How Hard is it to Receive an "A" in College?

Question:  How exactly hard is it to receive A in college? I’ve heard many of even well-rounded HS students who used to get straight ‘A’s become discouraged to find out that exams in college cannot be taken easily. As I’m considering for a transfer, these sorts of stories worry me in various ways.

For many high school students who earned top grades—and especially for those who stumbled into “Easy A’s”—college can be a rude awakening.  At the most selective colleges and universities, where classes are chock full of valedictorians, salutatorians and other top performers who were once accustomed to near-perfect report cards, it can be challenging to adjust to a new level of expectation … and competition.

And even at more typical colleges—the ones that don’t draw only from the upper echelons of the senior class—the work load  can be heavy or, at least, different, when compared to the high school norms. For instance, there is often a lot more reading assigned, and it can take brand-new collegians a couple semesters to figure out exactly what they really do … and don’t … have to finish.  And in college, unlike high school, a final grade may be largely based on just one major paper or exam … which is good news for those who do well on it but can be tough for those who don’t. It’s not like in high school where a single lousy test grade will rarely torpedo an entire term because there will be many other grades to make up for it.

Above all, grades can vary markedly from professor to professor. Campus scuttlebutt will often help you to know which faculty members hand out A’s liberally and which ones give them rarely.  Web sites like can also offer a sense of whether a professor is a tough grader or an easy grader and what is required to be successful in each class. As with most information you’ll find on the Internet (even on College Confidential!) take these suggestions with a grain of salt … especially if only a handful of students have weighed in.

Likewise, some subjects tend to be harder across the board than others. Traditionally, classes in engineering, math and science include exams that allow little wiggle room for wrong answers so that even students who work hard but don’t catch on quickly can fail, while many social science, arts, and humanities classes may be evaluated more subjectively, which can lead to higher grades for students who make the most effort.

Yet there are plenty of students who find college much easier than high school. They’ve observed a growing trend toward “grade inflation,” where students who meet the minimum requirements in a class receive an A. They also like the flexibility they have to take classes that really interest them, often in subjects that weren’t offered in high school. And because the typical college class meets only two or three days a week, a well-organized student has plenty of time to complete most assignments.

If you want a leg up on maximizing your potential to earn A’s, check out this book: Professors’ Guide to Getting Good Grades in College. ( , which I reviewed (favorably) for College Confidential several years ago. (See )

Bottom line: While adjusting to college life (and grading policies) can take a little time (and time-management!) there’s no reason to be fearful. The vast majority of those who have made this transition will insist that moving from high school to college feels a bit like getting let out of jail! 😉