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CAn't get top grades

  1. Mar 24, 2009 #1
    Hi all, I've tried writing this three times, but it keeps turning into a long essay, so I'll try to keep it short.

    Anyway, I've come to the conclusion that some sort of natural ability is required to get a high GPA in physics/maths/engineering. I appear to have none of it, yet I have been studying very hard. I just can't do questions which I haven't seen before, which you can't study for, but you have to improvise with the skills you have acquired. These are the top questions, needed to set your GPA above the average.

    I can usually get very good grades for biology, geography and so on, but maths based subjects I just can't get a grip on. An A- seems like a brick wall from here.

    I'm in my first semester studying physics, my ultimate goal was to become an astronaut. Cliche, I know, but I tried to go along with the 'live your dreams' career path. It's something I'd give my left one for. This is a far off goal, coming from someone who lives in New Zealand (with UK/NZ dual citizenship, but doesn't help much here). I figure that if I can't get myself in the top percentile, then moving to America and landing a job in NASA, or similar will not be achievable. It's frustrating, I hang out with most of the top percentile people, and all the advice they can give is 'pay attention in class, and then the rest comes easily'.

    So, I'm considering changing my path, to something a bit more realistic. I do have another area I'm really interested in getting into, finance. Investment banking and managing really appeal to me. I'm at my countries best university, so the business school looks very appealing. Before I started university, most people told me I should be a lawyer, because I'm good at dealing with arguments and people, so I think my natural ability points towards business a lot more than science.

    So, I'm trying to keep this as short as possible, but please ask any questions if I've missed out any details. Basically I'm at a crossroad, I'm not sure if 'following my dreams' seems like the best idea to step towards, when I might not perform well enough to land a job in the US. If that is the situation, I would far rather be involved in business, rather than doing whatever physics majors do in New Zealand. Does anyone have any suggestions? Thanks for reading!
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 24, 2009 #2
    Study smartly - making sure you understand whats going on, trying out little test cases for yourself and working out problems. An hour of smart studying is worth 5 hours of regular studying. Also try reading the book "How to Solve it" by Polya.
  4. Mar 24, 2009 #3
    You just have to be able to adapt, or rather read the professor well. For example my last quarter's professor was the plug and chug type. Sure you may have needed to manipulate an equation or something along those lines, but it was mainly identify the right equation and plug in all the variable.

    My current quarter professor is more into the theory of how things work. The math comes out to be nice numbers (that can often be done mentally) but in order to set up the problem you need to really understand what is going on.

    So as maze said, study smartly. If you have a prof that is heavy into why things happen, don't spend the majority of the time with plug and chug type questions (and vice versa). This may seem obvious, however a lot of students in my class are doing horribly this quarter, just becuase they are studying the wrong stuff.
  5. Mar 24, 2009 #4
    I don't know how New Zeland's economic situation is right now, but the financial sectors of a lot of countries aren't doing too well at the moment. Meaning that no one is hiring (at least in America). I assume you're early on in your undergraduate career, so the economic situation could change in the the upcoming years, but no one really knows. And just FYI, its really not that easy to make the big bucks in finance, even during the good years. Its a lot of long hours and there's no guarantee that you'll eventually get that promotion. But since it seems like you're more interested in the science fields, money may not be a huge factor for you, but just letting you know. As far as studying for physics, if you're not already doing so, you should definitely study in groups, or take advantage of your prof's office hours. Just listening to how others approach the problems may help you learn to think in a good way to solve problems. If this is your dream, I wouldn't give up.
  6. Mar 24, 2009 #5


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    I don't know that there is a simple solution when it comes to studying math and physics. For some people the concepts and problem solving skills tend to come more naturally than for others. Obviously, the more time you put in and the more efficient you are with the time that you spend studying, the better you will do. I think to really excell at the university level in these areas, you have to be the kind of person who has an active interest in the field outside of homework assignments.

    With regards to following your dreams, I would never give up on something if you've found it to be your true passion. However, with something like becoming an astronaut it's obviously wise to have a backup plan. In fact, if you look at the careers of astronauts, it seems to me that each of them seems to find one field that they excell at: aviation, engineering, medicine, etc. which is what distinguished them from their peers in the selection process.
  7. Mar 24, 2009 #6

    I agree.
  8. Mar 24, 2009 #7

    I am in a very similar situation. I am always boggled when people talk about "having to take the hard humanities," or when people post about how easy their math courses are compared to the humanities.

