Grade Expectations

At this time each fall, I start to hear from first-year students who have gotten their first grade back on a test or on a paper – and they are panicking. The grade is not what they expected or hoped for, they are worried about their loved ones’ reactions.  So this is a great time to resurrect one of the messages we put out multiple times each year – Grade Expectations.

Framing the issue of grades in a realistic way could be enormously helpful in alleviating stress and anxiety in your students – and could also help you.

A few years ago, I enlisted the input of some experts from campus to share advice on how to talk to families about grades: Dr. Christy Buchanan, Professor of Psychology (former Senior Associate Dean for Academic Advising), and Dr. James Raper, Assistant Vice President for Health and Wellbeing (and former Director of the University Counseling Center). Both the Office of Academic Advising (OAA) and the University Counseling Center (UCC) see students who have issues, pressures, or anxieties about their grades. The UCC and OAA have vast experience in mentoring and counseling students around grades and other issues. (I’ll also put on my academic adviser hat and add a few bits too.)

So let’s talk about grades. Dr. Buchanan says this:

I cringe when I hear a parent state that they have expectations for their student to get a 4.0.”

It might be helpful here to point out how Wake Forest grades are defined. College is not high school, and As here are different than As from your students’ high school pasts. From the Undergraduate Bulletin:

“For most courses carrying undergraduate credit, there are twelve final grades: A (exceptionally high achievement), A-, B+, B (superior), B-, C+, C (satisfactory), C-, D+, D, D- (passing but unsatisfactory), and F (failure).”

Let that sink in just a moment. A is exceptionally high achievement, B is superior, C is satisfactory.  A grade of C does not mean failure. Repeat: a grade of C does not mean failure.

So if you (or your students) are using high school grades as your benchmark, please consider adjusting or letting go of your expectations. Here’s why. Not every student will be universally good at all subjects in college the way they were in high school. There will be classes here that will be a struggle, just because the level of work and pace of work are higher.

Real life example: I was in a bio class at Wake that was extremely hard for me. I think my test grades were B, C, and D going into the final. This was a class that stretched me to my limits. I tried my best but I was just barely passing. My final grade was the best I could do, and believe me I was grateful to pass. I worried about my parents’ reaction (just as your students might worry about your reaction once they have midterm grades).

So many students feel pressure – real or imagined – to replicate their high school grades, and this can add a tremendous weight onto their shoulders. Striving for straight As (or even As and Bs) can come at a price – and to get the grade, you might have to give up a lot of less tangible, but equally important things, in the process. Dr. Buchanan says it well:

“It’s much more helpful for parents and families to expect their students to ‘do their best’ in class while also striving for a healthy and well-balanced life that includes sleep, exercise, and healthy involvement with friends and extracurricular activities.

Students do not thrive when they study all the time, and they do not thrive when they feel pressured to get higher grades than those that naturally result from a strong effort in the context of a balanced lifestyle.  Our students get good jobs and get into graduate programs with a range of GPAs.

Balance matters. Some students put all their energy and free time into studying – at the expense of making friends or having other activities, which can lead to unhappiness. That unhappiness can cause other issues – not sleeping well, lack of enjoyment in other parts of life, not participating in campus activities (or even going to the Student Health Service or the University Counseling Center because “I don’t have time – I have to study!”) – all because they think they HAVE to get an A on a particular test.

Is getting that A or working yourself to death striving for a GPA worth your physical or mental wellbeing?

If your student is single-mindedly in pursuit of grades, they might not be finding a friend group, having new experiences, and/or taking advantage of all our resources. Becoming well rounded and learning healthy balance is critical – and it is very hard to find balance if you feel you can’t do anything but study.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to say that grades are unimportant. Of course they are. But so is balance.

So when should you be concerned about grades? Dr. Buchanan puts it this way:

“Students need a 2.0 overall and in their major to graduate, so clearly it’s good to expect that over time. In our office, we are concerned if students are getting one or more Ds or Fs.  Parents/families might also legitimately be concerned if a student is consistently getting Cs across all or most classes, although exploring the reason for this is important. 

