPA bonus generally means that on your transcript you get a 5.0 out of 4.0 for an “A,” and the GPA bump means that in many schools they will tack 2 points onto your final grade for an honors course and 4 points for an AP course, so you only need an 88 or an 86 to make that “A.” Yay! Additionally, you already have honors teachers, not regular teachers, who are likely the best teachers in your school and so presumably the most valid/fair as well. So you are at a triple-advantage at the get-go. But most kids do not make all “A”s when tackling an all-honors course array. Make sure yours does. And know how honors courses bump the grade in your specific school system.
Here are thirty-two rules to keep in mind. And remember these are not “tips” which can be employed or discarded at your whim, nor are they “guidelines” that you can sometimes follow if that works for you. These are hard-and-fast rules that I hope will transport you from that beautiful top-30 university campus floating around in your imagination to actually standing on that campus, breathing in the cool fall air, with new friends on either side of you.
I am going to write this as if I am speaking to your child. Here are your thirty-two rules for acing everything:
1) Make sure you understand that full-blast trying will not be forever, just for three and a half years.
Coasting is great in middle school, a little during the spring of your senior year once you have been admitted to college, and definitely in college. I have been asked where I went to college over 1000 times in my life and asked what my GPA in college was zero times. Of course, grad schools want high grades, but “B”s do not turn away an Ivy League grad school, while a series of “B”s will definitely end your hope of being admitted to an Ivy League undergraduate program.
2) Be an intellectually-curious kid who actually wants to learn.
Internal motivation is a powerful engine for academic success and this curiosity can and should have been engineered from the crib. I bet it was if you are reading this blog.
3) Go into high school with all “A”s so that the work load is familiar and your momentum is tremendous.
Be the battleship whose trajectory is hard to change.
4) Make sure you understand why high grades are so necessary and the oceans of applicants each top-30 university faces each year.
5) Utilize your time like lunchtime and commute time and homeroom wisely to complete the homework before ever getting home.
6) If possible, avoid getting a job; your GPA IS your job.
Yes, I understand the privilege in this statement, and I know there are so many hard-working kids who have to work. You can do your best to balance all of this, and colleges will note your dedication. But don’t get a job unless it is absolutely necessary for your wellbeing. The one exception would be once you are all set academically to have an impressive academic job like coach at an afterschool chess program like The Knight School or an intern at summer chess camp.
7) Make friends in class and lean on them often.
An “A” is earned by leveraging your knowledge and understanding of the lectures with the perspectives of fellow highly-motivated students.
8) Meticulous, amazing, color-coded notes mean you have a robust resource to review/memorize/internalize when preparing the night before a test.
9) Always borrow/take a pic of your friends notes and let them do the same for you.
A second person’s notes are crucial. This idea loses its potency if your friends are less than excellent students.
10) When a teacher says something you don’t understand, your hand must fly up asking to please reword that.
The teacher will admire you, your classmates after class will be grateful and will seek you out to be in their friend group, and study group. Even better, your notes will be complete so when the tough question comes on the test--the question that everyone bombs--you know how to answer.
11) In every testing report or presentation scenario, present a cheesecake-like thick blob of information with all the trimmings.
Never skimp. Always be thorough and generous with information on a question. My kids made in to Georgetown on one hundred little scraps of partial credit given by a teacher who was desperately looking for some way to help all the students who gave them the opportunity to do so. Give your teachers a chance to meet you halfway by being exceptionally kind to them and exceptionally thorough with every submission.
12) If your teacher ever asks for volunteers, this is your big chance.
It is almost impossible for a valid teacher not to bump up a flagging grade of a student whom they admire. Better yet, volunteer before they ask!
13) Have close friends in your Honors classes.
Often one of your pack will glean info about an upcoming test or project requirement or date change for a test or section addition to a test from an admiring teacher who they were chatting it up with, and then the informed student shares that information ONLY with their inner circle of friends, which conveniently, includes you, info that saves your grade.
14) Never miss class for any reason like a field trip or family vacation.
Getting behind is the kiss of death. Missing class was what middle school was for, or maybe college. Not high school.
15) Set aside a significant block of time every night to do all the homework and studying.