    To me, the humanities seem basic common sense...go to class, read a bit, and the exams are easy. If there is a writing assignment, just use as many arbitrarily fancy words as possible and you get an A.

    For me, math is....study your *** off, devote more time to one math course than all other courses combined, be absolutely certain you know everything...and then study twice as hard all over again....and hopefully the stars align and you pull off a "just barely there" A.

    I studied some neurophysiology and psychopharmacology in my previous undergrad and it really seems as though it is largely the way you're wired (logically obvious, I guess).
    Even though my non-math undergrad was MUCH easier than my current program, I did not enjoy one second of it.
    Conversely, I love my math program now....even though I've gone from the "jerk that doesn't need to study" to the "moron that can't seem to understand the basic concepts," I couldn't care less that I'm not "meant" to study math. I enjoy school for the first time in my life.
  9. Mar 24, 2009 #8
    As several folks have already said, it's really a matter of your study habits. While it is true that some individuals pick up on stuff more quickly than others, I would hesitate to say that (aside from mental handicap) any concept is impossible to grasp. Your mastery of the subject will generally be proportional to the amount of time you efficiently and smartly put into studying.

    While I am not a physics student, there are some basic study tenets that are applicable to almost any field. One of the biggest mistakes I see fellow classmates making is not frequently reviewing material. I set aside at least 30 minutes a day for each class I'm taking, which currently adds up to about 2.5 hours a day of reviewing material (in chunks, not all at once). The more often you expose yourself to material, the more ingrained it becomes. However, I would preface that by stating that you need to understand material before moving on. Getting behind can be devastating in most any class. I'm in my final semester of an undergraduate biology degree taking 4 senior-level courses. The material is dense, specific, and downright boring in two of my classes (damn the lack of variety:P). I can tell you from experiences of my fellow classmates that inefficient studying is a quick road to dropping a class. I can read the same chapter in Advanced Cell Biology 10 times and not remember much if I'm not focused on it. Sitting there poring over each idea, highlighting, taking reading notes, referencing other text books/journals, and discussing confusing concepts with classmates and professors leads to extremely pleasing results. By building a firm base of knowledge, application becomes much, much easier. The more you are aware of, the more you can apply; a much bigger toolbox is available to you for each job. I'm not claiming biology is more or equally difficult to upper level physics, but the same ideas apply. I have the same prof. in two of my classes and his tests are 8 essay questions. Instead of asking for something specifically, he will ask a somewhat abstract question that will tie in multiple concepts. To get 12 full points per each question, you better know detailed information from 3 separate chapters that are all interrelated. His tests can be extremely challenging if you are not intimate with the information and understand it will enough to tie it all together. Take advantage of all the resources available to you.

    I would advise you not to give up on your goals. If you really want to be an astronaut, then go for it. I have a few friends in medical school that were advised to do try for an alternate route due to poor grades early on in University. Instead, they buckled down and got serious about it. I know more than a few people who have turned horrible gpa's into much more appealing ones by changing their habits. I say to keep on keeping on. You would be selling yourself short by doing the easy thing and surely be unsatisfied. Go for what you want, and if it doesn't work out at least you know you gave it an honest shot. Choppy gave some good advice in having a backup plan as obviously very few individuals get to become astronauts. Do not let that discourage you, however. Good luck.
  10. Mar 24, 2009 #9
    Different people's brains are just wired differently. For me, humanities classes tend to be the "study your *** off, spend more time on it than everything else combined" type courses, and I have yet to make an A in one since coming to college. I just find that they require far too much reading and far too much memorization. But math and physics courses I can usually get by with studying for a test for a couple of hours the night before, and I have yet to make anything but an A. In general, they require very little memorization and don't come with 100+ pages/night reading assignments. Homework can still take anywhere from 1 to 20 hours, depending on the professor, though.
  11. Mar 24, 2009 #10


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    I agree with that. But also I find that there is the "I like this subject" factor. For me. I have a talent to get an A in mostly anything I choose (at least thus far in my life) However if I really don't like the class (humanities) it becomes very difficult and laborious. Last semester I spent so many hours or days (if you begin to add up the hours) doing the assignments given.

    Its cus i really hate reading non-technical stuff. But math/physics on the other hand. Ever since high school I have received A's and B's in math and physics respectively. Its all how you perceive the subject.

