She got an A for effort.

  1. She tried to get an A (made an effort to get an A, studied hard and really got it)
  2. We don't know whether she got good grades or not, but the teacher gave her A because she showed an effort.

Which one is close to the example sentence?

  • 4
    I think the phrase is really used as a way to get around telling someone that they/somebody didn't make it/get what they were hoping for, without explicitly stating what they actually got, because it's probably disappointing. E.g.: You made a good effort, (rest is unspoken, implied >) but you didn't get what you were hoping for. Commented May 21, 2021 at 16:09
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    Careful with the context here. As well as the slightly sarcastic meaning already mentioned in some answers (basically, she tried really hard but completely failed), in the context of an actual school report this has a much more straightforward meaning. My children's school reports have, for each subject, separate grades for "effort" and "attainment". It is perfectly possible to get any combination of high and low grades. So in this context "She got an A for effort" literally just means, she clearly tried hard and so she has a good effort grade; it tells you nothing about her attainment grade.
    – Vicky
    Commented May 21, 2021 at 16:13
  • 1
    Kind of like good initiative, poor execution. Commented May 21, 2021 at 16:16
  • 4
    You should wait at least 24 hours to accept an answer, to let the voting system work its magic. Accepting too early de-incentivizes members from writing new answers, and skews the votes since the accepted answer is pinned to the top.
    – Aubreal
    Commented May 21, 2021 at 17:25
  • 2
    In my circle, “A for effort” often simply means that one tried and failed. One need not have tried very hard, though in some contexts that could be the intended meaning. It need not be connected to school or grades. It is a positive way to imply “that didn’t work out very well.” It could also mean, “it looked like a good idea but it didn’t work.”
    – Michael E2
    Commented May 22, 2021 at 5:24

9 Answers 9


"[Getting] an A for effort" refers to getting a high grade in the category of effort. Some schools/classes would rate students level of participation and work ethic, giving them a separate 'grade' representing how hard they tried. This is not the same as "getting an A through effort" as Alexander suggests. "an A for effort" even goes so far as to imply that the student didn't get an A, for example "the student tried hard and worked late all year. They only got a C, but they got an A for effort"

  • 56
    While this answer is correct from a literal standpoint, I feel it is important to note that this phrase is often colloquially used in a sarcastic manner outside the context of school. It more often means "they tried, but still failed [at whatever they were attempting]." Ex: "Did Sally convince her boss to give her a raise?" "Well, she got an A for effort." (No, despite the long meeting she had with her boss, she did not get a raise.)
    – Seth R
    Commented May 21, 2021 at 16:11
  • 2
    The sarcasm can also include the idea that it is politically incorrect to describe any outcome as a "failure," so the "A" is actually fictitious credit for achieving nothing.
    – alephzero
    Commented May 22, 2021 at 3:21
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    I don’t agree with this answer. My understanding of an A for effort is that some teachers have or had a policy of giving credit for assignments based on the work done, whether or not the results of the work were correct or high quality. A student who got an A for effort received the actual grade of an A, not because they got the right answer, but because they clearly demonstrated a lot of work. Now it is often used to say someone is accepted at work or elsewhere because of how hard they try, even if they don’t succeed, sometimes with implied criticism. See also participation trophy. Commented May 22, 2021 at 7:53
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    The phrase rarely means an A is literally awarded for anything. It's an aside acknowledging the effort, especially when the end results aren't in-line with that effort. Something like "You tried really hard, but in the end you did not succeed.", compared with "You did not succeed, and it's pretty obvious why."
    – chepner
    Commented May 22, 2021 at 14:39
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    There is both a literal and a metaphorical meaning. As others have noted, there are some situations where marks are actually awarded for the amount of effort put in, and that is the literal meaning of getting an A for effort. But there is also a metaphorical meaning "if we were giving marks for effort, she would get an A", which usually has a subtext that she wouldn't have got an A for actual achievement. Commented May 22, 2021 at 22:01

I believe the phrase "[to] get an A for effort" is a slang phrase, which has nothing to do with "getting an A", or "getting something for effort". It's rooted in the grade-school "rubric" grading system, where projects are not necessarily given a single grade but are graded on multiple components, e.g. visual style, presentation style, preparedness, etc. (I'm not sure if this is used anymore these days but it was used for large projects when I was in school). "Effort" is another common component that can be found in a rubric.

