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Can't get an A

  1. Feb 15, 2012 #1
    I'm a 4th year physics major. I really love physics (specifically astrophysics) and my dream career is to do astrophysics research, but I've never gotten an A on a physics test (=> never gotten an A in a physics class) and I have no idea how to (I have some time to bring my GPA up because I'm doing a 5th year, but so far I have almost all C's in my upper division physics classes (5 C's, 1 B, and I have 11 more UD physics classes)). I have no idea how I go to the same lectures, read the same books, and do the same homework problems as everyone else, yet somehow they know how to get an A and I only ever get C's (and a B once in a while if I get lucky). What am I doing wrong? I always read the textbook, do the homework, and take class notes. Except on the homework I almost ALWAYS need help on every homework problem, and don't always understand lectures. I have no idea how some people can just do problem sets all on their own. Is there some secret mindset or problem-solving method that I've been missing out on? Or am I just mentally deficient and incapable of doing well in physics?
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2012
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 15, 2012 #2
    I'm still a second year physics major, so keep that in mind when you read my advice.

    People learn at different rates--some faster than others--and physics especially comes much easier to some than others. If you need additional help or practice, it's up to you to take the initiative. If you're not understanding a lecture, see the professor in his office hours (they're there for a reason). If the textbook isn't helping you understand the material as much as you should, read supplimentary material. If the homework problem sets are not enough, do more problems. There is a method to approaching and solving problems, but it really is something you must pick up yourself by practicing.

    I don't mean to sound harsh, but you shouldn't expect doing the minimum the professor assigns as being enough to get an A in a class.

    Also, I made some assumptions in this post based on what I took from what you said which I apologize for if that is not the case.
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2012
  4. Feb 15, 2012 #3

    Vanadium 50

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    I hate to tell you this, but you should have talked to us a year ago. You're almost four years into a nominal four year program, I'm afraid. As it stands, it will be hard for you to put together a competitive application. You want to be around or above a 3.5 in upper division classes, and remember, applications go out before your last term grades are in. That means essentially all A's from this part forward.

    Worse, classes are cumulative, so the fact that you did not learn the material well in the classes where you got C's will hurt you in the future.

    You need to immediately talk to your academic advisor and do whatever it is he or she says. At this juncture, you have relatively little margin for error. It may well be that the advice includes retaking classes and staying even longer.
  5. Feb 15, 2012 #4
    I knew a girl who double majored in math and physics. Sounds impressive right? Well she got nothing but C's and few B's on all her classes. She graduated but when it came time to apply for graduate school, they literally did not accept her everywhere she applied (including fallback schools) Now, there might have been other factors to it but I'm sure the grades didn't help.

    But I'm not one to say let that story scare you..instead you should shoot for improving the grades on the remaining classes, write a really, really good statement of purpose and get really, really good letters of recommendation, don't apply to a top 10 school, etc.
  6. Feb 15, 2012 #5
    Not to be pessimistic, but find some people who's other dream jobs were research in astrophysics, and see what they say. From what I understand actually being able to do research in astro entails very competitive positions. It's a tough pill to swallow, but so far you haven't done well in competitions. Seems to me that lots of people get PhDs in astro and regret it.
  7. Feb 15, 2012 #6


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    If all you're doing is attending lecture, doing the assigned homework and reading the assigned book chapters, you'd only get a C in most courses. That's just the first step. After that, you actually need to study the material to commit it to memory and fully understand it.
  8. Feb 15, 2012 #7
    Ask yourself with this in mind, can you do more? Why do you need help? Why don't you understand?
  9. Feb 15, 2012 #8
    I think you will find the work actually required to get an A and the work you think is required to get an A are quite different.
  10. Feb 15, 2012 #9


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    One of the bigger picture lessons that you are supposed to get out of university is learning how you learn. If you want to improve your performance you have to critically evaluate the approach you're currently taking and figure out what works and what doesn't.

