Illustration by Caitlin H.

Illustration by Caitlin H.

There are so many reasons that Cher Horowitz, the hero of Clueless, is my role model and soul-sibling, but the main one is that she fights for what she wants, no matter how big or small. Her negotiation skills are unparalleled: She successfully talks her way into better grades, a driver’s license, a later curfew, and basically anything else she feels she deserves.

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This is such an important skill to have, and I believe you should start developing it as early as possible. I know too many adult women who scared to ask for long-overdue raises!

Like Cher, I began honing my negotiation abilities early on. In high school, I wouldn’t accept grades that were lower than what I felt I had earned, and over time, I perfected the art of arguing for better ones without coming off as what my parents, both professors, called “a grade-grubber.” Grade-grubbers, they told me, are students who habitually fight for penny-ante grade bumps for no reason other than entitlement and competition. Those they did not like. But they respected students who advocated for themselves when they had a real case to make—when the grades they’d received didn’t accurately reflect what the students believed they’d truly earned, based on merit and effort.

I learned to communicate with my teachers when their assessments of my performance didn’t align with mine (e.g., when I received a zero on a vocabulary quiz because I missed class to speak at a Martin Luther King Day event at another school), or when I felt I deserved another chance to tackle an assignment I’d misunderstood.

Obviously (obviously!) I believe your first priority in school should be learning, regardless of your grade point average. But I can’t ignore the reality that most colleges care very much about GPAs, and it turns out that some employers actually look at your college transcripts (!!!). And I want all you Rookies to take over and eventually rule the Real World. So, while I could get on my soapbox and write a thesis about the limits of traditional grading structures, my intention here is to share what I’ve learned about how to focus on learning, while also owning your power in the grading process. Here’s my advice:

1. Be strategic. Always be honest and fair when you approach teachers with questions and commentary about your grades. Before scheduling a meeting with an educator, make sure your concerns are valid. If there is a clear miscalculation or error, you 100 percent need to point this out to the teacher, but do it respectfully—everyone makes honest mistakes, so don’t assume this instructor has it out for you or is just a dumbass, unless they prove one of those things to you! If you are confused about a grade, or you’d like to understand what you could have done to get a better one, calmly ask for constructive feedback on how you might improve.

2. Go the extra mile. Let your teacher know that you’re serious about their class and its associated coursework. Take initiative by attending office hours or scheduling a meeting with them after school to discuss your study plan and goals. While there are no guarantees, there’s no harm in asking for an opportunity to rewrite a paper to demonstrate your dedication, or to do extra research to illustrate your commitment to mastering the material.

3. Ask for help. Don’t hesitate to speak up if you need support or are encountering obstacles with your studies. By proactively asking for help before a problem worsens, you’re showing your instructor that you’re taking control of your education. Some stuff you can ask for: supplemental reading, tutoring references, study aids, extra time and resources.

I’m blind in one eye, which slows down my reading and writing. For a long while, I was scared to ask for more time on tests. I’m glad I finally got over that fear, because after I was granted that extra time, my scores improved exponentially. My only regret is that I didn’t ask sooner. What’s more, once they’d learned about my challenges, my teachers were way more sympathetic to other requests I had.

4. Be present. Never underestimate the power of engagement. Being alert in class will help you stand out while others are daydreaming, staring out the window, or passing notes. (No judgment: I have done all of those things!) Teachers love students who participate in class discussions, contributing nuanced analyses and asking thoughtful questions. Don’t be afraid to raise your hand when you have something to say! I can’t guarantee it’ll raise your GPA, but it will almost definitely bolster your overall reputation in that class and at your school.

5. Play up your strengths. Find ways to apply your strongest skills to the subjects that are hardest for you. I’ve never been great at math, but verbal and visual thinking have always come easily to me, so in school, I focused on mastering word problems, statistics, and geometry to balance out my scores. In college, I was able to persuade a math professor to let me write a way-too-long paper about the history of algebra to help offset a terrible quiz score.
Even though we’ve all encountered unyielding hardliners, most teachers want their students to perform well. They care about your success, and not just because it reflects well on them. I’ve known a lot of educators in my life, including my grandmother, my parents, and my partner. All of them have told me stories about students whose sincere love of learning inspired them to become better teachers. Be this student for your teachers, and, more important, for yourself. When you disagree with an instructor, challenge them (with respect!). You might just teach them a lesson. ♦