Supercharge Your Success by Intentionally Failing 1 Exam

By March 8, 2016HACKing Studying
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Are you strapped for time? Overworked? Overwhelmed with activities, studying, and career opportunities people insist are valuable?

Most notably, people insist that students must attend class and obtain exceptional grades. But just how important is one exam, anyway? (Click here to discover the value of one class). Is it a good idea to invest time in studying for an exam if it means sacrificing the pursuit of other high value activities? As you’ll see, it’s not. And once you understand the insignificance of one exam, you won’t hesitate to bomb one exam, if necessary, to explore higher value opportunities.

One Exam = 0.83% of Your Overall GPA

In order to calculate the value of one exam, we first need to know the value of one class. As I calculated here, the value of one class equals 2.5% of your overall GPA.

Next, we need to calculate the value of one exam within each class. Typically, a class requires three exams a semester: two midterms and one final. Although some classes offer more, let’s assume the total exams per semester is three. That way we maximize the value of each exam and can better understand the downside of failing one.

To calculate the value of one exam relative to your overall GPA, divide the value of one class–2.5%–by the number of exams per semester–3–which equals 0.83%. In other words, one exam equals 0.83% of your overall GPA, an almost meaningless number.

At Worst, One Exam = 0.07 GPA Points

But how does 0.83% translate into GPA points? To illustrate, let’s consider a worst case scenario. Imagine that you previously rocked a 100% in both of your midterms. You’re doing great for the semester and are on track to finish the course with a perfect score. But, for whatever reason, you choked during your final exam and scored a 0%. What are the repercussions?

To complete the math, use the grade calculator at RapidTables. Insert 100% under the first two rows to represent your perfect midterm scores. Next, insert 0% to represent your abysmal final exam performance. Lastly, insert 33% under the “Weight” column for each exam, because we are assuming that each exam is worth equal value. You’ll get an answer of 66.67%, which represents your final grade. That’s a “D”. On the surface, that’s not good, right?

But HACKing college is not concerned with surface level assessments. Expert HACKers know to ask, “Does getting a ‘D’ matter?”

Let’s continue on our “worst case scenario course.” To conduct the math, visit Back to College’s GPA Calculator. Under “Course” write “Bombed Course” and assign it 3 credit hours with a “D” grade. Below “Bombed Course” write “Everything Else” and assign it 117 credit hours with an “A” grade. The result is a 3.93 GPA. In other words, the worst possible scenario–that is, factoring a 0% scored in one exam into two exams which you scored a 100%–can at most deflate your GPA by 0.07 GPA points. That’s it.

Realistically, One Exam = 0.05 GPA Points

But how many students are likely to go from scoring a 100% on two midterms to a 0% on a final exam? Not many. So let’s look at a more realistic example.

Assume you don’t have a percent GPA over your remaining 117 credits. Instead, let’s assume that you maintain a “B” (3.0 GPA) average over 117 credits. Again, using the GPA Calculator, factoring a “D” (1.0 GPA) obtained in a three-credit course into 117 credit hours at a “B” (3.0 GPA) average produces a 2.95 GPA. That means your “D” moved your overall GPA less than 0.05 GPA points. Again, that’s nothing.

Impossible to Score 0%, Downside Actually = 0.04 GPA Points

These examples assumed that you bombed an exam by scoring a 0%. But it’s virtually impossible to score a 0% on any exam. Why?

Consider that many undergraduate exams are in structured in multiple-choice format. Usually the multiple-choice maintains four possible responses. Without knowing absolutely anything about the subject matter, blindly guessing at the answers will generally render an average of a 25%. In other words, the exam could be written in Greek and concern the most abstract subject (e.g. the psychology of Angry Bird addicts). But as long as the exam is structured in a four response multiple-choice format, a kindergartener could score a 25% simply by guessing. The math says so.

As a result, we can confidently assume that your downside in any exam is no lower than a 25%. Of course you probably know a few additional answers from your previous classes or can at least intuit a few correct responses, meaning that you’ll almost always score above a 25% on an exam. Nevertheless, to be conservative, I’ll assume that the worst exam score possible is a 25%, even though it is likely much higher.

Going back to the grade calculator on RapidTables, we can replace the 0% with a 25%. Three exams—one scoring a 25% and the other two scoring a 90%—produce a class grade of a 68%. That’s a “D+.”

If we revisit the Back to College GPA Calculator, we can calculate a reasonable worst-case scenario. For example, factoring a “D+” (1.33 GPA) obtained into 117 credit hours worth of “B’s” (3.0 GPA) produces a GPA of 2.96. In other words, a reasonable worst-case scenario in terms of bombing one exam will at most affect your GPA by 0.04 GPA points.

The Value of One Exam: Summary

Ok—that was a lot of math, so lets review what happened:

  • One Exam = 0.83% of your overall GPA.
  • Worst case scenario, bombing one exam can drop your GPA by 0.07 GPA points.
  • Realistically, bombing one exam can drop your GPA by 0.04 GPA Points.

That’s your downside for bombing one exam. And it’s not much.

Reclaiming Dozens of Hours of Time

As calculated here, by completely checking out of one three credit class for a semester, you students can reinject 135 hours to 180 hours back into their lives, depending on the amount of time spent studying outside of class. To calculate the time saved by completely checking out of one exam, rather than the entire class, divide these numbers by 3, which is the amount of exams per semester. As a result, the amount of time you save by completely checking out of one exam in a three credit class for one semester is:

  • 45 hours = 135 hours (assuming you study 2 hours per credit hour) divided by 3 (the number of exams per semester)
  • 60 hours = 180 hours (assuming you study 3 hours per credit hour) divided by 3 (the number of exams per semester)

That’s a massive amount of time students can add to their lives. And with such limited downside of bombing one exam, skipping class in order to free up all this time suddenly becomes appealing.

Skipping Class to Invest in What Matters

I’m not necessarily advocating that every student intentionally sabotage an exam in order to free up 45-60 hours in life. Students who are able to find time outside of class to pursue high value activities obviously have no need to forgo all exam preparation activities. Clearly, these students should go to class, study, and aspire for excellent grades.

The point, however, is to demonstrate the tradeoff that faithful class attendees are making: they are consuming a massive amount of time (90 to 135 hours) to protect against a tiny, bad outcome (drop of about 0.02 GPA points). And when students lack high valued skills, such as self-awareness, the decision to attend class over developing self-awareness is questionable, as demonstrated in my book.

For these students, they should skip class and focus on more important things necessary for success.
Clearly, completely abandoning all exam preparation is a radical move. But doing so, if necessary, can pay HUGGGGGEEEEE (as some politicians say) dividends. The secret to hacking college isn’t doing more. It’s knowing what to do. And frequently, that means intentionally skipping class, even bombing one course if necessary, in order to free up time to focus on higher value alternatives.

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