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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!

September 17, 2010

Change my rental dates?

Here's an example of a simple asking that just puts a smile on my face.

Because it was so easy to ask. It made my life so much easier. It made sense. And it helped me save money. Only, it almost didn't occur to me.

For my Rome visit, I rented a studio (asked for a discount -- from 300 to 250 euros/week) and was planning on staying two weeks: Sept 12 to 26.

Then, a friend invited me to visit her on an island in the south for a few days. It's called Ischia, and I've heard it's gorgeous.

As I packed my bags for the weekend, something was bothering me. Couldn't quite put my finger on it. And then, it dawned on me. Totally coincidentally, I also wanted to extend my dates in Rome by 2 nights because some family will visit then: two cousins and my future parents-in-law.

So there I was, about to disappear for 4 days this weekend, and then about pay an extra 2 days the following weekend.


I emailed the landlord and asked him if we could "slide" my second week so that it started and ended on Monday instead of Friday.

He happily agreed, saying he might even rent out the studio that weekend. Win win.

I have just saved 160 euros.

September 16, 2010

Finding your negotiation style

The neighbors have been screaming all morning.

"Mamma! Why do keep asking me 'Where are you going? Who are you meeting?' Stop trying to find out everything about me!"

Muffled sounds from an older woman, and then the shrieks again.

"Maaaaamma! Leave me alone!"

Doors slam.



A car stops in the middle of a narrow street and waits. And waits and waits. Behind, a line of cars grows. Manual transmission, uphill. Not fun for those drivers. Finally, a man jumps out of his Range Rover, bounds up the hill and starts screaming.

"Who the f*ck do you think you are! What ever gave you the idea that it was ok to park your *ss in the middle of the street and keep the rest of us waiting! Move NOOOOOOW! NOOOOOW!"

The car moves.

Traffic jam: finito.


A man tells his business partner:

"Shut up!! Why do you keep butting in? BE QUIET!!!"

The partner obliges.


A merchant in a food cart screams at two tourists in a language they don't understand.

"This is the part where I tell you to GO F*CK YOURSELVES! Morons!!"

The couple, German or British, by the looks of them, wander away, confused and suspecting the merchant is upset for some reason.


Conflict resolution, Italian style.

I'm in Rome now, and I've been amazed at the amount of yelling that happens in this city. I've been here before -- spent three summers working, and I've come back on vacation a few times since then. But either I hadn't noticed, or I've forgotten, how vocal they get here.

About traffic, and interruptions, and tourists who don't understand they can't pay with a credit card (or who knows what offense that couple committed).

But yelling is one side of the coin. The other side is the soft, subtle 'arranging' Italians do. You help my daughter find work. I'll make sure you get your building permit. Not so much a quid pro quo as loose network of accords, agreements and connections.

Not that different from America, really.

When I finished my year of daily asking and did a statistical analysis of the data, I was interested in a range of practical questions. Is it better to ask impulsively or in a planned fashion? Did I fare better when I was alone or accompanied? Is asking sweetly or aggressively more effective?

(For any newcomers to this blog since then, the results and my take on them are on this page: Ask-o-logy. I'm no statistician, but Mr. A has an advanced degree in a field that lets him spin numbers like taffy. Hint: the posts are in reverse order, so scroll to the end and move up.)

One question that developed in the first few months of asking daily, first subconsciously and eventually quite overtly, was HOW it's best to ask. Of course, the situation may dictate or suggest a method, but were there some modes generally better suited to asking success than others? Here's what I found out: I was far more successful being nice than any other approach.
(more details here). And over time, my personality as an asker developed to play up that feature. Now when I ask, I innately make eye contact, take time to establish a rapport whenever that's possible, and humanize myself and the other party. It makes all the difference.

Now I'm curious about the next frontier: What's my negotiation style? Wheeler and dealer? Charmer? Problem solver? Cooperative team member? Bossy beeyatch? So far, all I know is that I'm an asker who rarely turns No's into Yesses. I can get a discount, but only if I ask and it's given to me. I rarely push back.

That's about to change.

This weekend I'm going to venture to Naples and try my hand at negotiating in one of the city's most dangerous markets. My target: pick up a fake Louis Vuitton purse. I've heard they can sell for as little as 15 euros and look like the real thing. Will I make it? Will I get robbed blind? TBD.

What about you, gentle reader? Thinking about your style as a negotiator -- in personal relationships, professional ones, the commercial and financial worlds you deal in -- what do you think you're style is? What's your greatest weakness, and what's your biggest strength?

September 15, 2010

Would you care to have tea with me?

