How to turn around a bad semester

academic advice academics

For most of us, entering a new environment or learning a new topic can really shake up our usual routines. Maybe your high school study habits just aren’t working for college courses, or your AP class is way more intense than expected. You might find yourself treading water to keep afloat while fighting the ever-growing burden of a large workload and disappointing grades. 

I was in this exact position during my freshman year of high school. Having just entered a STEM Magnet program from a regular, non-Magnet middle school, I felt like the dumbest kid in every class. Math, in particular, was a struggle. While my classmates boasted about how easy they found the math class, I was on a downward trend; I got an A on Exam 1, a B on Exam 2, and a C on Exam 3. For someone who’d never had trouble in math before, this was terrifying and ate away at my confidence. 

But I’m here to tell you: don’t lose hope! While it seemed like I was doomed to do poorly in my pre-calc class, I climbed out with an A that semester. You can do it too! Turning around a bad semester isn’t easy, but it’s almost always possible. 

1. Nip it in the bud: notice the early signs of trouble.

While grades are a formal way of indicating your performance, you don’t need to wait for the first exam to pass to notice you’re having trouble, and you definitely don’t need to wait until you’ve taken three exams like I did. How easy is the homework for you? If you picked a random example from class, could you explain it thoroughly? The moment that you notice your understanding of the material starts to slip, you can fight to clear it up. It’s especially valuable to review the material in each class later that same day, thus giving you the opportunity to ask your teacher, professor, or classmate before they move on to a new topic that builds off the old one.

2. Embrace your mistakes: find out where it all went wrong. 

It’s often embarrassing and uncomfortable to confront our mistakes. Especially if you’ve received some disappointing grades, you might be tempted to tuck that exam or assignment away and just focus on what’s coming up next. However, this will only damage your relationship with the subject – and any related subjects – in the long run. 

Usually, our mistakes today are due to misunderstandings from yesterday. Forging on ahead will only make the future path harder. Instead, look back, go through each and every mistake, and figure out what you didn’t understand. The issue could lie in material from last week, last month, or maybe even last year. By figuring out what exactly you had trouble with, you can fill a hole in the foundation of your knowledge and prevent any future mistakes arising from the same issue.  

3. Ask for help. You’re not alone!

Acknowledging that you’re having trouble and evaluating your past mistakes will take you a long way. It won’t be a simple task, and it certainly won’t be a quick one. Fortunately, you don’t have to do this alone. It’s likely that some of your classmates will be more than happy to help explain an old topic, and your teachers or professors will appreciate it when you strive for a deeper understanding. 

Sometimes, gaps in our fundamental knowledge date back to many years ago. In this case, course staff and classmates may not be enough to help. Finding extra help to diagnose the underlying reason behind your mistakes and explain the fundamentals again will help you isolate the problem concepts. One-on-one attention can keep you accountable, motivated, and productive in this effort. 

Even if you aren’t able to end up with the grade you were hoping for by the end of the term, that doesn’t mean the fight is over. It’s likely that future classes will build off of your current one. Laying a good foundation is then extra important to prevent a scramble in the future. So take a deep breath, take your time, and keep on looking back. There’s no shame in doing poorly or making mistakes! But it would be such a shame to let this knowledge — portioned out, packaged, and delivered straight to you — slip through your fingers.

Josephine double-majored in Physics and Mathematics at MIT. She's now an Applied Physics PhD candidate at Stanford University, where she hopes to uncover the mechanisms governing material properties.

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