Why You Fell Just Short of Perfection And Got the Wrong ‘A’. What To Say When You Do.

Posted by on Jan 8, 2013 in Communicating with Professors, General, Interpersonal Communication | 20 comments

Could this apple still be just as sweet if the plus was a minus? (It could still smash easily anyway…).

(Happy 2013, my fantastic blog audience! I am back and can’t wait to interact with all of you! As students return to school, some are rebounding from grade goals that weren’t quite met. I struggled with my return topic because this post–“You Failed Your Class… Now What?” –from 2011 on the old Blogger site had over 2,000 hits in a two week period. I worry about so many students concerned about failing grades. I promise to cover that topic further in many upcoming posts. Let’s start on the opposite side, which can be frustrating in a different way: When you are thisclose to getting a 4.0, but you don’t. What then? Once again, I have to believe that some of these ideas relate to employee evaluations when you receive “meets expectations,” rather than “exceeds.” Let’s jump in…).

“Don’t whine at me when you get an ‘A’!”

This was a bold statement on my public speaking prof’s syllabus back in the 90s.

At the time, I had no freaking idea what she was talking about. What moron student would complain about an ‘A’?

Fast-forward after my unexpected six year hiatus from college. Returned paper in hand, this moron student moaned about an ‘A’ to one of my grad school professors.

I got a 92; one of my colleagues… a 95. I marched right up to my prof after class and inquired why: “She had more red pen comments than I did, yet my grade was ‘worse’.” I received my answer, but my grade stood.

(Don’t worry, I’ve been repaid for this behavior time and time and time and time again, thank you very much. And, yes, that prof and I remained on excellent terms after I graduated from my program).

As much as I wanted to start this post from the student perspective, I empathize with the ache of the A-.

Ironically enough, I’m now on the inflicting end of this madness. I know good and well many reasons why students fall into the range of 90s-100. If you have found yourself on the wrong side of the A-tracks like I did, as many students do, and you are pissed off about it, then let’s inform you hopefully to the other side:

-Realize that some profs simply don’t give A+’s (or make it nearly impossible to get them). 

Yup, it sucks. Hopefully these profs’ high standards are meant to make you absolutely stellar and impeccable at whatever you are studying (although most students just think they are a/an insert-whatever-here). So you know what? Be stellar and impeccable! Go see the prof and say, “I know students have to work extremely hard to get an ‘A’ in your class. I’m up for the challenge. I am ready for everything it takes.” If you genuinely produce the highest caliber work, your prof can’t deny you what may be his/her first A+ since the original 90210 aired (or Dallas?).

-Beware of missing a lot of little points.

Some students who just missed a 4.0 in my course received strong grades on major work, but lost points on silly things like skipping tiny assignments worth a few points or repeatedly an answer to a discussion question, but not responding to a colleague’s post. Enough small points here and there can knock out your 4.0! A few times in your term, ask your prof, “How am I doing on my smaller assignments? Can I check my points with you to make sure I’m on track? I’m striving for a 4.0.”

-Find out what your prof looks for in (or thought about) your work ethic.

If you are between a 3.9 and 4.0, some profs will think back to the kind of student you were in class and make a hard call about rounding up. Did you engage yourself in class discussion? Did you text under your desk? Did you come in late/leave early a lot? If you weren’t the kind of student who deserves the nudge to the 4.0, your prof won’t give it (some profs would never give it anyway). If you are between grades before the fact, ask your professor, “Do you take work ethic into account and ever round up based on that?” Grades already submitted? Circle back with the prof so you can grow for next time. Ask, “I know some professors may choose to consider a student’s work ethic as part of their grade and possibly up them to the 4.0. I see that didn’t happen here. Did I do something that concerned you so I can learn from it?”

-Remember that a 4.0 says that you “mastered” the topic–and your prof may not quite feel that way.

I have had to make very difficult calls where student work deserved a 94% in public speaking or interpersonal comm, and if I could have had even just one more month with them, we would have been at a 95% for the 4.0. Sadly, terms have to end. In each case, I absolutely knew the students were pining for a 4.0. And in each case, I wrote the students an e-mail (class already ended) confirming that they had done beautifully, but that on their transcript, a 4.0 certifies to their next institution that they “mastered” this topic and they were not quite close enough. Ultimately I was comfortable with where they ended up and hoped they could celebrate where they were. If you find yourself in this situation, say “Can we go back and review some individual assignments to see where I could have improved?” This will feel painful, but will benefit you in the long run.