To "get an A for effort" specifically means that, while whatever it was you were trying to do did not succeed (and often failed spectacularly), you certainly tried very hard and the amount of effort you put into the work can be seen in the final product, despite that it did not succeed. So, you did not "get an A" (succeed) overall, but you "got an A for effort" (put in a lot of effort).

For what it's worth, the phrase "get an A for effort" is almost never actually used in common English with reference to actual schoolwork, so I would say both of your example phrases are incorrect; neither of them are close to the meaning of the idiom. However, if I had to pick one, then the answer would be 2.

  • 3
    Is that 1st para helpful? The OP understands A is a grade, and a high one. Explaining how effort can include visual style seems confusing. The last 2 paras seem strong all by themselves, esp. the part about "tried hard but failed" and "not with actual schoolwork". Here's Wiktionary on it: "(humorous, often sarcastic) An expression indicating that an attempted action or undertaking failed, but the effort in the attempt was admirable" Commented May 21, 2021 at 15:52
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    It's an effort to explain the root origin of the idiom. As a learner of another (non-English) language myself, I often find such anecdotes helpful to understand and remember idioms which don't make sense otherwise.
    – Ertai87
    Commented May 21, 2021 at 15:53
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    In fact, the more common expression is almost E for Effort, popularized by the book of that name. At least for the latter half of the 20th century. Here "E" for effort emphasizes that the student did poorly (an E grade not actually existing in the gap between a D (lowest passing grade) and an F (failure)).
    – J...
    Commented May 21, 2021 at 17:57
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    @J... My understanding of "E for effort" is that it is similar to "A for effort" except ironically using the letter "E" as a near-failing grade to imply the failure of the endeavour overall, but also because the word "effort" starts with E; you are giving an "E for effort" to recognize the effort while also ironically emphasizing the failure of the endevour.
    – Ertai87
    Commented May 21, 2021 at 17:59
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    @J..., This may be location-specific, but when I was in elementary school (80s - early 90s, midwest US), an E was the highest grade, meaning Excellent. Accompanied by V - Very good, G - Good, and I - Improvement needed. Not sure how many other school districts used that system, though. I didn't get into the A-F system until high school.
    – Seth R
    Commented May 21, 2021 at 20:26

Other answers noting the academic origins of the phrase are correct. But in common speech, this phrase is more often a sarcastic way of saying that someone tried something, possibly with a great deal of effort, but failed. It is rarely used in connection with actual school work.

Example usage:

"Did Sally convince her boss to give her a raise?"

"Well, she got an A for effort!"

(Sally had a long meeting with her boss to lay out her case for a raise, but ultimately the boss did not give her one.)

Depending on the context, it could be used to indicate some level of praise:

They tried everything they could, but things just didn't work out.

Or for scorn:

They expend a lot of time and energy, but just are not competent enough to be successful.

  • Agreed. Regardless of the origin, this seems to be the most common usage I see/hear in American English. Commented May 22, 2021 at 7:57

It's a statement by conspicuous omission of more important categories, akin to a work reference stating prominently that you always wiped your shoes. The straightforward translation would be "She did not get anything accomplished, though not for a lack of trying."


I believe the second interpretation is more reasonable. However, now that I've read it several times more, I feel like it could be interpreted both ways. The context is essential for sentences like this one.

edit: I really liked flumperious' answer, I may have overlooked your question.

I would like you to check this out: enter image description here

Take care, Alexander

  • 1
    No problem. I like explanations like frank and real impression and feelings because it makes me understand how native speakers feel as well as the level of or identity of the given sentence.
    – gomadeng
    Commented May 21, 2021 at 6:50
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    I think that tweet answers the question quite well. Can you provide a direct link to the original source and include the important text in your answer?
    – MJD
    Commented May 21, 2021 at 22:18
  • We can see English Like a Native next to the picture of a girl. Is this an ad?
    – gomadeng
    Commented May 22, 2021 at 5:39
  • 1
    No, this is a Facebook post from this person's page. Commented May 22, 2021 at 16:42

The phrase is generally not used literally in the classroom sense of actually receiving a letter grade. It is more generic; it generally means that the person didn't achieve a great result on whatever they were attempting to accomplish, but they worked very hard on it and should be recognized and appreciated for their efforts. Sometimes it is used when the speaker is fishing for something--anything--good to say just to make the person feel a little better about something that didn't turn out so well.


