Soft Skills and the Hard Truth About Getting Good Grades in College

The most reliable way to earn better grades in university humanities classes (which are often required classes that will make or break your GPA!) does not involve extra hours of study and toil. It involves approaching the classroom differently.

In a recent poll, 80% of college students say they regularly text in class.

Checking your cellphone, frequently going to the bathroom, slouching, having a weary, morose look on your face, being passive, whispering to friends in class. What do these things have in common? All of these behaviors demonstrate a lack of soft skills, a low scholastic EQ. These little things — and many more — are behaviors which, by and large, we all know we should not engage in, yet most university students I’ve encountered in my decade of teaching do them anyway. The truth is that these behaviors end up dramatically holding you back from achieving better grades. Some of these behaviors, as well as others not listed, have a negative impact on student success in online classes as well. Even in the age of COVID-19 and online learning, soft skills matter.

The term “soft skills” refers to things like emotional intelligence, social intelligence, interpersonal skills, and the like. All of these terms are admittedly vague. Perhaps it’s more helpful to think about soft skills in opposition to “hard” technical skills. The ability to compose a decent essay is a hard skill. The ability to solve math problems is a hard skill. The ability to successfully patriciate in class discussions, communicate via email with your professor, and to project interest and enthusiasm through body language are all soft skills. In humanities classes, or any class where your grade is determined on somewhat subjective grounds or where participation factors into your final grade, soft skills make a big difference.

To understand the importance of soft skills for getting good grades it may help to understand your college professor. Your professor is probably woefully underpaid. Your professor probably has a research project that is more or less unrelated to his or her teaching. In all likelihood, teaching is a duty your professor must carry out in order to be able to do the job they are actually passionate about: researching and writing. Teaching is a more or less pleasant means to an end. Moreover, your professor is a performer who essentially delivers speeches peppered with audience feedback for almost three hours per week per class. Much as a stand-up comic feeds off of audience laughter, the professor feeds off of student participation and engagement. Students who engage in a lively way are remembered. Students who look at their phones are also remembered. When it comes time to grade your papers and assignments these memories inform, without a doubt, your professor's judgment (I know from first-hand experience).

On the whole, what tends to separate “B” students from “A” students can be attributed to whether or not the student in question has a command of soft skills, a high scholastic EQ (i.e., emotional intelligence). If you’re looking to improve your grades or simply getting ready for your first semester of college, you should begin by trying to work smarter, not harder. You should begin by developing your soft skills.

Though there is an obvious distinction between soft skills and hard skills, between IQ and EQ, these two realms can reinforce one another. Soft and hard skills can enter into a positive feedback loop, a virtuous circle. These skill types complement one another, they do not compete with one another. You don’t have to choose one or the other. Both are important. All too often I see students act, quite wrongly, as if hard skills are the only skills that matter. Both are important, but it is soft skills that are most often overlooked by undergraduates.

Soft skills make a difference for getting good grades in college, but they are also important after you graduate. In some ways, soft skills vie with hard skills for importance. For example, according to researchers Deepa & Seth (2013):

The Stanford Research Institute International and the Carnegie Mellon Foundation interviewed 400 Fortune 500 CEOs. They found that 75% of long-term college and career success depends upon developing soft skills.

Soft skills are not cheap tricks. They are important skills that most young people tend to wildly undervalue. While these skills must be honed, once they are mastered they become second-nature. These lifelong assets can make or break not just your GPA but also your future career.

A final consideration: college is extremely stressful for students today. Developing soft skills can smooth some of the rough edges. Soft skill will improve your well-being by guaranteeing better grades, improve your rapport with your professors (this makes asking for letters of recommendation a cinch!), and make your classes more enjoyable.

And that’s the hard truth about soft skills and good grades in college.

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