The Looming Issue of Grades

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Dr. Alice van Buren Kelley, Associate Director of Academic Advising and Assistant Dean for Advising

When my younger son was entering MIT, I found myself for the first time attending a parent orientation as a mother rather than as an academic advisor, and I'll never forget the first thing the Dean said as he faced our proud but anxious group: "I need to warn you," he intoned solemnly, "that fully fifty percent of your sons and daughters will be in the bottom half of their class at MIT!" We were silent a moment, and then laughed nervously, realizing that what he said was self- evident, though it obviously hadn't struck any of us before. But he faced us then with an issue that every Ivy League parent and student will need to confront: straight A's are no longer the norm for a student entering a place like Penn and, in fact, are very rare. C's show up often on transcripts here, and failure is possible. So it is well to recognize that both you and your offspring will have a new set of expectations to meet and manage over the next few years. Some students come to Penn with excellent preparation for the work ahead and others learn very quickly to ask for help, but it is common for students to discover that the study techniques that worked for them in high school are not always helpful here. Courses that have only two midterms and a final, that assign many more readings than will be addressed in class, that do not require attendance or in which roll is not taken, demand a new approach.

Some students who have managed sciences successfully in secondary school will find the college version of these subjects far more difficult than they expected, and the fact that many of these courses are graded on a curve may add another layer of uncomfortable surprise. Students from small schools in which individual attention and structured days were the norm will find it challenging to manage their time when much of their work is expected to be independent, and students from schools that did not offer A.P. classes may find that they feel at a disadvantage compared to those with A.P. credit. For some, too, there will be times when personal problems may have a serious effect on concentration.

How can you help your son or daughter as he or she faces the fact that everyone at Penn has come to the University with similar academic success but often different gifts and degrees of preparation? First of all, remember that your new College student is perhaps even more nervous than you are about mastering Penn work, that most of our freshmen have never had to ask for help and take some time to recognize that they may need it, and that many will be hesitant to let you know that they are having trouble for fear that you will be angry or disappointed. Many students who start out assuming that they will do beautifully in, say, a pre-med path or an economics major will discover that, no matter how hard they try, their strengths lie along a different path. Lend a caring ear. Encourage your sons and daughters to try new areas of study if they continue to have difficulty with their initial choices. Please try not to insist that your child follow one non-negotiable path when courses toward that goal continue to lead to poor grades. (I ache when my advisees tell me that their parents insist, for example, that the only possible career is that of a doctor when their science courses prove torture and they earn A's in classes that match quite other skills.) All sorts of majors, from philosophy to anthropology to comparative literature to East Asian studies are likely to be totally new to incoming students and may lead to wonderful academic success and profitable work in the world beyond college. (To get a sense of jobs held by students graduating with different majors, go to the Career Services site and see What Can I Do With My Major? There you will see how easily students in different fields enter the working world with triumph.)

Help your sons and daughters to find their special gifts. Remember that Penn has a number of resources to assist with learning. An advisor, a professor, a teaching assistant, a tutor, or the experience of a learning instructor in Penn's Weingarten Learning Resources Center may all provide aid before a small problem grows large. And, should your offspring emerge at the end of the first semester with grades that disappoint both of you, try to be helpful rather than fierce. A small blot on the transcript is not death. Students get into graduate and professional schools and find career success even if they get off to a rocky start. We know that each of our students will be able to make Penn work academically for them, once they get the hang of things and find their areas of strength, and that their parents can be an invaluable support in the process.

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