Thinking strategically about school. 
December 2022 | The Learning and Wellbeing Team

Whether this is your first year or your last year, taking a strategic approach to school can improve your grades, lower your stress and increase the chance of getting to where you would like to go. Many students start college and university thinking that the need to do courses in a certain way. It is estimated that 40% of students will drop a course at some point in their studies and some 30% will change what they are studying after arriving at school. 

What is strategic thinking?
High school is very different than college and university. In high school, you had some choice in what courses you took, but not too much. Most students had to take English, math, science and history. You had to be in the building full-time, and you didn’t have a lot of choice about when you went to math class. But, in college and university, you have a lot more choice in what you study, when you study, and where you study. 

Strategic thinking when it comes to your studies is about making decisions about courses and your program in a manner that maximizes your chances of doing well and reaching your goal.  For some programs, you are required to take a certain number of courses (i.e., mandatory courses). And there are some courses that you need to take before other courses (i.e., pre-requisite courses). However, for most programs, you have a lot of choice about when you take courses and a lot of choice about what you take. In fact, most programs will allow you to take a number of electives on a range of topics.  Ordinarily, you have a lot of flexibility, more than you probably realize, all of which can benefit you greatly.

Skill vs. Strategy 

A skill is not the same as a strategy.  Skills like active recall, scheduling and relaxation breathing are what you need to master the material in a course. A strategy is different. Your strategy is the approach you will take to your courses, program of study and school in general. It is comprised of a number of different elements (see below) and determines what you study, when you study, how many courses you take, when to drop a course, when to switch your program and whether you will ask for an accommodation.

#1. Clarify your goal if you can.

Being strategic requires that you have a specific goal in mind. There are lots of goals, big and small.  You may even arrive at university not knowing exactly what you want to study. That’s okay. Whether or not you show up with a clear goal in mind, part of university is about finding out what you are going to enjoy doing and also be good at. Very often, you won’t know the answer to these questions until you try.  As a result, your first goal when arriving at university and college may be very modest. i.e., just settle into the routine of learning and survive the semester, find out if you like studying (at all) and enjoy what it is you are studying. In later years, your goal may be to turn your degree into a job, go to graduate school, finish the degree with distinction, or just finish the degree.  

Tip: Not sure what you are doing. Don’t panic.
If you arrive at university not entirely sure what you want to do or realize even after arriving at university that what you thought you wanted to do, isn’t going to be the way you want to spend your life, don’t panic. This happens to a lot of students, and it is okay. It just means that your first goal is to figure out what you are going to be good at. A good number of students start out studying one thing (e.g., economics), take an elective (e.g., psychology) and discover that they would like to switch programs and study something else (e.g., psychology) full-time. 

#2. Know what you need to get to the next level.

Getting top grades in all of your courses, all the time, would be a wonderful thing. It is not always possible. The average grade in first-year courses at most universities will be about 65 to 70%. Although a number of students will get top marks, most won’t.  For most things in life, such as graduating, getting a job, or even getting into graduate school (e.g., law school), you don’t need to get top grades  (As) in the first few years and maybe not ever. If you don’t need ‘As’ to reach your goal, then you don’t need to worry about getting As. What you do need to do is focus on just the next step. Complete your first term. Focus on getting into your program. There is no point worrying about getting a job as a lawyer just yet. You need to finish the first year of school, work towards getting into law school, complete law school, find your first internship as a lawyer and then (and only then) think about getting a job.   

#3. Get hard courses done first.

If you know that you are going to have some mandatory courses that are going to be really hard, then you can consider doing them in the second year of a four-year program. If your plan is to apply for some other program (e.g., teacher’s college, law school, graduate school, medicine), you will need good marks. Some of these programs will only look at the most recent two years of coursework. Although this is not always the case, if it is, it means that you can get a hard course done in the first two years and save other courses that might be a bit easier or a bit more interesting for later on.

#4. Balance hard courses against easy courses.

If you have a number of really hard courses that you have to take in a year, it is often worthwhile to spread the really hard courses out over the year. That means two in the fall semester and two in the winter semester. 

