What to Do if You’re Failing a
College Class
Expert Advice on When to Ask for Help, Drop or Withdraw

Meet the Experts

Joseph Croskey Director, University Advising Services Center; Clarion University Read bio
Kathleen Ellwood Consultant, Coach & Mentor, Clarion University’s Leadership & Innovation Connections Group  Read bio

Written by…

Alix Cirac Read bio

Good grades are important for many reasons. Not only do they set a student up for better long-term opportunities in applying to graduate or professional school, they also allow entrance into specific fields of study and lead to scholarships and other opportunities. But some courses are tough, and it’s common for students to struggle academically in at least one class. If you’re failing a class, you have options. Find out what you can do to improve your grade and when it might be time to drop or withdraw from a class.

What to Do if You’re in Danger of Failing a Class

Before considering dropping or withdrawing from a course, a student should work to put him or herself in the best position to succeed by using the tools available on and off campus. Here are steps students should take as soon as they know their grade is at risk.

  • Talk to the professor

    The first stop is asking for help from the professor. “If a student knows they are failing, they should immediately contact the professor and ask for time to meet during office hours,” says Joseph Croskey, Director of the University Advising Services Center at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. “If it is early in the semester, the professor may help the student chart a course to earn a passing grade by the end.”

    Once the student-professor relationship is established and a plan is in place, students should seek out the additional resources that are available to them. Professors will likely make specific recommendations, plus most campuses have many academic resources in place to help struggling students.

  • Know what you need to do to pass

    Ask your professor to help you understand the grading system for the class. Get a detailed picture of how to do well on upcoming assignments or what grades you need to pass. For example, maybe you need to get a B on each of the upcoming tests to bring up your average.

  • Utilize student services on campus

    “There are often success centers that provide services,” says Kathleen Ellwood, a consultant, coach and mentor to Clarion University’s Leadership & Innovation Connections Group. “Students may have a documented learning disability and can seek out the office of disability services to assist with testing issues. If other issues are stressing them out and preventing them from studying, they can seek appropriate counseling resources.”

  • Talk to your academic adviser or an academic coach

    Advisers can help you act on your own behalf and advocate for yourself. They are there to help students plan out a long-term path to achieve their academic goals and they can address speed bumps along the way. “Some schools also offer academic coaches who can help students with study strategies, time management and other skills,” Ellwood says.

  • Find a tutor

    Students can find tutors on campus through student resource centers. Students can also often find tutors online and through academic help centers. Whatever the subject matter is, there is someone that can help. Especially for repetition or process-related fields like math or science, it’s important to have someone to monitor your study habits and understanding of the material.

  • Connect with other students

    If you are finding the class difficult, other students likely are, too. Croskey suggests taking notes and discussing them with other students daily in an informal peer study group. “Test yourselves on the material daily. Study in a conducive environment without distractions,” says Croskey. Sometimes the key to understanding something is just to hear it explained in a different way. Talk to as many people about the subject as you can.

  • Use online resources

    “Internet resources like Khan Academy, or even YouTube, can help with many subjects,” Croskey says. Watch videos, do additional research, get repetition with the correct solving systems. Everything helps.

  • Keep a positive attitude

    Find genuine interest in the topic. Think about the class and the workload positively. If you can make it interesting, the information is more likely to stick, plus learning it will be a better experience, says Croskey. “Pay attention in class with curiosity about the subject and what the professor is presenting. Your ability to pay attention and focus can be enhanced by the proper attitude,” he says.

  • Do extra credit, if possible

    It’s possible your professor will assign work for you that you can do to boost your grade, or at least will give you supplemental study materials. Take advantage of these opportunities as it will demonstrate a desire to succeed and finish the class on a good note.

When to Consider Other Options

It is always ideal to try one’s best to complete a course with a passing grade before any other considerations. There are times, though, when that becomes impossible and it becomes appropriate to look at other options. Dropping a course, withdrawing from a course and taking an incomplete are some of these alternatives. We’ve listed them below with Croskey’s expert advice as to when they may be necessary, and how they affect the picture of a student’s overall academic path.

