In the words of a very impatient 1L I spoke with yesterday, “Professors should be docked participation points for every day the grades are late!” She has been doing what many of you probably have: logging in and refreshing her screen every 20 seconds or so, hoping for those determinative capital letters to surface from the abyss. Never have plus or minus notations so coldly measured fate.
It’s astonishing how perceptions self worth and past performance can soar or plummet so sharply in one moment upon seeing an “A” versus a “B” or “C” — perhaps worse. Maybe you’re still waiting with bated breath, or perhaps you’ve already received the news. If you’re content with your grades, then congratulations! Nice work! But, what do you do if your results are not what you were hoping for? Here are some suggestions:
Freaking out never helped any situation. Ever. Try to stay calm.
This actually goes for both stellar and horrible grades—keep them to yourself! Blabbing to other law students about your grades brings nothing but strife. Whether you got straight As or straight Fs, telling people can cause them to (a) make assumptions about you, (b) view you differently, and (c) gossip. Adopt an “I don’t discuss grades” policy. Why? Because no good can come from it. Whether your grades are better or worse than someone else’s, one of you will probably walk away from the conversation feeling jealous and inferior—which let’s face it, doesn’t do anyone any favors.
We all get bad news sometimes. It’s not the end of the world. Instead of wallowing in shame, self-pity, or denial, ask yourself what proactive steps you can take to ensure that the news will be better next time. For example:
1. Get Your Exams Back and Review Them … In Detail
I am always surprised by how many law students never actually look back at their past exams. I know some schools don’t give exams back to students, but if your school does, take advantage of that! No matter your grades, you should always review your finals and consider any comments your Professors have made. This is the best way to understand what you did right and wrong. Some Professors are more detailed in their feedback than others (on student exams, I have seen everything from “Fantastic!” to “With analysis like this you will be in serious danger of failing the bar.” Ouch!). Any feedback is good feedback, though, so as tough as it might be, you need to look at those past exams head on and ask yourself what you could have done differently. There is always room for improvement.
2. Make an Appointment with Your Professor
Even if you will never have this Professor again—but especially if you will—schedule some time with him or her to go over your exam together. Feedback from the person who graded your test can give you a lot of insight into your performance and clues for how to prepare better next time. Maybe your understanding of the law was off base. Perhaps your writing is a mess.
If you’re getting bad grades, you will have a hard time fixing them if you don’t know what you’re trying to fix. I can’t emphasize that last point enough. Find out where you went wrong. See what your Professor thinks the problem areas were for you. Chances are, these are things you will need to work on for your classes this semester as well.
3. Critique Yourself … Like a Boss
Was your one bad grade an isolated incident, or was there a pattern? How did your grades this semester compare to last semester? Are you in a steady uphill battle or did you just fall from grace? Either way, you will need to pinpoint what went wrong because you may be asked about it later. If something particularly terrible happened last semester that threw your concentration and all your grades suffered, come up with a way that you can comfortably and professionally discuss that incident or experience should it come up in an interview for a job, board position or journal.
If your grades exhibit trending up or down, figure out how to explain the low points on the curve. No one wants to hear excuses or personal drama. Be honest, thoughtful, and politically correct, but make sure you are prepared to discuss what happened and the steps you’ve taken to ameliorate your situation.
4. Get Help
I was working with a different law student yesterday, a 3L, who was very pleased with her grades from Fall semester and asked me, “Why doesn’t anyone in law school ever tell you how to do this? There’s definitely a system for getting good grades, and I can’t believe I didn’t catch on until now!” She’s absolutely right. You’ll be hard pressed to find an orientation that sits 1Ls down and tells them how to play the game. There are people and programs who can help, though. If you think you’re sinking, at least make an S-O-S call. It’s worth a try.
5. Realize That It Really Is All About You
What the 3L above mentioned about catching onto the law school game is true. But, it’s not that simple. There’s no magic formula I or anyone else can give you to succeed. Wanting the As isn’t good enough. Simply working hard also isn’t the answer. I see a lot of well-meaning students who come to us disappointed after working incredibly hard, but either working on the wrong things or going about them in a less-than-desirable way. The way to break this cycle is to get help. Next, you need to push yourself into a constant state of introspective questioning and evolution.
What am I doing? Is it working for me? How can I improve? Is there a more efficient way I can accomplish these tasks? Am I actually using the feedback I’m getting or just brushing it aside? Am I doing the heavy lifting on my own or waiting for good grades to be handed to me?
The law students I see who succeed are the ones who drive themselves. I’m not saying they don’t need guidance, but they understand that they are in charge of wringing the benefit out of every last ounce of feedback from their tutors, every single comment in the margin from their Professors, every last assignment.
6. Stop Doing What Isn’t Working
The number one piece of advice I could offer to people who receive bad grades in law school is this: Most likely these grades were not a mistake. This did not happen because of the one day you were sick, or because your Professor always had it out for you. Chances are you are not understanding some key fundamentals that you missed along the way. And that’s ok. It doesn’t mean you’re not smart. It doesn’t mean you can’t improve. What were you doing every day? How did you spend your time preparing? I know bad grades are hard admit, but you can’t move on until you face that this was not a freak coincidence.
You need to start with some cold, hard, honest self-assessment. What do you think went wrong? What did you do that didn’t work? Could you have spent your time differently or more efficiently? You are the only person who can answer these tough inquires. This is your GPA and it’s up to you to fix it. No one can do it for you. Help is out there if you need it, but you have to get over the shame or pride or whatever other hang-ups you may have about this and really listen to and follow that advice. Whatever you did to earn these grades you’re not happy with isn’t working. Find an alternative plan early, and commit to doing the hard work it will take to try again. It’s not impossible. You can do it!
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And check out these helpful posts:
- Were Final Exam Grades Not What You Expected?
- Unhappy with Your Law School Grades? Get Real
- So You Didn’t Get an A: How to Deal with Your First Law School Grades
- Is Your Law School Exam Over? Then Stop Worrying About It!
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