This was not what I’d expected. It was my first essay in my first year of university. I was a music student at the time and had enrolled in the course, “U.S. History 1945-68,” out of a passion for history and interest in the time period. I’d entertained fantasies of the professor reading my essay and telling me that I had to switch my major to history. I was not a modest first-year student. I thought that the world needed the historical insight and wisdom I’d gleaned in my eighteen years.
This essay was an analysis of Coming of Age in Mississippi, Anne Moody’s memoir of her childhood in the rural South, her political awakening and her involvement in the civil rights movement. I remember it because it’s a compelling book. But I also remember it because of that B-.
Instead of maintaining focus on the book and interpreting evidence from it, I’d engaged in extended discussions of other things I’d read. I thought that this would show my erudition, but the professor flatly informed me that these references were tangential at best. I’d used my limited space, which should have been devoted to analysing Moody’s memoir, for irrelevant digressions. My essay became a collection of things I knew rather than a tightly structured argument.
If you’re at a good university, you got good marks in high school. If you’re at an elite university, chances are that you were a straight-A student. You’re used to giving your papers to your grandmother to hang on her refrigerator. And then you earn a C, a grade you’ve never gotten in your life, on your first essay. You can’t give it to grandma. Does this mean that you should drop the course? That you’re not cut out for university? No.
Adjusting to university-level marking is among the most difficult aspects of transitioning from high school to university.
In a large first-year history course at the University of Toronto, the average mark tends to be a C+ or B-. This is because the standard is based on the level of your fellow university students, all of whom were A students in high school. For example, here is how the University of Toronto defines a C:
“Adequate: Student who is profiting from the university experience; understanding of the subject matter and ability to develop solutions to simple problems in the material.”
At a good university, the bar for adequate work, not to mention good (B) and excellent (A) work, is set very high. What does this mean in practice when you get your first essay back and get an unexpected surprise, as I did? What comes next?
First, remember that your mark on your first assignment isn’t your final mark in the course. In upper-level courses, the majority of the final mark may depend on one essay, but in first-year courses there are usually a number of assignments, including a final exam, that make up the final mark. In my first-year courses at the University of Toronto, the first essay was worth 12.5% or 15%. A C on one essay hardly means a C in the course as a whole.
Additionally, a C on your first assignment doesn’t mean that you are a C student in terms of your ability. On the contrary, it’s an opportunity for your instructor to provide an unvarnished assessment of where your writing, thinking and analysis stand at the start of your studies. It also gives instructors a chance to tell you exactly what to work on in order to produce university-level work. The importance of learning from feedback by talking to your instructors will be the subject of a future post.
Earning higher marks at university is usually not a question of ability. It’s a matter of execution. In high school, being intelligent—having intellectual horsepower—was enough to earn outstanding marks. In university, almost everyone has that horsepower. Success depends on making those horses pull together in the direction you want them to go. And you have to learn how to do that. If you could already produce work that matched university expectations, you wouldn’t need your professors and teaching assistants. A lower-than-expected mark on your first assignment isn’t the end of the world; it’s the beginning of a process of learning and growth.