If families are concerned that their student is not working to their potential, I urge them first to express caring concern. Ask if everything is ok.  Ask if there is something going on that’s keeping the student from doing their best. Asking with caring concern might help the student open up about struggles – rather than simply stressing students out and intimating they are not pleasing their family or living up to familial expectations.

Urge the student to seek out help from professors, from the Office of Academic Advising (OAA), from the Learning Assistance Center (LAC), or other academic resources. In general, expressing caring concern is likely to be more productive than is expressing disappointment in or expectations for a specific GPA.”

As an academic adviser, I would make one addition to the Dr. Buchanan’s message: for first-year students, they are still very much learning the ‘new normal’ of college level work, which is a lot harder than high school. It is not unusual to see lower grades that you were used to seeing on your student’s high school report card. I typically see a lot more Bs and Cs on midterm reports – even some Ds. My experience has been that the first semester grades are often the worst, and will go up in time once students understand the expectations and get the swing of time management.

I don’t treat my advisees’ Cs or Ds as a reason to panic or threaten, I treat those as an opportunity to explore what is going on, and to refer students to some of the resources on campus like the Office of Academic Advising or the Learning Assistance Center. One of the key ways the LAC can help is via Academic Coaching. This is something that is open to all students (not just students with learning disabilities or low grades) and with no additional fees it is considered part of the Wake Forest experience! Academic Coaching’s purpose is to equip students with time management skills, study strategies, test taking tips, strategies for battling procrastination, ways to tackle test anxiety, and beyond. Students learn tried and true tips and strategies for use in college – which can definitely improve performance.  

How does the grade situation impact students emotionally? The University Counseling Center sees a lot of students each year with stress, anxiety, or concerns about grades. Here are some thoughts from Dr. Raper:

“I think it is certainly important to work towards good grades in college.  What is interesting about many college students, however, is that they tend to be supremely critical of themselves and their work while also believing that those around them are having an easy time of it (as they say: “winning at life”). 

The intensity of self-criticism, and the anxiety cycle with which it is connected, frequently causes students not to reach their potential. I will often describe it to the students with whom I work as “white knuckling” their approach to academic work. 

The University Counseling Center – along with the Learning Assistance Center and the Office of Academic Advising – typically advises students to take a more balanced approach to their studies. Take breaks intentionally to engage in healthy self-care.  This is different from procrastinating; it is refreshing yourself and recharging yourself so you can be better able to approach the work with a good mindset.

We also challenge students’ thinking about what they “have” to make grade wise.  We ask them to consider “what if I ‘only’ got a B or a C?” What would really happen in my life?  Does it really have bad/irreversible/critical consequences? 

The point of that exercise is not to encourage a student to have a goal of a B or a C.  The intent is to challenge the unrealistic and damaging perfectionism that many students have, and which actually hinders the student’s best work. 

If students can loosen their grip on their academic selves, what they often find is that their best self can come through.”

Over the years I have heard students express that they fear their loved ones’ anger, disappointment, punishment, or withholding of affection (or tuition) because of grades. I’d argue that what your students need in a discussion of grades is your understanding and empathy.

So Deac families, here is how you can really help your students.

Focus less on the letter grade and more on the effort.

Think about using care and concern in your questioning.

Ask your Deac if getting a B or C in that one class is really going to determine that path for the rest of their life.

Share a time when you got a bad grade and how you recovered.

Help them see your love is not directly proportional to their GPA (or their major, or intended career, etc.)

Help them put grades into proper perspective.

Tell them you don’t expect them to be perfect – and they shouldn’t expect that of themselves.

If you can help take the stress (real or imagined) off your students, it might free them up to be able to work with a clear mind and less anxiety about what your reaction will be if they get a particular grade or GPA.

Imagine what a great gift that would be to your students.

— by Betsy Chapman, Ph.D. (’92, MA ’94)


To contact the Office of Family Engagement, please visit our contact page.

If Your Student Has a Problem

One of the best ways parents/families can help their students is to let them handle their business as independently as possible. Use the Stop, Drop, and Roll method when your student contacts you with a problem, a decision to make, etc.

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