Better Grades— The 15 Minute Rule

Not Everyone is an A Student The issue of earning good grades is simple if you have an all A student, but most of us don’t. Yes, students with B’s and C’s (and even lower grades) can get into college— even four year universities. Of course the higher a student’s overall average, the more options he or she will have. The straight C student will not have the same choices as the student with mostly B’s with a mixture of A’s. Improving Your Options Many of my consultations with clients include the question, “What should we be doing to prepare for college admissions?” In many cases this may involve a review of the student’s current transcript. The grades that stick out the most are those numbers ending in 7’s, 8’s or 9’s: 87, 78, 89, etc. These high B’s or C’s catch my attention because the student was so close to the next letter grade. When looking to improve grades, I encourage families to focus first on the classes where the student is close to next letter grade. The effort to move from a 78 to and 80 or 87 to a 90 is different than that needed to improve by 6 or 8 percent.

Solving the Problem is Always Harder

It is easy to see room for improvement when it comes to grades. It is much harder to actually do it. As parents and educators we sometimes play Monday morning quarterback when talking to our students about grades. We offer advice that comes across as the academic equivalent of saying, “You just should have thrown two touchdown passes instead of interceptions.” Obvious, right?! Helpful? No. I’ve found some ideas don’t work well when trying to motivate students to improve grades (and one that does.)

“Do Your Best” Doesn’t Always Work

I’m a parent. My kids are in 8th grade and college. I can’t count the number of family discussions we’ve had where my husband or I will tell one of the kids, “We just want you to do your best.” It sounds like a reasonable and appropriate piece of parental advice. The problem is this often means something very different for different types teens. On one end of the spectrum, you might find what we will call the under-motivated student. He or she is spending very little time on school work and it preoccupied with other non-academic concerns. These kids flash “I did my best” like a get-out-of-jail-free card so they can avoid conflict and get back to their priorities. I have two high-anxiety kids on the other end of the spectrum. They hear “do your best” and assume there must be even more they should do. Qualifying it with “do your best within reason” hasn’t always helped. Back in 10th grade, my daughter, in an attempt to “do her best”, had taken to typing her U. S. History chapter reviews. One week she failed to turn in the 20 page document because she didn’t think she had done enough. Yes, this is an extreme example with a perfectionist kid , but some students are wired to think there is no end to the effort they should exert if they are to “give their best.” If you have a kid on either end of this spectrum, you know how ineffective these words can be.

“Study More” Lacks Effective Action

Another common, but ultimately ineffective, piece of advice is “study more.” What does that actually mean? For the past seven years I’ve been co-hosting a podcast with a study skills expert, Gretchen Wegner. Gretchen would argue that the verb “study” doesn’t actually suggest any actionable activity to students. What should they do to “study more”? For most kids this means sit and stare at the book. Maybe read over the materials. Most students have tried this already. This approach is usually what has yielded the grade in question. Doing more of the same is unlikely to improve their scores. Gretchen would argue that students need very specific actionable advice. She has lots of specific suggestions and resources on her website: out the Study Cycle free course and the videos under the blog tab.) Telling kids to study more without providing effective strategies or concrete suggestion rarely results in higher grades.

Would 15 Minutes a Day Change Your Results?”

The approach I’ve taken to using is my 15-minute rule. I ask clients, “Would 15 minutes more per day in that subject change your results?” It is a powerful and telling question. There are times when the answer is no. 15 additional minutes studying physics might not do much for the student who is already spending an hour a day and barely holding onto a C. In that type of situation I’ve had students tell me than two hours more wouldn’t change their results. For must students a lightbulb goes off when I ask my question. Yes, they actually could do something in 15 minutes— review the class notes, study vocabulary, actually read the assignment, etc. And 15 minutes isn’t that long. Some students don’t get started on grade improving activities because they view the process as insurmountable. They worry it will take hours. What if they spend all that time and their grades don’t improve? But 15 minutes feels like less of a commitment. As I tell clients, we all waste 15 minutes; I easily waste that much time playing games or checking social media on my phone.


The classes and grades on a student’s high school transcript are the most important factor for college admission and better grades will mean more college options. Try for two weeks to spend an additional 15 minutes working on the classes where the effort has the potential to move you up another letter grade. See if if works. Of course, once you get started, you will want to refine the study process with plenty of specific actions that help you really learn and understand the material. I will have more of that in an upcoming article!]]>

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