There are many students (subject being basic sciences) in my university (considered a good university in India) who simply do not care about the subject in a course but have stellar grades. They aren't interested in the subject per se, just the grades. These students never doubt anything that the professor says or whatever is written in lecture notes. They never ask questions. They would happily write in exams what they have memorised without understanding it 'deeply'. When I discuss anything with them about a particular topic which I don't understand, they simply don't care about it and tell me to not think about it 'deeply', and just memorise the stuff. But these students have stellar grades.

A lot of students, almost all that I know at my university, engage in malpractices during the exam, especially in the current online mode when there is no supervision. Some students sit in groups of 6-7 students during an online exam and discuss the questions before submitting, i.e. they solve the exam paper collectively. They often get exactly similar marks as well. Many instructors turn a blind eye towards this.

I sometimes feel jealous of the other students and get agitated at the university system as well. The 'other' students get good opportunities for research internships when they have explicitly mentioned to me that they don't care about research and are doing internships just for the sake of improving their resume.

I, on the other hand, have extremely poor grades. I've failed a 3 courses too. I spend a lot of time thinking about the stuff. I ask questions to the professors, which are received encouragingly. Some professors have explicitly mentioned that my questions are good and it shows that I have thought about the material well. I ask questions and answer questions on Stack Exchange as well, and they are received warmly as well. I am interested in pursuing research after my undergraduate studies but no good university is going to accept me as a grad student considering my poor grades.

I am not saying that my failure is entirely the fault of others. I recognise vices in myself too.

What should I do in order to improve my situation?

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    You're a good person, but don't let that get in the way. Understand the rules of the game. Maybe one day you can work to change the rules, but for now work on your grades. Understand what education/degrees are for: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Signalling_(economics)
    – PatrickT
    Commented Apr 26, 2021 at 19:48
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    You already discovered a good strategy to get the grade that you need to pursue a career in academia: memorize everything! There's no contradiction to also thinking about it deeply - the two are not mutually exclusive. As a matter of fact, it seems that you actually need both to move ahead with your desired career.
    – Thomas
    Commented Apr 27, 2021 at 8:14
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    Patting yourself on the back for being a deep thinker is not an excuse for bad grades Forget what others are doing nad get your grades up - unless you being graded on a curve. In that case talk to your professors. It looks like you have some rapport with your profs - keep talking to them and ask about undergrad research opportunities. Grad school admissions weigh prior research way more than grades.
    – hojusaram
    Commented Apr 27, 2021 at 12:29
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    Don't give up. I was like that too and I got a PhD. If you won't leave, they have to let you in eventually. Commented Apr 29, 2021 at 15:47

5 Answers 5


Allocate time specifically to prepare for your tests

This might seem like a waste of time, since you would rather spend it studying the course material more deeply. However, this is a trade-off you should be willing to make in pursuit of your long-term goal of entering into research. If 100% of your studying time is currently spent on learning the course material deeply, you may need to reduce that to 75–80%, and spend the rest of the time doing test preparation. I understand that test preparation can be extremely boring and feel completely pointless. But, as you've noticed yourself, you need to score a minimum amount of marks to stay afloat in the system. There is no need to judge yourself by your course marks, though; feel free to think of it as just an arbitrary number that you need to display in order to apply to graduate programs.

Furthermore, to the best of my knowledge, a few failing grades will not disqualify you from applying to the graduate programs of any university. I believe you have options to take the failed courses again, or at least their final exams, so make use of that. If you plan to apply to graduate programs in India, in particular, as long as your overall grades lie above the cutoff and you perform well in the interviews, you should be fine.

Finally, your attitude towards your education is commendable, but at some point the effort involved in going through the system may end up not being worth it. Several talented classmates of mine found this to be true for themselves, and chose to take other paths. You will need to choose your path, too, and possibly very soon. But try your best to fulfil at least the bare minimum requirements before deciding that this system is not for you.

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    +1 “think of it as just an arbitrary number that you need to display in order to apply to graduate programs.” The scores are not useful in themselves, but they can help you get to a place where you can surround yourself with likeminded individuals and thus learn more, which is the goal. Commented Apr 26, 2021 at 13:13

I deal with students with alternate needs and I know it is not uncommon for students to have similar experiences about learning. Reflecting on the experiences of other students I have some observations about your story.

Firstly, other students will have a different way of learning to yourself and sometimes, just being different does not make their success a result of cheating. There may be some students who cheat perhaps, that is sure, but working in groups and discussing material can sometimes be a good way of cementing ones learning by the reflecting on the material in discussions. A student can get good feedback on what is good and what is weak this way.

Some students prefer to work alone and find that the material is difficult to understand until it has been explored in all its details and at full depth. At some point they reach the "Aha" moment when it all falls into place and makes sense; then they can move on. They often reach this point through questions; "But Why" and then again "Why". Perhaps this is what you are experiencing.

The other students may not need to ask questions as their mode of learning does not need this deeper understanding, and they find it satisfactory to remember the facts or explanations provided by the teacher. When it comes to an assessment they use their memory to repeat back the explanation and facts from class. This repetition will satisfy the goals of the assessment that the student absorbed material from the class. Sometimes this is what is required, but sometimes it is not and a deeper understanding is required.