A few weeks ago, I re-met an old man who is a friend of my family's. He lives alone and is almost blind. Whenever he leaves his little pink house, he locks his front gate with a massive padlock, his thin fingers far stronger than they seem. Then he drops the key into his pant pocket and shuffles off.

To the grocery store a block away and across the boulevard. Or, for special purchases, Trader Joe's.

Years ago, he taught foreign languages at a university in Illinois. He was married to a beautiful woman who has since passed away, and together they traveled the world. At his house, there's a stack of photographs of him in a dashing military uniform -- WWII, I think -- and then of party after party, him in a slender, boxy jacket and his wife's hair upswept and fluffly like a merengue.

He has no children, but a personal library that could compete with the best university's reading room. Cervantes, Montaigne -- all the classics in gorgeous leather bound volumes he's collected for almost a century.

"You see, at my age," he explained with the calm of someone who has no reason to rush anymore, "one doesn't have many friends. They're all gone, you see, and those that have remained are, rather, acquaintances. They are lovely people, you can certainly enjoy a chat with them, but there's no real connection of the heart. These books, you see, are my friends. I read them and it's like talking to someone dear and familiar."

He stopped driving three years ago, because of his failing vision. He is worried about what will happen when he dies. Logistics, not metaphysics. He reads his books on a special magnification machine, and while he's heard of the internet he has no interest in getting to know it. Sometimes, his hearing aid hums.

I asked for his phone number and permission to call him.

"Oh, yes, that would be lovely."

That is how, one Wednesday afternoon several weeks ago, I ended up having tea with Mr. Davis. I called on him, as they say, and picked him up at six o'clock on the dot. For once, I wasn't late. It would not have been becoming. We went to a cafe not far from his house, where we sat down in the soft sunlight and I asked him about his travels, his work, his wife, how the world has changed since he was my age.

Today is his 90th birthday.

I am far away -- Rome, currently, on a break between assignments -- but Mr. A said he'll stop by his house with chocolates and a card from both of us. I told Mr. A that if he forges my signature on the card, I won't contest it. I'd be grateful, in fact. Because ever since our paths crossed late this summer, Mr. Davis has been in my thoughts and heart.

Countering a lowballer

Just yesterday I was talking to a businessman who taught me what he tells prospective clients when they say can't afford his fee.

"What part of my services would you like me to eliminate?"

I've gotten this line from merchants -- maybe I'm looking to buy a piece of furniture or something pricey. I say I can't afford $300, and the merchant leads me to the $100 room. But I don't think I've ever used that line on someone else.

"And do you just say it flat out, with that tone?" I asked.

His eyes narrowed and he repeated the phrase, cool and firm.
"What. Part. Of. My. Services. Would. You. Like. Me. To. Eliminate."

"See, I would be nervous saying that to someone."

"Why would you be?"

I had no good answer. Our conversation moved on to different topics, but those words have stayed with me. And now, I hope, with you!

Can you have it both ways?

Call me a hypocrite.

For years I've been trying to find out how to get merchants to lower their bottom lines. Reasonably, strategically, humanely -- and aggressively.

No, I didn't haggle with the mom-n-pop owners yesterday when I bought a notebook, even if it was overpriced. And I'd never try to underpay someone rendering a service if I felt that person was in a position of less negotiation power and the service was priced fairly.

But in most other situations, I dive in. At an estate sale, I lowered the price of a rug to 50 percent. Whenever I can, wherever I am, I aim for upgrades and discounts. I am a bargain hunting wh*re.

Yet here I am today, selling my services and trying to find out the best ways to maximize my revenues as a freelancer/contract worker.

Which begs the question: Can I have it both ways? The Capitalist in me says "Yes. That's the point! Minimize expenses and maximize earnings!" The considerate and concerned and over-analyzing chick in me says "How could you! Are you a seller or a buyer!? Pick a side and stick with it."

Deep down, I suspect I believe it's ok to haggle when you're buying and extract the highest price when you're selling. It's called being profitable. As long as you play fair in both transactions, you don't need to be consistent.

Why, then, do I hesitate?

Why does The Daily Asker have these doubts?

I guess it goes to show how deeply ingrained certain practices and notions are. It took years for me to become a savvy buyer. And now it will take just as long for me to become a savvy seller. Because as easy as it is to recognize value in an object I'm trying to buy, it's a lot harder to recognize the value in what I'm selling: my time, talent, experience.

Perhaps I need to start a new project: The Daily Seller. Try to sell one object, good, service or piece of information per day, and see where it takes me.


September 03, 2010

Detour for a last minute food fest?

At 2:30 this sunny Friday afternoon, we were on our way to the airport.

