If you find yourself in over your head in a course, there are ways to deal with the situation. First, always pay attention to the college calendar deadline for dropping a class. If it’s already past, at that point you’ll have to do exceedingly well on whatever assignments are still coming due or else deal with a grade that may not be desirable. You don’t want to be caught making this decision when you are clearly tanking and then you find that it’s too late to drop. Dropping a class should be the last option you take. Usually the last day to drop is several weeks before the end of a term. Schools do not allow students to take a course, stack up quiz and paper scores, and then decide at the last minute to drop.
Alternatively, you may be able to negotiate an incomplete with the instructor if you have good reason for your problems, such as illness—then a final paper or project would be deferred for a specific time period. This is done only at the professor’s discretion, and if you fail to get the work done by the date agreed upon you can fail the class. It’s important to be aware that at the beginning of a term there is usually a time (maybe two weeks) when you can drop and add—change courses without penalty. You can see if there is good chemistry between you and your professors or whether a class interests you or is the right level.
Another strategy to employ is taking courses pass/fail. Many schools allow you to exercise this option in a limited number of courses over your college career. You do all the work but do not risk a low grade. This can be useful if you want to take a class that seems interesting but perhaps challenging, and you do not want to jeopardize your GPA. You may also do this if you know you can pass, but will not do it with a grade much beyond a C. If pass/fail is an option on your campus, there are usually specific procedures to follow and time frames for declaring this. Check your catalogue. It is not meant for the physics or organic chemistry class you must take as a pre-med, for example. Medical schools consider it a weasel strategy and frown on it. Indeed too many pass/fails on a transcript can signal fear or laziness to a grad school or employer. But if you’re a physics major with a great average and you want to take that fascinating Russian lit class from a famous professor, you might want to do it pass/fail. It is a choice to enhance your enjoyment and not to boost (or harm) your GPA.
As the term progresses you may realize that you have made a mistake, or the mix of classes is overwhelming and you need to let one go, or your job hours change. When you decide that you do need to drop a class, you must formally withdraw. This means seeing your adviser or the registrar. Do not stop attending without formally letting the professors, your adviser, or a dean know. In fact, before you make the decision, discuss it with any or all of them to see what your options are. Again we remind you, following the deadlines in the school’s academic calendar is crucial in making such decisions. If you withdraw by disappearing, an F may appear on your record. You are also likely held accountable for the course tuition bill, even if the professor has not seen you all term. An F affects your GPA and perhaps your financial aid, and the bill disrupts the careful budgeting you’ve done to continue your education. Disappearing from a course can cause you many problems.
Professors, especially in large classes, will just believe you did not do the work. They do not know if you are gone for good for a legitimate reason or if you plan to show up for the final to get a grade (some students do try this, and faculty do frown on it). Obviously, where class participation influences a grade, not appearing will count against you. When you formally withdraw after the semester’s first week or so, usually a W appears on your transcript. It is a neutral designation and only becomes significant if you develop a pattern of Ws or if you cannot offer a reasonable explanation. Think like the person looking at a transcript: Do several Ws signal someone who runs from tough situations?
It is best, however, to hang in there. Talk to your professor about what is hard for you. Seek out tutoring if it is available (it will be) or create study groups with those who seem on more solid ground.
The one exception, when you may be able to withdraw without penalty from one or more classes well into a semester, is a verifiable personal crisis—a death in the family, your own illness. Schools have the right to ask for doctor’s notes or death certificates. When I was a dean with the authority to get deadline extensions or drop students from classes, stressful moments for students might lead them to fabricate grandparent deaths. At some point I might have to start adding up the number of dead grandmothers and ask for proof. Talk honestly to school officials as soon as possible so that you can take the appropriate actions and get the support you need if you have to withdraw from any courses. This approach will make your school life much easier.
From Chapter 4 of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide by Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD
Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, has held positions at Hunter College, Princeton University, New York University, and Metropolitan College of New York. During her 22 year career as a dean and vice president of student affairs she has enhanced the academic experiences of and outcomes for generations of students.
Cantarella Consulting works with colleges and organizations on issues of higher education pipelines, access, diversity, and student success. Current consulting projects and clients include the Hunter College Black Male Initiative, Kingsborough Community College, The One Club, and Saint Augustine’s College. The firm has also done work for several UNCF colleges.
Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Consultant and Author, I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide. See Chapter 4 of I CAN Finish College for more detail on this topic.
For more on Marcia Cantarella see CollegeCountdown.com
More articles by Marcia Cantarella from her book I Can Finish College