    I find that if you somehow convince yourself that the course content is in some way interesting you can achieve grades you never thought possible
  12. Mar 26, 2009 #11
    If you are interested in something enough, you will find yourself teaching yourself about the subject far in advance before the schooling system teaches you... This can be the difference since it will give you a better scope and breadth of understanding the topics whne the material is layed out by your professor.
  13. Mar 26, 2009 #12

    Yes, and if you learn things at a younger age it will affect the wiring of your brain more. Then what Monocles wrote becomes relevant when you are older. Most people find math difficult simply because it is taught when they are too old. It is like learning to read and write when you are already 16 years old. You'll never get very good at it unless you have an exceptional talent for it.

    We should teach abstact math to children before the age of ten.
  14. Mar 26, 2009 #13
    I'm pretty sure this whole "neurological wiring when you're young" thing is old wives tale. People say it all the time, but where is the physical evidence? It makes most people feel like they have an excuse for being bad at abstract math, and it makes mathematicians feel mentally superior to everyone else, so there is no motive to challenge this belif it even though it is not true. There have been great mathematicians who were completely uninterested in math until early adulthood.
  15. Mar 26, 2009 #14
    can you name some?
  16. Mar 26, 2009 #15
    The evidence in in neurophysiological studies. Of course, you could argue those studies as easily as you can argue the evidence in any study, but there are studies on the matter and the findings are taught in coursework.

    How much of a crutch a person allows this to be for themselves is a different matter.
  17. Mar 26, 2009 #16
    Emmy Noether and Ed Witten are the two that immediately come to mind. Emmy Noether was pretty much uninterested in mathematics during her childhood. She was more interested in languages and dance. It was only after she got her undergraduate degree in her early 20's that she got "bit" by the mathematics bug. Ed Witten got his undergraduate degree in history and linguistics, and started graduate school in economics, only to drop out for a while and then start out in applied mathematics in his early 20's.

    I am also quite wary of this supposed "neurological evidence" (which has been alluded to but not presented). I'm pretty sure the field of neuroscience is not at a state yet where they can, for example, determine how much "mathematical ability" a brain has by measuring its physical characteristics.
  18. Mar 27, 2009 #17

    I agree, I'm just stating that there are studies. I'm not an expert in that field (or the math field either I suppose..lol) so any belief I have on the matter is nothing more than a belief.
  19. Mar 27, 2009 #18
    If I didn't read the rest of the paragraph I was going to say something like, "What's so bad about being a regular engineer working for some random company?" If you can't land your dream job, at least you're still working as an "Engineer".
  20. Mar 28, 2009 #19
    I think that you have some great suggestions from the above posters and hopefully I will add to it as well.

    Coming from a person who is not so called math "gifted" I can tell you that I have had to work hard to go from a C math student to an A student. My point being is that you don't have to be born with some kind of so called "math gifted ability", whatever is lacking can always be made up through your perserverence and dilligence.

    Like another poster above mentioned, is that it is worthwhile to review the material everyday. Make flash cards with your homework problems, lecture examples, workshop problems or labs of at least 3 problems of each topic you cover that week that you had difficulty with or you think were of importance. Set aside just an hour a day and go over and over those problems. When it comes test time and your classmates are staying up all night to cram for the test at the last minute you will sleep peacefully because you already know the material. 9 times out of 10 intructors have test questions that are identical or nearly identical to problems you have already done in homework, lectures, workshops and labs but have long forgotten because you didn't review the material.

    Think about where you can get some tutoring. Most colleges have a math tutoring center to get help, additionally some even have resources to fund individual tutoring a couple hours a week and make it a point to stop by for office hours with your instructor. All these things help tremendously and show you can put in the effort.

    Ask questions in class. Most instructors will boost your grade a little when you show that you put in the effort and are willing to take the steps to make sure you succeed. It could mean the difference between an B+ and an A-.

    Lastly I think that often there is a wrong emphasis placed upon grades when in fact more and more grad schools and employers are looking for more than someone who can solve an equation or got straight A's in their calc classes! They want people who are multifacited at numerous things and have an interdiciplinary background. I think with a background such as yours you would be an ideal candidate over someone who maybe did earn A's in math but didn't learn much of anything else. Sorry for the long post and I hope it encourages you to understand you do have what it takes to live out whatever your dream is!
  21. Mar 29, 2009 #20

    I don't know about Emmy Noether, but I am pretty sure that Ed Witten's father was a physicist , so his father must have inspired his interest in physics as a child.
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