The traffic wasn't bad downtown, but I had no idea what was waiting for us on the highway. Would we make it? Would be stuck in some tunnel for hours? As we sped through the city, I scanned the streets, clinging to every detail. Our trip was four days long. Too short.

Mr. A, meanwhile, was tinkering with his cell phone and looking preoccupied.

"Do you think we'll make it to the airport in the next two hours?" I asked the driver, with a tinge of irony he caught and threw back at me.

"I don't know.... Maybe."


"No, no, don't worry -- more like 20 minutes!" (Instead of Mr. A's friend, the friend sent a friend. Talk about sweet. Thanks to you both, gentlemen!)

I nodded. So we'd be there at 3:00. And have three hours to kill. I exhaled, resigned. In San Diego, I fly enough to know traffic patterns on the city's highways -- and at the airport. But this is the kind of stuff that happens when you're a tourist. You end up getting to the airport three hours early and wasting the afternoon in a smoky lounge watching soccer transfer gossip on Romanian ESPN.

We were getting closer fast. I recognized some of the buildings we'd seen on the way in. And then, out of nowhere, I asked: "Are we close to The Hunchback?"

"Really close. It's the next exit. Wanna go!?"

The Hunchback is a restaurant I'd heard about from a bunch of people. It's supposed to be close to the airport, and it's got those scrumptious meech I admit I'm obsessed with (described here), plus legendary french fries.

"Do you want to?" I asked Mr. A shyly. Because he was tired and stressed, and I realized that this ask might seem like a request. I didn't want to sway or persuade, not this time...

"If you do."

"What do you want me to do? It's the next exit!!" the driver hollered.

"Will we make it to the airport on time?" I yelped back.

He made a hard right and a few blocks later, we were there.

The Hunchback's real name is Sandu, a brochure states, but now he is known across Romania as "King of the Grill." As we stepped onto the terrace, I saw him standing a few feet away, at a grill lodged between tables of lunchtime patrons, flipping the meats that made him famous. And his eyes caught mine, a flash behind the fragrant smoke.

Searching for the truth at a Bucharest taxistand

Mr. A and I are leaving Bucharest today. We were in town for a few days, for some work and some play. Our flight leaves at 5:45 from an airport that's about 10 miles out of town.

"You should leave at 1:30," one of his friends told us. "There's horrible traffic and on a Friday afternoon, you never know. You could end up stuck at the same intersection for an hour."

"Seriously...?"Mr. A wondered.

"If you leave any later you'll miss your flight."

1:30?? What about strolling through the city, picking up a few souvenirs, taking some final photographs? It's an intriguing place and this trip has been way too short.

"I think we need a second opinion," I told Mr. A, who didn't object.

First I called a taxi company and asked what time a cab should pick us up for arrival at the airport at 3:45. The operator told me she doesn't know and can't find out.

"But how do I know what time to call the taxi to pick us up?" I persisted.

"Call 15 minutes before you want to be picked up." Click.

I went downstairs, to the taxi stand, and asked the first cabdriver I saw: "How long will it take to get from here to the airport at rush hour?"

"20 minutes." He sounded impertinent, like that's the name of a special move he knows that drives all the ladies wild.

"Reeeally. Because someone else told me it will take at least 3 hours with the traffic."

"Nah. 20 minutes is all you need. Trust me."

"Would you be willing to risk my flight? I just want to know what time to leave, so I don't miss my plane. It took 20 minutes into the city with zero traffic, at midnight. It's really the same on a Friday?"

"Exactly the same. They opened up a new road and now the traffic problems are all over."

I thanked him (for nothing) and left.

I stopped in a convenience store and tried to get the cashier's opinion.

"I have no clue," she said, apologetic. "It depends on the day, the time, the season."

"What about today? for an afternoon flight?" I repeated.

"It depends," she answered, and turned to the customer behind me.

Next, I walked up to a cab waiting a few blocks away.

"Hello. How long will it take to get from here to the airport? I have to catch a flight at 5:45, so I should be there at 3:45. When should I leave from here?"

"To be there at 3:45? I'd say 45 minutes."

"On a Friday afternoon, with traffic?"

"With 45 minutes you should be fine."

"There's no risk I'd miss my flight?"

"If you call me, I guarantee I'll get you there on time."

I thanked him and picked up his business card before leaving.

Last stop: One more cab driver on the way back, to see if he could settle this tie.

Same question, and at last, a similar answer.

"It should take between 45 minutes and an hour, miss. If you leave at 3 or 3:30 max, you'll be more than fine."


"My pleasure. Have a great day."

And now, at 2:21 Bucharest time, we're preparing to take the bags down because Mr. A's friend called to say he'll take us -- at 2:30. Just to play it safe.

...Then why am I still nervous?