You’re halfway through the semester when you realize you’re in trouble.

The workload of your organic chemistry class is much larger than you anticipated, you’re struggling to pass the weekly quizzes in French 102, and you’re still trying to hold down your part-time job at the campus bookstore.

Your grades are suffering, and your GPA is dropping. The financial aid office just warned you you’re in danger of losing your scholarships. And your advisor is concerned that you won’t have the grades necessary to declare the STEM major you want to pursue.

In moments like this, it’s easy to panic. Your primal instincts are kicking in, cortisol streaming through your blood as you prepare to fight off the threat to your safety. The result is a vicious cycle of stress and frustration (maybe even depression).

If you could just raise your GPA, then everything would be fine. But it’s easier said than done, especially when you’re already under a lot of stress.

There is hope, however. You can raise your GPA and escape the panic you now find yourself in.

In this guide, I’ll give you the plan you need to raise your GPA back to the number you want.

How to Calculate Your GPA

Before you can take steps to raise your GPA, you need to understand how your university calculates it. In theory, this should be some straightforward arithmetic. In practice, it’s a bit more complicated due to the different ways that universities calculate GPA (and the way professors calculate grades).

Note: This article focuses on the system that U.S. colleges and universities use, as that’s what I’m most familiar with. If you just want to skip to the section on raising your GPA, click here.

For the purposes of this article, I’ll assume that your university uses a 4.0 scale that ranges from 0.0 to 4.0. This is the most common system; if your university uses something different, then you’ll need to go to the registrar’s office for assistance.

The basic formula for GPA is:

Total number of grade points earned / total number of credit hours attempted

Let’s break this down:

How Grade Points Work

Grade points are just the grades you earn in class. Except, many colleges still use a letter grade system for individual courses.

To get the “grade points,” you need to convert your letter grades to their 4.0 scale equivalents.

Each college has their own system for converting letter grades to a 4.0 scale. This is the most common method:

  • A = 4.0
  • A- = 3.7
  • B+ = 3.3
  • B = 3.0
  • B- = 2.7
  • C+ = 2.3
  • C = 2.0
  • C- = 1.7
  • D = 1.0
  • F = 0.0

In practice, some colleges will add more decimal places. At Iowa State, for instance, an A- = 3.67. Where I went to college, on the other hand, an A- = 3.667.

You can usually find a table of this information on your college registrar’s webpage. For example, here’s the table from Iowa State’s website:

Iowa State grade point equivalents table

If you can’t find this information online, you can also email the registrar and ask how they calculate GPA.

To get “total grade points,” multiply the grade point equivalent for each course by the number of credit hours for the course. For instance, if you take a 4-hour course and get a B in it, your total grade points for the class will be 12 (assuming “B” = 3 grade points).

How Credit Hours Work

I’m sure you’re more familiar with the other part of the GPA equation: credit hours. You can find the credit hours for a class on the syllabus or in whatever online portal your college uses to track academic progress.

An Example GPA Calculation

Now that you understand the elements of the GPA formula, here’s an example of how to calculate it. Let’s say you’re taking the following courses at Iowa State:

  • Calculus 101: 4 credit hours, current grade of “C”
  • Spanish 102: 4 credit hours, current grade of “B”
  • Philosophy 101: 4 credit hours, current grade of “D”
  • Biology 101 + Lab: 5 credit hours, current of “B”

First, we need to convert the letter grades to grade points. Using the table from the registrar, we get the following grade points for each class:

  • Calculus 101: “C” = 2.0 grade points
  • Spanish 102: “B” = 3.0 grade points
  • Philosophy 101: “D” = 1.0 grade points
  • Biology 101 + Lab: “B” = 3.0 grade points

Next, multiply the grade points for each course by the number of credit hours:

  • Calculus 101: 2.0 grade points x 4 credit hours = 8 total grade points
  • Spanish 102: “B” = 3.0 grade points x 4 credit hours = 12 total grade points
  • Philosophy 101: “D” = 1.0 grade points x 4 credit hours = 4 total grade points
  • Biology 101 + Lab: “B” = 3.0 grade points x 5 credit hours = 15 total grade points

Now, add all of your total grade points together. 8 + 12 + 4 + 15 = 39. This is your “total number of grade points earned.”

Next, we’ll add up the credit hours for all of your courses to get 17. This is your “total number of credit hours attempted.”