While not as ideal as taking and passing a course, dropping a course has the fewest negative repercussions of the options included here. “A drop from the course is usually done early in the semester and has no impact on the student’s grade, GPA or transcript,” Croskey says. However, students should be very aware of deadlines, financial aid requirements and course timelines before dropping a class.

Each college has a different deadline after which students cannot drop a course. It’s typically a fairly short period of time (a few weeks or less), so students who find themselves struggling later in the semester will not be able to drop a class.

Although it won’t impact a student’s GPA, some scholarship and financial aid packages require a minimum number of credits (often 12 – or full-time status, according to Croskey), and dropping below that may result in revocation of financial aid. Students should keep this in mind when considering dropping a course.

Lastly, students should consider the timeline of the course offerings for their major’s prerequisites. Frequently, courses are offered in succession and can’t be taken out of order. For instance, if a student has to take Math 112 for their major, and it’s only offered in the spring, he likely doesn’t want to drop Math 111 this fall – otherwise he’d have to wait a full year to retake Math 111 and then eventually Math 112 (and then Math 211 and 212, sequentially).

According to Croskey, a withdrawal should be seen as a last-resort option. “A student knows [it’s time to withdraw] when they have met with their professor and determined that there is no possible way to earn enough points to pass the course,” Croskey says.

If students plan to withdraw from a course, they will likely need to get approval for their plans before they can officially withdraw. “Typically students have to have approval from the professor or adviser to withdraw from the course,” says Crosky. Some schools also require a student to have at least a passing grade for the course at the time of the withdrawal.

There are a few additional factors students should keep in mind before choosing to withdraw from a class. “Some courses are required by major and will have to be retaken,” says Crosky. A withdrawal might “put the student out of sequence to progress in their chosen major, resulting in them having to stay an additional semester.”

Most schools also limit the number of withdrawals a student can take. “A student is only allowed a certain number of withdrawals on their transcript,” says Crosky, noting the number for Clarion University is five. Some schools also have a “double repeat policy”. UC Santa Cruz, for instance, only allows students to repeat a course twice, and a withdraw counts as an attempt. While a “W” on a transcript is better than a failing grade, it might negatively impact future opportunities for graduate school.

Students who rely on financial aid to pay for school will also need to keep in mind that withdrawing from a class may drop the number of enrolled credits below the minimum needed for financial aid. Students should carefully review their financial aid requirements with their adviser before withdrawing.

Special circumstances are necessary for a student to take an Incomplete. “I would suggest taking an incomplete grade when a student has complications with a course due to unforeseen circumstances,” Croskey says. Health complications, an unexpected death or other personal circumstances may be valid reasons to take an incomplete.

However, a student’s current coursework may need to meet certain criteria to take an “I” grade. UC Berkeley instructs their faculty to assign “a grade of Incomplete (I) if your student’s work in a course has been of passing quality but is incomplete due to circumstances beyond the student’s control.”

The “I” on the transcript is temporary until the student completes the work after semester’s end. At that time, the grade on the transcript will be adjusted to match the work that they submitted. Proactive communication between student and teacher is critical in this instance.

There are also deadlines to completing the work that students should be aware of. Students should check with their specific college, but as an example, UC Berkeley’s deadlines for undergraduates dictate that the work for an Incomplete given for a fall semester course must be completed by the first day of instruction of the following fall semester. Similarly, an “I” received for a spring or summer session course must be completed by the first day of instruction of the following spring semester.

Failing a course should not be considered an option. While the alternatives above aren’t ideal, they’re all better than a failing grade on the transcript. Croskey notes that dropping a class is better than withdrawing, but withdrawing is better than failing.

“A failing grade will lower the student’s GPA, which may prevent a student from participating in a particular major that has a GPA requirement,” Croskey says. “A lower GPA can also prevent someone from graduating and can lessen opportunities for graduate school or certain professional positions.”

Kathleen Elwood notes too that “if a student doesn’t retake the class they will always have the failing grade negatively impacting their GPA and it will always stay on their transcript.”