I can’t leave this post without listing some don’ts…

-Don’t say, “It’s your fault I didn’t get a 4.0!” A prof isn’t going to say. “You’re right! I sucked. Where’s a grade change form?”
-Don’t say, “But I worked sooooo hard!” Sadly, effort does not magically produce an A+. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect, according to one of my favorite Post-Secondary Ed profs, Dr. Clifford McClain.
-If your grade ends up better than you thought, like a 3.8, don’t say, “What do I need to do now to get a 4.0?” Do a happy dance for what is and don’t push it.

I realize that many programs are competitive and require high grades. But grades are not given, they are earned. We profs are bound by standards. Meeting standards can be painful for students and upholding standards can be painful for profs. I know it doesn’t seem that way, but honestly, last term, I had struggles with the performance of one of my classes that caused some sleepless nights (It worked out… not to worry!)

I titled this post “the wrong ‘A’” because I have felt the devastation of that loss. I can say ‘focus on the learning process instead’, but you’ll throw something at me. I would have wanted to when I was a student.

One thing I didn’t mention is, of course, make sure that your A- is accurate. Check your calculations against your prof’s.

If you find out that you are, indeed, short, I give you permission to whine a little (to a friend/family member… not to your prof).

Feel your feelings… then clear them away so you can make a new attempt for what you want next term. I bet you’ll do it.

Colleagues, what other reasons might students miss the all-elusive 4.0? Students, have you lost an A+ and felt wronged by it? Comment below!


Worried about how to start a hard grade conversation about A’s or other grades? Say This, NOT That to Your Professor has all the words to say. Take a look inside on Amazon or in Barnes and Noble on the shelves (in many around the country and hopefully at a store near you! If not, ask!!!).


  1. The ones that hurt me the most are those who failed to take the “other” assignments into account. Our speech course is heavily weighted toward performance–60% of the grade comes from the delivered speeches (of which there are at least five) and another 10% from the outlines that support them. Tests and quizzes are only 20%, and papers another 10%. So 70% comes from doing a speech vs. studying about speech.

    On the one hand, traditional students sometime fret that they make straight A’s on tests and papers, but wind up with a bad grade because they write their speeches as if they’re papers, and then mostly stand there and read them (ack! It’s not a class in how to read out loud!).

    On the other hand, some students put all their time and effort into the speeches, and do a great job, only to get a less than stellar grade because they let the quizzes slide, or blow the final paper, etc.

    On the positive side, it nicely illustrates that there’s a big difference in knowing about a subject, and being able to apply the knowledge.

    • Donn!!!!
      Yes, I totally agree with you. I don’t test in my speech class, but there are “other” assignments i.e., self-critiques, speaker reviews, etc. In my Interpersonal Course, there is a ton of discussion forum work.

      When I did quiz, I totally agree with you about those, and my quizzes were all open-book, open-notes, open-friend (mastery learning leading up to the departmental final, which was summative). I couldn’t believe that those didn’t go well!

      So, I am with you there. However, I hate to say, an A- is usually a big celebration in those cases. The grade is often not that good.

      I am so glad to see you and look forward to connecting in 2013!

  2. OOhh . . .This post hits home. Possibly the thing that most hits for my students is allowing the little points to get away. The cumulative effect of a point here and there (or an absence, since attendance counts) is often the difference in a grade. For me, the hardest one to help students understand is that the equation between hard work and an ‘A’ just isn’t there. I know that some students can do ‘A’ work with little effort, while other students knock themselves out to produce ‘C’ work. Students find it a hard reality to accept.

    Parents can help students prepare for these lessons by talking about all of the points you mention in this post even while students are in high school. If they can learn some of these lessons before they get to college they will be ahead of the game.

    • Hi, Vicki,

      Happy New Year! I had a few of the A’s that were really C’s this past term and I also had the striving-for-A’s and ended up as B’s. I even had a few instances where I was celebrating C’s that really should have been D’s, but the students hardly felt the same way. The disconnect between the perceived work effort and the necessary standards, at times, really confounds me.

      This is where I really believe that students need to look at the course objectives, particularly the ones that involve words like “demonstrate,” turn them into questions, then ask themselves what level they truly feel they’ve “mastered” that objective. I want to believe that some students would realize that their grade actually reflects what they were given.