About four hours.
16) Use weekends to catch up and mainly to get ahead.
Do every project as soon as it is announced so that when the deadline closes in, you can redo the project, slathering on additional, supplemental, new information to present a submission so thorough that it separates you from those other mediocre, paper-thin submissions.
17) Never forget that on your transcript these days, colleges can see the numeric grade, so an “89” is far better than an “81.”
However, and far more importantly, a “90” “A” scores that 5 out of 4 GPA bump, so a “90” or better is paramount. I suspect that the top five colleges in the country want at least “95”s+ in every course.
18) Be an active leader and questioner in the classroom.
Teachers want to reward this behavior.
19) Communicate with each of your teachers about all your grades and any intellectually-curious topics that inspire you, via email.
20) Never forget the Brooks family mantra: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.
Always speak 20% louder than what is appropriate for any given situation. Always dress 20% better than the rest of the crowd. These subliminal elements get you noticed and make giving you a “B” harder.
21) Never settle.
Shake the tree and get every point by asking after class why each of the questions you missed on the test were counted as incorrect. Make your case firmly; I reversed thousands of missed questions over my twenty years of teaching if a student could defend their reasoning, show the question was worded in a confusing manner, or demonstrate massive knowledge of a subject that they missed one tiny step on. Be assertive, and always, always know your exact percentage in every class. Never be a grade-grubber, only an assertive student who is highly interested in their exact grade.
22) The night before each test in each class, study in study groups at someone’s house.
Even better, be the classroom leader who hosts and administers these soirees. During these regular events, first have each person go over their notes aloud with everyone chiming in to the flesh out the subject matter. Then, each of you go in a circle and take turns guessing ten questions from the upcoming test. When the teacher finds out you have been hosting such gatherings, she will be impressed.
23) Nail all the busy work with a 100.
Never miss an easy assignment, a simple quiz, or a bonus opportunity. Remember the super-fun fable of the grasshopper and the ant? The ant was busy all summer monotonously gathering grass and now has a warehouse all snug and cozy as the blizzards roll in. When the grasshopper appears at his door with his 300 just-hatched babies begging for grass, the ant is forced to slam the snowy door in the face of the negligent grasshopper who had wasted the summer playing and hopping merrily around. You must do no merry hopping. Scrape and claw and get every easy point, because believe me, winter is coming in the form of a test which no one, not even that perfect girl with perfect posture who sits on the front row can survive. The rest of your grades, the easy money, must carry you in these dark times.
24) A “90” is your enemy.
You want a “106.” Live that truth. That is your truth. Remember that coal miners always had a canary with them way down that mine, and when it died, they would run. That is how you should view a “90.” A “90” is an “86” waiting to happen, so slowly back away from “90”s and instead keep “106”s.
25) Have a battery of tutors ready, one for each subject.
Facing a course that no one can possibly master with an “A?” These courses do exist in every high school, and sometimes they are unavoidable. As soon as it becomes apparent you are lost, make that phone call and dip into that savings account you have been keeping for just this emergency. Do this just as soon as you know you have a nasty “B,” rather than far after the damage is done. Tutors are accustomed to all kinds of tricks and different perspectives, and they are indispensable to any serious attempt to go to a top-30 college. I remember waiting outside someone’s house many, many times as my determined kids bravely salvaged an otherwise Georgetown-ending academic situation.
26) Facebook, Rate My Teacher, and simple word of mouth will tell you very quickly who you want teaching your child and who you do NOT want.
Usually in large high schools, multiple teachers teach the same honors subject. Manipulate this as much as you can. Pick the nicer and more valid teacher if given a choice; go so far as to drop an unimportant course if you are allowed to do so; a reshuffled schedule at the last minute more than once changed my kids teacher from the impossible "B"-giving teacher to the happy teacher who was always on the kids’ team. So if you get a chance to change your schedule after they announce your teachers/courses, look hard at what a reshuffling will mean; don’t lose the sweety teacher if you have them already, and do lose a teacher with a horrible reputation.
27) Pick the easier of the two courses.