While classes can be retaken to replace the failing grade, there are sometimes limits to how often. For instance, some institutions don’t allow a student to retake a class more than twice. The grade a student gets after the course is retaken will replace the grade on the transcript; like everything else though, this should be confirmed with an academic adviser in advance.

Questions to Ask Yourself

There isn’t a blueprint for knowing when to drop, withdraw or take an incomplete for a class. Students should seriously self-reflect and consider each aspect of their academic, professional and personal lives before they make a decision. They especially shouldn’t consider these options as an ‘easy way out;’ rather, they should be honest about other time commitments and priorities, as well as their big-picture academic plans. Most importantly, students must have a clear idea of the options before them, as well as associated deadlines.

Here are some questions to ask yourself before deciding on your course of action:

  • Am I looking for an easy-way out or am I considering my options carefully?
  • Am I willing to put in the work required to pass this class?
  • Have I spoken with the professor to solidify a plan for passing this class?
  • Do I have a good working relationship with my teacher? Do I feel comfortable that they will help me turn things around?
  • Have I met with my academic adviser?
  • Are there other obstacles in my life this semester that are preventing me from doing my best in this class? Might I be able to dedicate more to it at a later date?
  • Do I have a genuine interest in this subject?
  • Have I passed the drop-by date?
  • Does my financial aid package hinge on taking a certain number credits? If so, will I have enough credits without this course?
  • Have I met with my financial aid adviser?
  • Are there events in my life happening that may allow for an Incomplete?
  • How many withdraws do I already have on my transcript?
  • Is this class required for my major? If so, how often is it offered?
  • What are my long-term academic goals? What kind of GPA is necessary to exceed them?

FAQs

What’s the difference between dropping and withdrawing from a class?

Dropping and withdrawing from a course are similar; however, there is one important distinction. “A drop will not be seen on transcripts, and does not affect GPA,” Croskey says. “A withdrawal will be on the transcripts but does not affect GPA.”

Croskey also noted that there aren’t any limits to how many classes one can drop because they don’t go on the transcript. Withdrawals though are limited and can look bad if there are too many on a student’s transcript.

Withdrawals are limited to five at Clarion University, according to Croskey. Each student should check with their specific adviser for the number at their institution as it may be more or less for each. If a student reaches the maximum number of withdrawals, and is past the drop-by date, they’ll be forced to take a failing grade (assuming circumstances are normal and they can’t work out an Incomplete).

Is it better to withdraw from a class or fail the class in college?

According to Croskey, it is usually better to withdraw from a class. Exceptions may result for students with many withdrawals already if they can create a productive plan to retake the course after failing.

How much does a withdrawal affect your GPA?

A withdrawal doesn’t affect the GPA.

Can dropping or withdrawing from a class affect your financial aid?

Yes. Students must meet with a financial aid adviser (in addition to their professor and academic adviser) before dropping or withdrawing from a class if they’re on financial aid. They must continue to meet the minimum number of credits and they should understand that, while they may get money back if they drop early enough, they will not get a refund from a class from which they withdraw.

Do dropped or withdrawn classes show up on your transcript?

Dropped classes do not, withdrawn classes do. Students should note that potential grad programs or employers may see too many withdrawals as a lack of commitment or a pattern of quitting too early.

How many classes can you drop in college?

“Unlimited drops are allowed,” Croskey says. They aren’t tracked because they don’t show up on transcripts and don’t affect your GPA.

What should I do if I need to drop a class that’s required for my major or for graduation?

“Speak with your adviser or department chair,” Croskey says. “It may impact your timeline to graduate. There may be another course that can be taken instead, but that is not the usual case.”

How to Keep Your Grades Up Next Semester

Students should understand that while dropping, withdrawing, taking an incomplete or failing a class is far from ideal, it’s also not the end of their college career. There are many actions that students can take to put themselves in a good position for greater success over their remaining semesters. Read below for some tips to gaining control over one’s academic achievements.

Time management is critical to finding success in all aspects of life. Whether addressing your personal, professional or academic life, one must know how to effectively organize and prioritize their time. Here are time management tips for students from the Harris School of Business.