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Friday, September 11, 2009

Dear Mr. Bradshaw -- I'm a freshmen at a very competitive college. I'm writing because I haven't a clue how to choose classes this fall. Everyone seems to know upperclassmen who can help. But I feel totally out of place and have no one to turn to for advice. I'm close to panicking when I hear students talk about "gaming the system" -- selecting the right classes to earn top grades. I don't want to flunk out; can you help? --Almost Panicked.

Research professors before taking classes.



Dear Almost Panicked -- It sounds like not much has changed since I was a freshman. I traveled all the way from Michigan City to Berkeley, Calif., with only my admissions papers and a duffel bag of full of clothes. I didn't know a soul. I had no idea what subjects to take, much less what classes to take in order to earn top grades.

It wasn't long before I found my way around. Most professors at top colleges are pretty easy graders. There isn't much chance of flunking out, no matter which classes you take. Most professors know you are smart or you wouldn't be there, and they treat you accordingly. So rest easy.

On the other hand, getting a coveted "A" is much harder. Everyone around you is so smart. Part of your reaction is based on the fact you've never been around so many goal-driven students.

The term "gaming the system" isn't quite accurate. It is often said 80 percent of students who get top grades put in about 20 percent of the effort. All things being equal, that means these students must know a lot more about the class before signing up.

The 80 percent group starts off by interviewing the professor to find out about his quirks and proclivities. Is he a hard grader? What are his requirements? Does he prefer in-class exams, a term paper or both?

It is also imperative to find out his political biases if taking a class in history or social science. Guess wrong, and that brilliant 25-page research paper supporting the Iraq War could get you a lower grade. So the first rule is, get to know the professor before taking a class.

Another way to improve your chances of getting high marks is to check out the reading list. That's easy to do by going on the Internet and finding a summary or review of the books. This is especially helpful in higher-level courses, in which you're expected to read several academic papers or books each week.

Narrow your focus. Find out what is absolutely necessary for the final grade and skip the fluff that many professors assign to puff up their egos. If you can't meet with the professor beforehand, check his or her bio in the faculty directory. It will list all publications. Do your research and expect a higher grade. The next rule is that some classes are simply "ungameable." That doesn't mean you shouldn't meet with the professor or even the teaching assistants to find out the requirements.

Again, one way to prepare is by going to the bookstore. If the class you want to take is offered by multiple professors, it could mean there is a big difference in how they teach the class. The answer may be found in the textbooks they use. Some textbooks are easier to work from than others.

For example, if you have to take a course in statistics, see if there is one offered for nonmajors that will fulfill your requirement. Don't let the majors set the grading curve.

Remember, there is always going to be a final exam, unless you meet with the professor beforehand and ask for an alternative. Many professors let you skip exams if you agree to write a research paper. For some students, this is a welcome alternative.

Many professors do not enjoy holding a Sword of Damocles over your head in the power relationship that grading systems imply. They often look for students interested in doing research in their field.

One last piece of advice for freshmen: If the course offering says "no prerequisites required," be wary. That normally means an easy grade for students majoring in the subject because they are competing against you, the nonmajor.

Gerald M. Bradshaw of Crown Point consults with students on how to gain admission to selective colleges, universities and law schools. Contact him at www.bradshaw collegeconsulting.com or 663-3041. His e-mail is gerald_ brad shaw@post.harvard.edu..



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