Finally, we just divide the total number of grade points earned by the total number of credit hours attempted.

39 total grade points earned / 17 credit hours attempted = 2.29 GPA

Phew! I know that was a lot of math. And in practice, I wouldn’t recommend you calculate your GPA manually.

Instead, you can just use a GPA calculator like this one. These calculators let you put in your credit hours and letter grades for each course to quickly get your GPA.

One final note: If you want to calculate your cumulative GPA, here’s the formula:

Cumulative GPA = total grade points earned for all semesters / total credit hours attempted for all semesters

You can also use this cumulative GPA calculator.

How to Raise Your Semester GPA

Now that you understand how to calculate your GPA, let’s get into how you can raise it. First, I’ll cover strategies for raising your GPA this semester. Then, I’ll cover some longer-term strategies for keeping your GPA high throughout your college career.

Seek Out Help

If you’re concerned about your GPA, you should talk to the following people:

  • Your advisor
  • Professors for the courses that you’re doing poorly in
  • Your college’s learning center/academic support/tutoring center
  • Any other relevant support staff

All of the above people are there to help you succeed in college, so seek out their help. They can help you put together a plan to improve your grades.

I know it can be uncomfortable to bring this topic up, but it’s better to seek out help ASAP rather than wait until your GPA becomes an emergency.

Turn in All Your Homework on Time

Always turn in your homework, even if you don’t understand the material. Many professors grade homework for completion, so it’s a quick way to boost your GPA without having to do a ton of extra studying.

Plus, doing the homework for each class will help you recognize gaps in your knowledge that could cause issues on exams and final projects.

Attend All Lectures

It’s tempting to skip lectures, particularly if the professor puts all of their presentations online. But if your GPA is suffering, you must attend all the lectures.

Not only will this help you get a better grasp of the material, but it also ensures that you don’t miss out on important announcements about paper due dates or changes to the syllabus.

And if your professor gives a participation grade for lectures, that’s an even more compelling reason to show up. Otherwise, you’re just lowering your grade for no reason.

Cut Back on Extracurricular Activities

Clubs, sports, music ensembles, and other extracurriculars are an important part of college life. They’re a great way to make friends, get a break from studying, and learn things you never could in class.

However, if your GPA is in danger, then you should consider cutting back on your extracurriculars to focus on studying. You don’t have to stop doing everything, but remember that you won’t be able to enjoy clubs at all if you get kicked out of college due to a low GPA.

Stay on Top of Your Exam Schedule

Exams and papers often determine the majority of your GPA for a given course, so doing well on them is the highest impact way to raise your GPA.

But you can’t succeed on tests and papers if you don’t give yourself time to prepare. For this reason, make sure you put all exam dates and paper due dates on your calendar. You do have a calendar, right?

Go to Office Hours

Your professor (or TA) has office hours to give you personalized help with assignments and class material. If you’re struggling in a particular course, then personalized help is likely what you need.

Plus, many students never take advantage of office hours. So if you do go, you’ll likely have the professor or TA’s undivided attention.

Note that I’m not recommending you show up and say, “I need help with my homework.” This is a waste of everyone’s time.

Instead, you should come to your professor or TA with specific questions. For instance, “Can you help me understand how to find the area under a curve?”

Get a Tutor

Sometimes your professor or TA might not be the best at explaining a difficult concept. Or, you may need more help than they have time to give you.

In these cases, look into getting a tutor. Your university likely provides them for free in most subjects (particularly in STEM and language courses). You can then arrange to meet with your tutor on a regular basis for help with homework or exam prep.

Similar to office hours, don’t go to your tutor with vague, general questions. Instead, make the most of your tutoring sessions with specific questions such as, “Can you help me understand when to use the subjunctive in Spanish?”

Evaluate Your Study Habits

Poor study habits are a common reason for a low GPA. Many students never learn how to study effectively, as it’s not something many high schools teach.

Therefore, it’s worth taking some time to learn how to study. Here are some study techniques everyone should know:

Take Practice Tests

If you’re struggling with taking tests or exams, try doing practice tests. Practice tests have two benefits:

  1. They help you figure out what material you need to review and study further.
  2. They help you simulate test conditions and be less anxious on test day.

You can usually set up practice tests at your college’s learning center or even directly with your professors.

Change a Course to Pass/Fail

By default, all of your courses are for credit. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In many cases, your college will allow you to take a certain number of courses for pass/fail.

