High School Grades Matter: Realistic Steps to Maximize Your GPA

High school grades are important for college admission. (Probably not new news for anyone.) If you want to better understand the role of grades, see my recent post “The Most Important Factor for College Admission.

Earning top grades is seems great in theory. But then reality enters the picture with tough teachers who won’t give a grade higher than an 85 on essay, late nights and weekends at play practice (or athletic events, debate tournament, etc.), projects forgotten until the last minute, stress due to situations at home or with friends, and the endless list of other challenges that high school students contend with on a regular basis.

I haven’t found a way to overcome tough teachers, busy schedules, or the forgetful brains of teenagers, but there are realistic steps you can take to improve your grades and help maximize your GPA.

1. Accept Small Failures to Achieve Greater Successes

I know what you are thinking, “Why would we accept failure to get better grades?” I’m not encouraging failing grades (although you may see a few of those); what I’m suggesting is that you accept smaller mistakes in the process of learning to maximize grades.

An example: my son is new to middle school this year and for the first time he’s having to complete major projects for homework. He’s a bright guy, but also a typical 12 year old boy who would rather hang out with friends or play video games. He accepted our advice on the first project, but insisted on doing the next one on his own. My husband and I sat back and let him work. What we observed was a rushed project, lacking in neatness and effort. We made a couple suggestions which were quickly dismissed and we let our son turn in work we knew wouldn’t earn a top grade. We also had a family conversation where we all agreed that if the project came back with a score that was lower than my son’s current average, he would have to start accepting mom and dad’s input on future projects. You can guess what happened…

Allowing kids to make some mistakes on their own is how they learn. It is also an effective way to teach and build academic independence.

I’ve seen too many parents become so invested in grades and school work that they are putting in as much effort as their child. While it is great to offer support, it is also necessary to let kids learn some lessons the hard way.

Ideally, families could begin this step before high school. It is a lot easier to accept mistakes in middle or junior high when you aren’t worrying about high school transcripts. But if you have a current high schooler, find ways to accept small mistakes as a way to learn the bigger lesson.

2. Develop and Use a Consistent Method of Organization

Most teens are not naturally organized. The problem with most tips on organization is they attempt to force someone else’s method, usually the system of an organized person, onto teens who have little practice implementing these strategies.

(I’m embarrassed to tell you how many abandoned productivity planners you will find buried in my office. Another example of how trying to follow someone else’s strategy doesn’t always work.)

You need to help your student develop two things: systems and habits.

You may need to try a variety of systems to find one that works for each student. Try some combination of:

  • Calendars / agendas
  • Folders / binders
  • Hanging file folders / accordion folders / tab dividers

My podcast co-host, academic coaching guru Gretchen Wegner, is a big fan of the Arc System from Staples. You can see her discuss its benefits here.

The point of any system is to find something that works. Some students are never going to spend the time hole punching papers and placing them in 3-ring binders. Those students need pocket folders or hanging files. Spend time trying to find the right combination of tools.

The next step is to develop the habit of actually using these great tools. For many kids this means setting aside time every evening to complete tasks such as

  • Put loose papers from the day in the right pile / folder / place
  • Check the calendar / agenda — make sure everything got written down then work on to-do items
  • Designate a place for backpacks, homework, IDs, etc. and make sure everything lands in its place by the end of the night
  • Check your online system— have teachers posted assignments, notes, new calendar items?
  • Remove unneeded papers from backpacks and binders to store at home until the end of the term

These daily habits may not seem as important as completing an assignment or studying for a test, but a consistent system of organization pays off.

3. Stop “Studying” and Practice Retrieval Instead

Another suggestion that may seem illogical. Why should students stop studying if they want to improve grades? The key here is what our students SHOULD be doing— practicing retrieval.

The term “study” is vague and, honestly, most students don’t know what they should be doing. Re-read? Look at the notes and try to memorize? Most kids get frustrated and bored when they try to study because they are trying to put all the information into their brains and it never seems to be enough.

Instead of focusing on putting material INTO our brains, we should try seeing what we can GET OUT.

Can I remember the definitions if someone quizzes me? Can I work the problems on the review sheet correctly and without using my notes? Can I cover the answers on a handout or old quiz and still get the questions right when I quiz myself?

When students start focusing on what information they can produce from memory rather than trying to stuff more into their brains, gaps in understanding become apparent.

Again, I will refer you to my wonderful podcast co-host, Gretchen Wegner, who is an expert in this area. She has a free short course called “Study Cycle 101” you can get here.

4. Find 10 More Minutes

When I meet with families to review academic choices, it pains me to see report cards with 88’s or 89’s (78’s and 79’s too.) These grades are so close to the next letter grade. But for one or more reasons the student fell short.

I tell students that classes like these should be top priority when they are trying to improve their grades. Just a few more points would make a difference.

My favorite question is, “Would 10 more minutes a day in that subject make a difference?” In most cases, the answer is yes. 10 more minutes a day would likely have been enough to move from a B to an A (or a C to a B).

We can all find an extra 10 minutes. Most of us waste more than 10 minutes each day just playing on our phones.

Most students wait until the end of the semester to try to make huge changes instead of looking for the little steps that should be done each day.

Of course, there are some cases in which 4 hours more a day won’t make a difference. These cases are less common and usually every student has at least one class where a little extra time and effort can make a difference.

How you use the 10 minutes will differ from class to class. Some ideas include

  • Review class notes
  • Study vocabulary
  • Work review questions / quiz yourself (retrieval practice here!)
  • Skim the online resources
  • Start reviewing for the exam three days earlier
  • Make your own study guide
  • Spend a little extra effort on graded work (neatness, details, etc.)

5. Get Ahead

A lot of high school students are barely keeping up with deadlines. They are not planning to get ahead. But if they were able to start on the project two days sooner (or simply anytime sooner than the night before) they would do better work and earn better grades.

Part of getting ahead is learning to schedule. Get in the habit of listing tests and projects on a calendar that will get used. I like the month-at-a-glance page in my calendar for these items. I can look ahead to all the major things I need to do in the next week. For a while my daughter used a white board calendar to list tests, projects, speech tournaments, and club meetings.

The next step is to find a time when you can start the “get ahead” plan. No one can get ahead when they are already behind on so many things that all they can think of is what is due tomorrow. Some students need to wait for a break or new grading term to start getting ahead.

Keys to success with this method include

  • Starting something when it is assigned, not waiting until it is due
  • Scheduling 1-2 additional days to study for any exam (If you used to study the night before, now start 2 days before)
  • Prioritizing deadlines— do the homework due tomorrow first, then use extra time to work on items due later in the week

Some kids resist this strategy. They live for days when they have “no homework” then struggle the very next night because they cannot finish everything they need to do. Do what you need to to motivate these adrenaline filled procrastinators!


I wish I had a quick simple guide for better grades. We continue to monitor and adjust these strategies at our home.

What I do know is that good habits now will lead to better grades later. Better grades will mean more options when it comes to college admission. And an independent student who has learned a variety of skills and strategies will be successful in college when mom and dad won’t be around to check on progress.


high school GPA, how to improve grades, organization, study skills

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