#5.  Take a summer course. 

If it is possible, you may even be able to spread things out and complete one of your courses during the summer. Summer courses are very compressed, usually lasting just four weeks. But a summer course will allow you to focus on doing just one thing (rather than trying to juggle five); it also means that you can take fewer courses during the year. This gives you room to drop down to just four courses. 

Tip: Before taking a summer course, talk to an academic advisor to make sure that you can (i.e., your program, bursary or loan allows it) and that the course will be available and recognized.  

#6. Do some research on the course and the prof before enrolling.

For many courses, there will be multiple sections taught by a number of different professors. Although the courses are supposed to be equitable (i.e., equally demanding and graded equally), there will be differences.  You should do a bit of research on who teaches the course at the university (i.e., check forums, Facebook, and social media, and online ratings of your to see what people are saying. If you are able to avoid difficult profs, then you stand a better chance of enjoying the course and doing well.

Tip: Don’t avoid a course or a professor because they expect a lot. If they are fair in their grading and clear in what they expect, you can do very well and learn a lot. Tough courses will help you prepare for other courses and for your future career choice.

#7. Focus on what is worth the most.

In most programs, you will have to write a paper or complete a project, which is usually worth as much as 30% of your grade. Despite that, most students don’t allocate most of their time or nearly enough time to the paper. If you have a class with 3 hours of lectures, you should be spending between 4 and 6 hours a week on the course, depending on how well you want to do.  That means about two hours should be devoted to the paper. In a 12-week course that is 24 hours. That doesn’t sound like a lot. And it isn’t. Some students will think that they can do a paper done in a weekend. While it is true that you can write a paper in a weekend, it is usually not that good and not nearly as good as it needs to be to get top grades.

#8. Know when and when not to skip class.

Many students will start to skip classes when they start falling behind, thinking that they can better use the time spent in class working on a paper or assignment.  As a strategy, this only works well when missing a class really costs you nothing.  The only situation in which this is sure to be the case is when you have completed all of your assignments and there is no final exam. In that instance, there may be very little to be gained by being in class. 

However, it is also true that there may be very little to be gained by missing one or two classes. After all, that is just a few hours in the day. If you are hoping that those few additional hours are going to free up enough time, then you will likely be mistaken. The most effective learning strategy for papers and assignments is storyboarding your week, in which you set aside a couple of hours each day, every day. 

As it turns out, research has shown that missing classes is related to lower grades. Not surprisingly, the more classes you miss, the lower your grades tend to be. Think of a missing class as an engine-check light telling you that something is not right and you need to do something about it.  But, if you are really, really running out of time, you may need to skip a class. If you do, be strategic and skip the one class that will not cost you too much. 

What’s your strategy?  

We would like to ask visitors a few questions about which of the 15 strategies they have used and whether or not they would consider them. We will also ask you about any other strategies you have used that we haven’t listed.  


Although each of these strategies can be helpful, in some cases, they may have unintended consequences. For example, many bursaries may require  that you be registered as ‘full-time.” This means that you may not be able to drop too many courses. Although rare, some programs require that your count your grades from all of your courses. 

Before making any decision, you should make sure that you understand both the benefits and any potential costs by talking to an academic advisor.    

#9. Convert a course to PASS – FAIL 

 At some colleges and universities, you can convert a course from a letter or numerical grade to a ‘pass-fail’ grade. This is not always possible, but when available, it can be an effective strategy to boost your average, hide a poor grade and not have to retake a class.  In a pass-fail grading system, the 59%, for example, will appear as just “PASS” on your transcript. No one will ever know what you actually got. 

Universities and colleges sometimes use a ‘pass-fail’ grade system to encourage students to expand their experiences and take something that they might not be the very best at.  

 Tip: Some pass-fail courses require that you inform the university or college by a certain date that you would like to take the course as a ‘pass-fail.’  Ordinarily, you cannot complete the course and then decide that you would like the course to be pass-fail.

#10. Know when to drop a course.   