This can be a good way to get general education courses out of the way without hurting your GPA. It’s also a way to explore a course that interests you but that has a lot of difficult, time-consuming coursework.

To change a course to pass/fail, talk to your professor and the registrar. Note that there’s often a deadline for switching courses to pass/fail, so do this ASAP if you’re considering it.

Consider Dropping a Course

In certain cases, the best thing for your GPA may be to drop a course altogether. This is a drastic measure, so only do it if you’ve tried other steps for improving your grade.

If you’re doing poorly in an elective that you don’t strictly need, for instance, then you’re hurting your GPA for nothing. Don’t let the sunk cost fallacy trick you into “sticking it out” just because you already invested time in a course.

Sometimes, it’s best just to walk away. It doesn’t mean you’re a “failure.” It just means you’re making a tactical decision.

How to Raise Your Cumulative GPA

Now that you have some tips for raising your GPA this semester, let’s look at some strategies for raising your GPA in the long term. If you want to increase your cumulative college GPA, this is the information you need.

Don’t Take Difficult Courses Without Good Reason

When you’re picking your classes for the semester, it’s easy to discount how much work a class will take:

  • “Reading a novel each week? I can do that in my sleep.”
  • “Multivariable calculus? Sounds like a breeze.”
  • “Upper-level biochem with a 3-hour lab? No problem.”

In certain cases, your major will require you to take difficult courses. But you should think carefully before taking difficult electives.

You should challenge yourself, of course. But don’t take difficult electives just to impress future employers (they don’t care), for bragging rights (you’re not impressing anyone), or because all of your friends are.

Instead, be realistic about the amount of work you can handle. If you really do want to take difficult electives, then either audit them or do so for pass/fail. Your GPA will thank you.

Find Courses with the Right Ratio of Credit Hours to Difficulty

Remember the formula for GPA? It’s “Total number of grade points earned / total number of credit hours attempted.”

When seeking to raise your GPA, it’s easy to focus on the “total number of grade points earned.” Boosting your grades is absolutely a good step to take, but don’t forget about the other variable: credit hours attempted.

If you can find an easy course that offers a large number of credit hours, it can be a good way to boost your overall GPA. To find such courses, I recommend asking older students and also consulting Rate My Professors.

Just be sure to take this advice with a grain of salt; what’s “easy” for one person might be difficult for another.

By the same token, avoid taking difficult courses with lots of credit hours. These courses can drag your GPA down even further, as you can end up with a low grade that counts for more of your overall GPA.

Design Your Schedule Around Your Most Difficult (Required) Courses

Sometimes, you’ll need to take difficult courses for your major. In this case, you should design your course schedule so that you can focus as much time as possible on the challenging courses.

For instance, if you know that you’ll have to take organic chemistry (a notoriously challenging “weed out” course), then don’t take a bunch of challenging electives at the same time. Instead, sign up for some easier electives that still meet general education requirements.

Also, consider taking fewer hours overall during a semester when you have to take especially challenging courses. This will give you more time to spend studying the challenging material.

Of course, always consult your advisor and the registrar when designing your course schedule. They can help you create a schedule that lets you succeed in challenging courses while also keeping you on track to graduate.

Consider Changing Your Major

One effective strategy for raising your cumulative GPA is to change your major. After all, a low GPA could just be a sign that you’re in the wrong field.

As with dropping a course, this is a serious decision that you shouldn’t take lightly. Make sure you’ve taken all the other steps we recommend in this guide to do better in your courses. But if that still isn’t working, then a new major could be the best decision.

After all, it’s better to pick a major you can excel in than to fight it out in one where you aren’t up to the work. Your advisor and the registrar can help you through the process of changing your major, as well as help you decide what major might be a better fit.

GPA Isn’t Everything

Finally, I want to remind you that GPA isn’t everything.

Unless you’re trying to get into med school, law school, or grad school, you shouldn’t worry about having as high a GPA as humanly possible.

Employers, in particular, do not care about GPA. If your GPA is low, just leave it off your resume. Almost no one is going to ask you about it in an interview.

A hiring manager would rather see that you spent more time working on projects outside of class or doing other things to make yourself more qualified for the job.

Need help putting together a resume that will impress recruiters? Check out this guide.

Image Credits: Iowa State GPA table, featured



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