      At the end of every term, I always take a holistic look at each student’s grade. I ask myself, “Is the student above average in what this subject is on the whole i.e., Public Speaking? Does this grade reflect accurately?” In almost 100% of the cases, the answer is yes. If the answer is no more than a time or two, then I need to take a closer look at my curriculum because something is out of alignment and I’m not measuring what I need to measure. This is why I can send students those e-mails that say, “I am extremely comfortable with your grade. We’ve done everything we can. I hope you can find comfort with this, too.”

      I look forward to our continued interactions this year, Vicki!


  3. I love your blog and am an aspiring professor. I am 70% done my graduate degree (. In one course, I got a B+ and was stupidly frustrated. In this class, I met a valued mentor/friend (a professor who is taking the program with me) and got an idea for a paper I am trying to get published, so it is a great reminder that experiences and ideas are just as valuable (if not more) as compared to grades.

    It is something students don’t think a lot about. This grade and class really changed the track of my research and studies…

    • Hi, Kellie,

      Thank you so much! I appreciate your kind words :-) . I feel the same way. The courses that I did not get A’s in, I really remember almost more than the ones where I did. Those were the courses that I either struggled profusely in or the ones where I really celebrated that I didn’t do worse!

      I have tried to remind my students to be proud of how they’ve done, particularly if their grades could have been much, much lower.

      I look forward to interacting more!

      • Agreed–the courses that I don’t get A’s in (which seems to be more common nowadays…) will always be easier for me to remember because I had to work harder and I did not achieve the results I desired.

        • I feel the exact same way about mine, Matt. I hate to look back on them as gifts, but that’s what they were. Grr. ;-)


          • Beautiful girls must have many elements. They are not only have a good look ouitdse, but also have a beautiful heart. Many girls look very beautiful in my mind, but they always doesn’t have content so that they are not real beautiful girl. I think that the heart of docile is also the important element for being a beautiful girl. If a girl can’t pay her benevolence to everyone and everything, her heart is so bad and she has no qualifications to be called a beautiful girl. Then, most of all, the confidence is the main factor for a beautiful girl. If a girl has self-confidence, she will be shiny in our mind, and she will do many things very perfect. So whatever, to be a beautiful girl, you have to have content, kind heart, and confidence.

  4. I ask students at the start of the quarter to email me if they feel they “must” get an A (the highest grade allowed) for whatever reasons. I provide these people with extra feedback on how likely that is as the quarter progresses, and opportunities for extra credit. Only a few people take me up on this — the phenomenon is not at all widespread — and they have an opportunity to work harder to get what they feel they need, if they choose to do so.

    • Hello, Woody!

      Good to see you again! Yes… I do the same thing and I also mention this on the first day. I also have a statement in my syllabus… in bold! Otherwise, we both know that students will come back to us right at the end with that infamous, “But I NEEDED a 4.0 in this class!” I agree. The students who actually come to me and say they are the “4.0 people” are few and far between. Even fewer are the students who stay with that program. However, the number of students who continue to complain about what they needed, or about how their effort should have still equated to the 4.0 remains widespread. I have also had students tell me that they wanted to be “high A” students, but then tell me point-blank that what I expected was more than they intended to give. So, there you have it :-) .

      Like you said: “If they choose to do so.” Ultimately, it is all about choices and that is what I try to help students realize: Their responsibility in the process and that the responsibility can’t just be a one-shot question, but perpetual effort and inquiry.

      Thank you again for writing. Look forward to more discussion this year!

    • I have to say that as a student, I love this idea! I would be delighted if my professors would encourage this sort of conversation. Oft times, the gradebook feels as if it’s supposed to be a big, dark secret, whereas I’d prefer that it never hold surprises. This is a great way for a student to manage their performance and maintain realistic expectations for their course outcomes.

      • Hello, HeatherErin,

        What you say is very true: The gradebook should be transparent so students know where they are. Sure, students need to keep their own records, but beyond that, it is reasonable for them to ask questions and make sure that profs have accurate information, as well. Also, the general discussion about grade standing is perfectly reasonable!

        Thank you so much for writing!


  5. Great blog post. I was considering reaching out to my professors for advice on how to do better and now I’m going to!

    • Matt,

      You are a superstar student, so reaching out to your profs will only keep propelling you to new levels of excellence :-) . Seriously, I know some of your profs seem unapproachable, but as we know, it is your job to press for what you need. You deserve it because you are such a strong student.

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