    Some questions that might help...
    1. Have you tried reading ahead before attending the lectures?
    2. Do you study better alone or in groups? Have you found a good group of people that you can work with and bounce ideas off of?
    3. How much time are you putting into studying? Do your marks change if you devote more time to your studies? Do you even have more time to devote to studying?
    4. What strategies have you used in writing exams? Do you test yourself with published exams from previous years? Have you worked on developing the skill of predicting the questions that will be asked?
    5. When asking for help with problems are you focused on just getting the correct answer, or do you focus on isolating the part of the problem you don't understand?
    6. What do you read up on outside of assigned work?
    7. How are you balancing your studies with all of the other things in your life? Are you getting enough sleep? Are you eating well? Are you getting enough exercise? Are you stressed?
  11. Feb 16, 2012 #10

    If you 'get' the solution to a problem after it's been explained to you (even is a person has to explain it a frapillion times in a frapillion different ways), you are capable of learning physics.[*] What you *are* doing wrong, however, is that you expect to score A's and B's when only satisfying the minimum requirements of the course, so to speak.

    From your description, it is clear to me that you need to spend more time on these problems than you expect to need to spend on them. Perhaps you've always been able to get away with those minimum requirements in high school, or perhaps you have some smart friends who need considerably less time to learn a topic. (Or something entirely different.) Such is life. This doesn't mean you're doomed to score C's. Rather, it means you should spend a little more time on your homework.

    Most people I know (though it should probably be noted that most of my friends are, well, geeks) had a point in their lives where they realized that if they didn't start spending longer on a course, they'd get a low score, or maybe even fail it. Many of us - including me - learnt that the hard way. As Vanadium 50 said, it's a bit of a shame that you ask for this kind of advice in your fourth year. I would echo his advice on speaking to an academic advisor as soon as possible.

    [*]Yes, I am one of those people who thinks virtually anyone can learn math and/or physics. I would like to add, though, that because of the time it takes some people to get a concept, it's not very... practical for many people to major in physics/math, *and* I'm not an expert on education, so I don't know how much one can 'improve' one's analytical skills (or whether there's a significant difference in potential improvement between math/physics-y people and, well, other people. -_-)
  12. Feb 16, 2012 #11
    No snarkiness intended, but I hope this student is in earnest, because he/she has a single post and doesn't seem to be responding to the feedback (not that that is strictly necessary).

    From my experience in the math programs, even people with ~ 3.5 GPAs have gotten 100% rejections - in fact, even with around a 3.7, and after applying widely (but not THAT widely).

    There are a few things you need to ask yourself. One major thing is why you want a graduate degree. Loving physics and wanting to succeed at astrophysics is fine, but if your goal is solely a career in academia, you should consider that people with straight A's routinely find out they won't get jobs in academia.

    If you are set in your mind that you want a degree, you must consider staying longer. I don't even think there's an option otherwise, because I'd be very surprised if you got accepted with that record, even with all the randomness.

    As for your performance, the major thing is: how do you check yourself? I think Choppy mentioned this, but I think the main thing I can see is that you must be able to explain the chapter yourself and read the examples, then attempt to slowly write down things relevant to solving the problem. A lot of times, just practicing translating what you're given into useful equations and things you might see in a solution is a good step.
  13. Feb 17, 2012 #12
    Most people with astrophysics degrees don't have careers in astrophysics. Something that you have to ask yourself is whether or not you *really* want to do astrophysics. It looks bad for you right now, and something that you have to figure out is whether or not you really want to do astrophysics or whether it's better to just cut your losses and do something else.

    One thing that may be a problem is that you may be spreading yourself too thin. It's better to reduce the number of courses and do well in them than to overload yourself and do badly. Also, these things tend to create "death spirals." If you are doing badly in one course, then that causes you do do badly in followup courses.

    Also, with some rare exceptions, people in physics *don't* do problem sets on their own, so you need to find yourself a study group.

    One reason graduate schools care a lot about GPA's is that GPA doesn't only measure knowledge of the material, but also time management and bureaucratic skills.
  14. Feb 17, 2012 #13
    I highly doubt it because you've made it this far.

    I played college like a game. Get a bad grade then get angry and destroy the rest of the course. I get the feeling that you're not determined enough to get A's though. It sounds like you're feeling sorry for yourself instead of getting back up, brushing yourself off and studying your butt off.
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