Sometimes courses do not go well for a variety of reasons. The course might be extremely difficult or require that you put in a lot of time to do well. Or the prof might be awful or just not the material in a way that makes learning it easy. Or, you might have other difficulties in your life that are getting in the way of your learning. For whatever reason, you are not getting the grades that you need or believe that you can get.

In this instance, dropping a course can be a strategic decision that will allow you to avoid a bad mark and re-take the course at a different time. This is always a difficult decision, but it is one that you can always consider. Make sure you check with an academic advisor before dropping a course to make sure that there are no penalties and won’t prevent you from taking other courses. There may be a financial penalty if you wait too long. And, if you list the deadline (which every university has), then you won’t be able to drop the course and will be stuck with your poor grade.

But the logic is simple. If a course has gone badly and your grade is going to drag down your average, then dropping a course can be an effective strategy for protecting your average.

Tip:  You don’t need to have a reason to drop a course. If you don’t find the prof interesting, or the time or location of your class is inconvenient, you can drop the course. But just make sure it is not going to cost you in forthcoming years.

#11. Take an online course.

One way of managing your workload is to see if you can take one (or more) of your courses online. If you can take the course online (and you don’t have to be in class), this will give you a lot of flexibility in terms of when you get the work done. Although very convenient, online courses require a high level of discipline to ensure that you stay on top of the work and do not let it pile up.

#12. Take a course at a different university.

One other way of managing your workload is to see if you can take a course at a different university and then have the course transferred to your university. This is not always possible, and it may only apply to certain courses, so you should talk to your academic advisor first. But, if it is possible, taking a course (online or in person) can give you more flexibility in completing courses and, in some instances, may even be easier.

#13. Change your program of study.

National research studies have shown that some 30% of students will change their programs and elect to study something different. Some 10% of students will change two or more times. These are not easy decisions to make, but they can yield important benefits, including improved performance, better mental health, and a greater sense of fulfillment.     

#14. Think of school as a team sport. 

One of the most important strategies is to approach university and college as a team sport. You do not have and are not expected to do it all on your own. You do have to write your papers and take your own tests, but you are allowed any and all amount of help up to that point. Tutors, academic coaches and advisors are all there to help you learn how to do well at school. Universities and colleges invest hundreds of millions of dollars in supporting students, helping them acquire the skills they need, and assisting them in completing their coursework and degrees.  Unfortunately, too many students wait too long to ask for help or don’t ask at all. 

Tip: So many students require some kind of help and will ask for it. To make sure that you get the help you need, make sure you ask at the very first moment. If you are arriving at a university and college and already know that writing papers are going to be difficult, then sign up for a writing workshop or register for a skills course right away. 

#15: Interrupt your studies when you need to. 

At some point, and in some instances, it may be a benefit for you to interrupt your studies — for a period of time. There are lots of good reasons to take a break, including mental health difficulties, wasn’t really ready to do the work as seriously as you need to, cannot afford to both study and work a full-time job at the same time.  

#16: Ask for an accommodation

Students who have any kind of mental or physical condition that prevents them from studying to their full potential may be entitled to an accommodation. This might include being allowed to take fewer courses and being provided more time to complete assignments or write exams in a quiet room.  Accommodations are designed to level the playing field for students with additional changes. Universities and colleges will encourage all students who believe they are entitled to an accommodation to apply. It is currently estimated that some 5% of students at colleges and universities all over North America benefit from accommodations while at school.  

What is a retroactive accommodation?

Sometimes you may be in need of an accommodation but didn’t have one in place when you needed it.  In this instance, you can ask for an accommodation after-the-fact. If you are successful, you can, in some instances, completely erase a bad grade on a test or even in a course.  

Keep in mind: It is much, much harder to put an accommodation in place after the fact. Even if you are not sure if you need an accommodation or might not end up using it, it is better and easier to put it in place now than after the fact. 

U.S. Department of Education (2017). Data point: Beginning College Students Who Change Their Majors Within 3 Years of Enrollment. NCES 2018-434.

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