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September 21, 2010

How to ask for an A -- and get it


I've hesitated publishing this post, since it goes against nearly everything I believe in, but here goes.

For a few years in grad school, I taught a handful of courses. Sometimes I was a TA, and others I was the instructor, doling out grades on my own (which were then subject to a professor's review and approval). And in that process I learned two things about students and grades:

1. There is definitely a right way and a wrong way to ask for a better grade.
2. It's rarely the ones who need a boost who do the asking. If I had a nickel for every time someone with an A- whined about it...

Since this is my first September in 25 years I'm NOT GOING BACK TO SCHOOL!!!!! as a student or a teacher, I thought I'd take one for the team. Both teams. Students and teachers. And teach students. How to ask for a better grade. Without annoying, pestering, infuriating, insulting or otherwise bothering their instructors.

Not only that. I've asked for feedback from a bunch of my friends through a Facebook thread. They are a group of professors who have taught at schools across the country including U.C. Berkeley, U.C.L.A., Wake Forest University and Cornell.

Ready, class? I give you:

Grade Pumping 101


1. Remember that your professor or TA owes you nothing. You aren't his or her boss. You aren't buying your degree. You're merely paying for the privilege of an earning a degree from your institution by enrolling a course of study that includes your professor's class. Repeat after me: I AM NOT ENTITLED.

2. Study your target. A few profs said they will reevaluate your entire assignment or exam, which can result in a lower grade. Are you prepared to face that consequence? Other profs detest grade grovelers so much they'll write you off for the rest of the semester. "I'm absolutely allergic to students asking for higher grades," says one. "I certainly put them under more scrutiny after asking." A rare few might admire your pep. Ask around. Read the person, not just the textbook.

3. Remember that professors are people. Which means some of the same principles of asking apply in this setting, too. See this page for a crash course.


1. If you're making your request over email (not a bad idea -- written records are good for prof and student alike), use your university address. Says one disenchanted professor: "Why must I receive something from 'pimpskater69' (no joke) at hotmail?" [email adjusted to protect student's privacy.]

2. Always use a salutation. Not "hey professor," which several respondents said they actually received. "Just because you wrote it on your iPhone doesn't mean that you can skip the pleasantries," one recommends. Another adds: "It's irked me to no end how their smart phone communication patterns seem to have erased all sense of politeness (Besides many, many 'hey professors' I've also gotten NO salutation AND NO signature. So I had to google the student's email address to even find out who was emailing me)." Not a good way to start your conversation.

3. Write, "Dear Professor Johnson, I'm conserned about my grade in your Renaissance Sonnet midterm" and be prepared to be the butt of many a joke while the professor is talking trash behind your back. (And yes, they talk about their students.) So: Spell Check!!

The fact that these professors had to remind me to ask people to spell check suggests that students don't -- even while grade groveling. Which makes me want to cry for America's future.

4. If you opt for a chat in person, don't raise the issue after class, in the library during a random run in or right when you get your assignment back. Go during office hours or make an appointment. Confesses one beleaguered academic: "I hate it when students wander into my office unannounced and expect me to be able to drop everything and talk to them for 20 minutes. You would never do that with your doctor or lawyer; don't assume your professors aren't equally scheduled, even if it looks like we're 'only' working at our computers."

5. Don't sound indignant or accuse the professor of anything untoward. Yes, some profs are vengeful cretins with mommy issues. Most are simply trying to teach you something.

6. Don't blame the TA. "The TA didn't understand my brilliant argument." "The TA was clearly biased against this point of view." "The TA hates me and can't run a section." If you have issues with the TA, a grade boosting conversation is not the time to raise them.

7. Don't bring up other students's grades. Remember when you told your mumsie, "But Madison's mom lets her have two donuts for dinner!" and she smacked you? Good.

8. Don't wait until the end of the semester or quarter to address your grade. And if you want an A- at the end of the conversation, don't set out with a C-. Be realistic. Know thy place.

