What Happens to Grades

It’s the start of a new academic year and lots of new students are beginning their transition from secondary school to university.  That transition can be challenging for a variety of reasons, including being away from home, new community, different teaching styles, etc.  For some students, a big source of stress comes about half-way into the term when they start to see their grades and realize that they are quite different from what they were used to in high school.  I think that our instructors are generally quite up-front about what to expect, i.e. that grades will typically drop about 15 to 20 percentage points from high school, but I suspect that a lot of students assume that will happen to someone else and not them.  So let’s look at some data from a past year that compares high school grades (admission averages) with averages at the end of first year engineering, for the same group of students.  

Grades before and after first year university.

Grades before and after first year university.

In the graph we have a histogram showing the percentage (frequency) of students who had grades in various ranges, where the red bars are for high school and the blue for university.  As an example of how to read a histogram, for the high school grades close to 80% had an admission average in the 90 to 100% range (bin), and just over 20% had grades in the 80 to 90% range.

What can we observe or learn from this data?  Here are some suggestions:

  1. The overall admission average is in the low 90s, and the overall university average is in the low to mid 70s.  Hence, the 15 to 20 mark drop that we tell people to expect.
  2. However, there is a wide range of university marks.  Some people will experience a small drop, and others will see a huge drop.
  3. University averages in the low to mid 70s are not unique to Waterloo Engineering.  I see transcripts from universities across North America, many of which show class averages.  In general, most university courses have averages in the range of 65 to 75%, regardless of type of program or university.
  4. Students (and parents) should not expect to get marks in the 90s (the rightmost bin in the graph).  If you can do it, great!  But relatively few people can (less than 10%).
  5. In first year university, if you’re getting grades in the 65 to 75% range, you’re doing OK.  There is room for improvement of course, but this is no reason to feel devastated or give up.  For many people, grades will improve in upper years as they adjust and adapt better learning and time management mechanisms.
  6. Being in the top end of the high school marks is no guarantee that you’ll be in the top end of the university grades.  There is some weak correlation between the two, but we see plenty of students who go from the top end of admission averages to the bottom end of university grades (probably by following some of the suggestions for how to fail).  And the opposite holds true too.  Some students come in with mid-80s admission averages, and their university grades stay at mid-80s, or sometimes even go up.  It is the dream of every admissions director to be able to accurately predict how an admitted student will perform, but sadly no one has yet come up with that insight or magic formula.

So, my advice for new students (and their parents) is to try your best of course, but keep your expectations realistic (i.e. the 65 to 75% range).  You were probably one of the top students in your high school, but so was everyone else in your engineering class and it’s a whole new situation now.  If you do get 80s and 90s, you can be pleasantly surprised.  I guess I’m suggesting a variant of the glass half full worldview.


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