Here's a real example of this phrase. In the movie Above the Law (1988), Steven Seagal's character Nico has this exchange with one of the bad guys:

Bad Guy: I don't think you can drop us all, bad-ass.
Nico: :shoots the bad guy:
Bad Guy: :falls to the ground: (probably dead)
Nico: You're right, but I'll get an A for effort. YouTube

Here "I'll get an A for effort" means "but not for lack of trying".

Another way to say it: I won't achieve my goal, but I will try very hard to accomplish it.

"She got an A for effort" means this same thing. She may or may not have actually achieved her goal (probably not), but it wasn't for lack of trying. She made a heroic effort toward her goal.


The idiom "got [maximal grade in school] for the effort" lives on not only in English, but in pretty much unrelated languages (adapted to local grading systems and such) as well.

It has little relation to the school life.

This is a sarcastic way of saying someone failed some task or endeavor.

The sarcasm underscores the distinction between the adult life where in most cases only the result matters, and the kindergarten / elementary school environment where kids may be praised for their visibly hard effort even if they in fact don't achieve the stated goal.


In elementary schools in the United States, they introduced first graders and such to the concept of grades by using simple ones, like:

"S" = Satisfactory "N" = Needs Work (not good, but not complete screw up) "U" = Unsatisfactory (complete screw up)

As they transitioned kids towards real grades in like 3rd grade (A thru F), they decided it was too harsh to dump a kid from a D straight to an F. So, someone came up with the idea of "E" for "Effort".

Hence, the phrase "you get an 'E' for Effort" came about.

So, "E for Effort" was a grade of something. And "E" in math meant you needed some serious help (like tutoring) to pass math, because you were on the verge of failing.

But, over time, folks that used this phrase started to change it to make Effort seem like the thing being graded, not the grade itself.

So, you got stuff like "You get an A for Effort."

In this case, Effort would be the fake subject the person was being graded in. (This was never any part of school, though. Kids didn't suddenly have an "Effort" category on their report cards with an A thru F. Acting like Effort was a subject to grade was confined to folks modifying the phrase over time).

So, this changed the phrasing from

"E for Effort" = "You tried something, but failed. I acknowledge that you tried, but you need to work harder if you want to succeed."

... to ...

"(grade) for Effort" = "You tried, and and failed. But, here's how well (or poorly) I think you tried." (A for effort = I think you tried well, even if you failed. F for effort = you tried and really suck at this.)

The "A for Effort" may seem more sincere, but it depends on how someone says it (IE: if they say it sincerely or sarcastically). Often depends on the circumstances, too.

EG1: if a person was stuck in a no-win situation, but tried their hardest to deal with it, another person saying "you get an A for Effort" is letting them know they were in a situation where they didn't have a "best option" only a "least crappiest", and the person did the best they could given the circumstances.

EG2: if a person royally borks something up, often something that should have been easy, or was assumed that the person knew how to do, another person may say "you get an A for effort" as a sarcastically snarky response to rub their nose into how incompetent they are. "Mike royally screwed up the driving test by crashing the car. Well, he gets an A for effort. I'm impressed." (A person using it sarcastically is often expecting someone to fail, and uses the phrase as a way to underline how much of a screw up they expect that person to be, and how the results the person created just prove how much of a screw up the person is.. so it's really a complete a-hole thing to say at that point.)

EG3: Someone could use the term in complete surprise or awe or to signify being impressed, but usually at how massively someone screwed up. Like some parents show up from vacation, and their kid has thrown a party w/o permission. But, the car is in the pool, the house is in shambles, etc, etc. The place is a complete disaster. And, one of the parents is just impressed with how insane the party must have been so they go "Well, he gets an A for effort for that party."

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