Another strategy for making all “A”s is simply to always, during every course selection event, pick the easier of the two courses if given a choice. This is very different from the previous bullet in which I suggested you seek the most valid teacher. If math isn't your strength, then here I suggest you skip AP Calculus altogether and instead opt for AP Statistics, or vice-versa; take the easy one. Both are math credits, but if one has the reputation of being an impossible class, and one has the reputation of being an easy class, go with the easy class.
28) Make sure your teachers are rooting for you.
Despite the platitudes to the contrary, do not ever be fooled: grades are sometimes ultimately a popularity contest; when your grade is an “88” or an “87,” it is extremely difficult for some valid master-teachers to give a “B” when they are rooting very hard for you to succeed: make sure they are rooting for you. For some teachers, grades are sometimes slightly adjusted at the end. Be popular with your teachers and sometimes miracles happen when the report card is published. I remember multiple times in June, after waiting impatiently for the report cards to finally be published, when my kids and I finally saw the computer screen and we both went silent and our jaws dropped in matching gapes as we saw that a certain sadly-low “87” grade had miraculously been entered as an “A.” Basically I am suggesting that you be a classroom leader who sways the group in constructive directions whenever possible. Have a good attitude, not the opposite.
29) Be proactive when it comes to college recommendation letters.
Ask your teachers—each of them—early in the year if they might consider writing one of your college recommendations if you do well in their class. That way, you will be on their radar as someone to assist if they see your grade flagging. But of course, wait until you have a good working relationship with them and until you have established yourself as a diligent and determined student. This can be done each of the four years of high school.
30) Stand up to bullying.
During my twenty years of teaching, I witnessed plenty of bullying, some overt, most subtle and under-the-table. This was always surprising and disappointing, and when the semester ended and that bully had an “88,” did I go back and shake the bushes for a few points so I could defend bumping the kid to an “A?” No. Beat the bushes for the kid who stands up for their friend in the face of such a bully? Yes, a thousand times yes. Being a genuinely good, kind person can do wonders for your grade at the end. When everyone has gone home, and that honors teacher is staring at your final grade of “87” in their Honors Biology class, a radiant, karmic kid with a great attitude and powerful never-quit work ethic should be who comes to mind for that teacher, and for maybe 80% of the valid teachers in America, and I counted myself among this number for sure, a slow smile will curl across their face. Stick it to the student who spent the entire year making class a fun experience for me and my class? I think not. Welcome to Georgetown.
31) In chess class we teach our student to play the opponent, not the chessboard.
That means determine their strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and deliver a customized student with whom they can identify. That means customize your relationship with each teacher based on how that teacher operates. One size definitely does not fit all, but all your honors teachers are humans who all love their own children, all want to be liked, all want to be supported, and all understand that the grade they give will be of monumental, pivotal importance to the rest of your life – so they already are leaning in toward you on day one. Understand that truth, and lean in in return to deliver what they expect. Basically, to juggle six tigers successfully, step one is to tame the tigers first, make friends, and make absolutely sure they like the juggling.
32) Make sure you are braced for the start of an all-honors freshman year.
That is the crucial, touch-and go part. Once a student gets acclimated to six honors courses during the freshman year, a strange physiological transformation occurs. It is as if my kids grew a new eyelid, and a toughness and resilience that allowed them to brace themselves for shockwave after shockwave of massively-time-consuming assignments and bafflingly-confusing tests. My kids got used to it, and learned to float on top of the tsunami in order to survive it. Once the academic muscles are developed and are being exercised regularly, they are fully in place to make even the most challenging college courses very doable. So, develop this thick skin as early as possible, maybe even prior to high school. You cannot succeed without the psychological armor of a resilient mentality. And never forget that the gauntlet only lasts three and a half years.
Adopting these thirty-two rules will maximize your GPA, which is an absolutely necessary component of a successful college application.
And, a note: you may be reading this and you already have a “B” or a “C”. Do not give up! Do not lose hope! Keep working with all these principles to make your academic record as excellent as it can be, and you will put yourself in the absolute best position possible. Keep on pushing, and know that your options will be better because of it.
The next blog will turn to a quite different subject: how to maximize your ACT/SAT scores. Tune in then!