9. Big no no: Being or appearing opportunistic. If you have a legitimate reason -- suspected grading error, personal tragedy that affected your work, misunderstanding the assignment, a blue screen just as you were hitting send -- asking for an adjustment or extension may be warranted. If you're just angling for a boost and curious if the prof will go for it, save yourselves both the effort and skip it. (Also: don't lie. You have no idea how obvious it is.)

10. Another: Using emotional blackmail. If there's a bigger picture -- GPA on the line and med school acceptance riding on a single final exam grade -- consider mentioning it, depending on the instructor's personality. But remember, professors have Ph.D's, which means means they probably became inured to petty manipulations during grad school.

11. Don't whine, threaten or bribe. Unless we're talking Lindt. Milk Chocolate. Truffles. Left on my doorstep in a brown bag with the word "your lost library card" written in pencil across the front.

12. Do come prepared with an argument. One that does not include the phrases "I'm usually an A student so I deserve a better grade," or "I worked very hard so I deserve an A." A professor confesses she was touched by a student's persistence and explanations that she had truly worked soooooo hard. But the student showed the professor drafts to prove her point. And she was already "the best student in the class after all." In the end, the professor gave the student an A. From an A-.

12a. If you have an A-, consider whether taking 100 hours of rewrites to transform your grade into an A will really translate into better happiness, self-worth, serenity and lifelong success, or if there's something better you could be doing. Because more than a decade out of college, I remember a few grades I got (and didn't get, alas) but they all blend together now into a happy haze. (Unless you're truly interested in the material or want to score a recommendation letter or need to boost that grade for some reason. Then toil away!)

13. Craft your argument by focusing on the assignment and conclude with the clear reason you would like a better grade. Perhaps in that section of the exam, you misunderstood the directions and, based on the way you read the passage, your essay is actually on topic. (I didn't bend under that argument, but someone else might.) Perhaps you had a problem at work and couldn't get the paper done on time and want to avoid the penalty. Perhaps you used a certain method to solve the problem and, though it's not the approach taught in lecture, you got the right answer and you're asking the professor to consider accepting it (if the exam was graded by a TA, that is). Perhaps you got sick the night of the take-home exam and you were throwing up the whole time. (But leave out those anatomical details. Sad but true, I've gotten descriptions of things I can't forget to this day.) Then, ask the professor to reevaluate your work in light of this new information.

14. Be courteous. Seriously: a little civility, consideration for the professor's time to process your request and review the material in question, an expression of regret that it's come to this, and
a dash of gratitude will go a long way, these professors said.

15. Remember that in this type of asking, as in all others, appearances count. "They absolutely need to come across as serious, super hard working, and, ultimately, deserving of what they're asking for." So do your best to be seem interested in the course material, overall. If you skip class or admit that you haven't bought the textbook, good luck.

16. If you don't have a concrete reason for raising a certain grade, a better strategy to improve your final grade is to ask the professor what you should be doing in the future. As someone who's watched several students' grades jump up by one or two full letters over the course of the semester, I can attest that those with the greatest improvements communicated with me early on, kept in touch and acted like they wanted to learn the material. Maybe you won't get an A for Effort, but your persistent commitment might be a factor in the final grade, if the professor has to make a call between a B- and C+, for example.

17. Whether or not you get what you want, say thanks!! For two reasons. First, the above point about courtesy. Second, this is the same person who will be reviewing your next exam or final grade. Professors try to stay objective -- and some have very clear numerical methods for calculating grades -- but do you really want to be taught by someone who thinks you're an moronic ingrate?

18. If you do think there's a deeper problem -- bias, incompetence, intoxication -- alert the course head or department chair.


Several professors added this impassioned plea: Don't call us Ms. or Mr. Really, do I need to be writing this? Apparently, I do. As Dr. Evil says, "I didn't spend 6 years in Evil Medical School to be called Mr.!"

Essay question: Do you have any charming or chilling stories of asking or being asked for a better grade? Spill the beans below!
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