Knowing when the learning mode is memory and when it is deep understanding is sometimes difficult to discover. Some teachers can give guidance on this by indicating "you need to understand what is behind this..." as opposed to "remember and use this equation each time ...".

Eventually, the students who remember and those who look deeply will find their learning converge, because the layers of remembered information piece together through the years to build the complex picture of "how it works" and the students who did not ask questions get their own "Aha" moment. However it might have taken them longer to get there.

However, if one tries to understand everything before moving on, the pace of information gathering is slower. One can really only focus on one piece of a subject at a time. This is how it can result in apparent failure as one has a great understanding of a small piece of the picture and a large void where perhaps some remembered information should be stored for later.

For example, I always found it hard to just rote remember mathematical formula, but I was excellent at deriving and proving them from first principles. When other students just "mindlessly" (in my perception) regurgitated the standard formula for solving quadratic equations in a school examination $x=\frac{-b\pm\sqrt{b^2-4ac}}{2a}$

, I spent a lot of time re-deriving it. Even just now I had to Google it to save time! It made me appear slower and less able at maths, when perhaps the converse was true.

The same for physics, when often we have to suspend disbelief and accept things that we ourselves cannot prove. We may start with the theory of atoms and use the "ball and stick" explanation, but then this is just a simplification to satisfy simple minds. Later one might learn about electron clouds, and later the electron shells, later Schrodinger's Equation. Later still sub-atomic particles are used to explain things and we learn about the standard model. Even now physicists are learning that there are still things in the standard model that are beyond their learning and there is yet no answer to "Why".

Another example I use for students is driving. Do I need to understand every aspect of the operation of an internal combustion engine to be able to drive a car that uses one? It is good to know, but does not always improve driving.

My suggestion is that perhaps you should consult the learning support services of your university. In the UK most universities have a learning support service that assist students with improving their working practices and ways of study. Perhaps your does too.

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    The OP doesn't seem against students working together in general, but specifically students working together during exams (presumably traditional "own work only" type exams). Commented Apr 26, 2021 at 19:23

I would say it bluntly: one thing is what you do, the other is why you do.

No, Macchiavelli never said "End justifies the Means", but it does not matter.

So if you need good grades to get to whatever goals you have, optimize your strategy to prepare for exams having that goal. During your research career you will have to eviscerate again the very basic assumption of what you know, and that just to write introduction to your thesis, so whatever you "study" during your courses, you will need to study it again soon.

Usually, the exams will prepare you at the bare minimum level of a certain topic. If you have additional questions, doubts, thoughts on the topic, you can preserve them for after passing the exam.

If you do not manage to get excellent grades, it may simply be you were unlucky in the talents' drawings. Nature/God/the big Turtle were not kind, in the same way that not everyone of us is a Voltaire or a James LeBron or a Lionel Messi.


I strongly think that though asking the right questions is highly important, what's more important is determining whom to ask the said questions to. Not everyone (sadly sometimes even the professors) has the capacity to understand the intent behind the question, and it is possible that they could be taking it in a negative way. As a resort, for now, I would recommend you to look for a mentor faculty with whom you share an academic interest (and who is receptive to your questions), to enhance your research capabilities. And I definitely agree with what @The Amplitwist said you need to fulfill the bare minimum first.

Nonetheless, don't let such setbacks hamper your spirits.


Your situation sounds similar to my own recent undergraduate experience, although I'm in the US. I enrolled in a top STEM school, failed three courses, and achieved poor grades in my first two years despite being a very motivated and hard working individual. However, I improved my academic performance and got into several good PhD programs.

Now you can't control if other people cheat. So if you want to get into a graduate program, the best thing you can do is focus on your work and show an improvement in your academic performance. You especially need to show improvement in course areas relevant to whatever field you want to go into.

This requires effort on your part to figure out how to academically succeed. Think about it this way: there (probably, hopefully) exists a set of (legal) academic actions that you can do to improve your academics. The problem is you don't know what they are, and you need to figure out what those things are. Here are some random things: find a supportive mentor/academic adviser who wants you to succeed (I strongly advise this), go to office hours more, plan and commit to concentrating with no distractions on a topic of study (easier said than done), find people to study and do homework with, ask friends about a professor's teaching style before you sign up for their course, etc.

Here's whats also important: Once you find what works for you, it will help to maintain a routine in which you balance all the things you need to do to academically succeed and also stay happy as an individual.

I myself simply knew none of these things, which are now obvious to me, when I arrived to college and so I performed very poorly. Perhaps they are not obvious to you too.

If you can improve your grades, then in your graduate applications, you can (briefly) explain why your grades were initially poor, but emphasize and draw attention to your improvement. It's important not to sound negative when you talk about your past grades or else you come off as an unreliable narrator, so be positive/objective.

Overall, I think if you are genuinely curious, motivated, and can successfully communicate these things to graduate programs, you will have a shot, especially if you can improve your academic performance. I think it's because people know that grades are not "everything." So don't give up.

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