Maybe you were a straight-A honor student in high school, with the occasional B or C in a really tough class. Maybe you’ve even maintained an impressive GPA in college up to this point. But somehow, the unthinkable has happened: you’re failing a class. The semester started normally enough, with that one extra-challenging class that you knew you’d have to work your ass off in just to pass. Usually, a semester of office hours, tutoring and hours of studying pays off and against all odds you earn your way to a passing grade.
Except this time is different. No matter how much blood, sweat and tears you’ve put into doing your best in this class, you can’t seem to master the material or save your grade and you’re failing the class.
If you’re in this position, the first thing you need to do is breathe, take a step back from the situation and decide on a plan of action to get yourself back on track to academic success. To help you do this, we’ve compiled a list of the six most important dos and don’ts for when you’re faced with a failing grade at any point during the semester.
If it's early in the semester
Do: Know your college’s deadlines for changing your schedule
Scheduling classes isn’t an exact science, and colleges know that. Everything from your work schedule to family life and more can impact your ability to keep up with the classes you picked months earlier. That’s why colleges usually give somewhere around a two-week grace period for you to change your schedule with no repercussions. This means that if after a few classes you still feel like your physics professor is speaking a different language when she’s explaining the Theory of Relativity, you can drop the class and find a tutor for next term, when you have the time to invest in doing well in the class. The best part is that if you drop the class during this time, it won’t show up on your transcript!
Don’t: Take too many difficult classes at once
After a great semester (or high school career) of earning high grades, it can be tempting to challenge yourself and take several difficult classes in one term. But it’s important to be realistic about how much you can handle. Sara Ott, a junior at University of Wyoming explains how she had to learn this from experience. “My sophomore year I was an accounting major and thought I should get a jumpstart and took two of the harder accounting classes in the same semester. I ended up getting a D in one and failing the other. I was really torn up for quite some time afterwards," she says.
When midterms week rolls around
Do: Be proactive about using your resources
You can probably think about literally anything you’d rather do than dedicate several extra hours a week to the class that makes you cringe more and more each time you check your grade. However, if you’re already past the grace period your college gives and you’re failing exams and quizzes, it’s important to know that you have many resources, including your academic advisor, professor, TA and campus tutoring offices, and that they can provide assistance and support for you if you’re struggling. After all, your university wants to see you succeed as much as you want to. All it takes is a quick email or office hours visit to start getting help! “I failed my statistics class freshman year,” says Sydney Brodie, a sophomore at University of Florida. “The sad thing is, I didn't really do anything to help myself or try to improve my grade. I kept telling myself I needed to get help (from my professor, campus tutoring, something!) but never sought it out because I was a scared and nervous freshman. I didn't even know dropping classes was an option because I didn't get help from my advisor! Obviously this was a huge learning experience for me, but it's probably my biggest regret in college so far,” Sydney says.
Don’t: Refuse to consider withdrawing from the class
You may wonder how a ‘W’ compares to an ‘F’ on your transcript. Basically it means that if you withdraw (within the required deadline) you will receive a ‘W’ on your transcript for that class, and your GPA will not be affected. In most cases, having one ‘W’ on your transcript won’t be the end of the world, but it can save your GPA from the damage of failing the class. Every school’s policy for withdrawing from a class is different. Schedule a meeting with your advisor to learn about your school’s policy for withdrawing from a class and how factors—like whether or not the class is required or whether withdrawing will compromise your status as a full-time student—can impact the rest of your college career.
After final grades are released
Do: Evaluate if your major is right for you
Final grades have come out, and as much as you studied, went to office hours and wished for good luck before your final, an ‘F’ is looking back at you from your grade report. If it was a major-required class that you failed, now would be a good time to look at your academic strengths and weaknesses and decide if your major is really for you after all. “I had always thought accounting was for me, but [failing an accounting class] made me realize that what you think your path is, isn't always the right path for you. I'm now a senior and a marketing major and couldn't picture my path any other way,” says Sara. Plus, just because you change your major doesn’t necessarily mean you have to start your course credits from scratch! Oftentimes majors within the same college (i.e., business, engineering, liberal arts, etc.) have the same general education requirements.
Don’t: Tell yourself that you’re a failure
Whatever you do, it’s important to remember that failing a class does not make you a failure. It’s normal to be disappointed that you didn’t earn the grade you wanted, but telling yourself that you’re stupid or that you don’t deserve to be pursuing your degree will only start a negative and unhealthy pattern of self-directed thoughts. After you’ve had time to think about how you (and your plan of study) will recover from the emotional roller-coaster of having failed a class, surround yourself with positive thoughts by rejoicing about all the ways you’re killing it in college!
While not ideal, failing a college class is a learning experience that leaves a lasting impact on you and your attitude toward school. If you carry that knowledge forward with you, you can easily overcome this bump in the road of academia and still be incredibly successful!