It’s every student’s worst nightmare: you took the past month’s reading as more of a suggestion, the final review sheet disappeared into a jumbled pile of study abroad brochures, and now the big bad F-word is staring you down. Failing a class can be one of the hardest setbacks to bounce back from. That being said, as much as it seems like the sky is about to fall down alongside your GPA, there are ways to turn around a bad situation and make a failing grade a springboard for the future. Before you donate all your worldly possessions to Goodwill and move to grandma’s spare basement studio, consider using it as an advantage.
What happens if you fail a class?
Once a failing grade finally goes to the registrar, the immediate effect will be a lowering of GPA. “If you get an F factored into your GPA, it’s zero credits… It could or could not affect your academic standing. There are other factors there, so it wouldn’t automatically put you on academic probation, but it could. It depends on the class, on how many credits you were taking and on what your other grades were,” said Assistant Dean at Columbia’s Berick Center for Student Advising Erica Siegel. If the class was required to graduate or complete a major, the student will most likely have to retake it, or take another class that fulfills the same requirement. Sometimes, colleges have a GPA requirement for financial aid, so be sure to check with the financial aid office that your GPA still falls above the threshold. The good news is that beyond these factors, one failed class is a totally fixable situation. The impact on life going forward is usually negligible, both in college and life afterward.
Read on for five tips on how to bounce back after failing a class.
1. Your Professor Isn’t Your Arch-Nemesis
After the initial shock of that last grade washes over, it’s natural to feel like retreating into the fortified shelter of home and wallowing in existential despair. Resist the urge! In many cases, professors will offer valuable advice about how to improve, should you choose to retake the class. Sometimes, there are even ways to boost that final dreaded score through extra credit or correcting previous assignments. “This also relates back to why it’s such a good practice to go to office hours. Once you develop that genuine student to teacher relationship and they understand your drive and your passion to do well, they can then situate this one failure as a one-time thing and not something that’s a pattern,” said Associate Dean of Beyond Barnard, Barnard College’s Career Counseling Center, Nikki Youngblood Giles. Just remember: the chance that your professor is a Disney villain rubbing their hands with glee every time you fail an assignment is slim. Asking for help lets your professor know that you’re invested and want to improve, so use that to your advantage.
2. Work Those Free Resources
It may feel like your college career is in shambles and you might as well just drop out to live the rest of your days alone in a yurt in the Gobi Desert with a horde of camels. While camels are great and all, they can’t offer constructive feedback on your actions. Look into what academic and advisory resources your college offers. “Talk with an academic advisor, the deans. Ask about resources that might be available to help,” said Barnard College’s Sophomore Class Dean and Transfer Advising Dean Christina Kuan Tsu. “Many schools will have help rooms or tutoring that’s free for students, and certainly going back to the source— the faculty member or TA’s. Office hours are often times under-utilized.” Most academic advisors have probably already dealt with similar situations, so they’ll have experience with how to proceed. Ask questions about how much this will matter to your specific major, what you can do to improve your GPA, and the other options available like tutoring, online classes, or extra programs. It’s always better to know your options going forward than to hide from one mistake.
3. Do Some Academic Soul Searching
You don’t need to be sitting on Freud’s sofa to think about what caused you to get this grade. Oftentimes, failing a class is a gentle nudge (or maybe a hard thwack in the face) that a change is in order. This could mean realizing that dance class asking for four hours of rehearsal time every day just isn’t feasible. On the opposite end, it could also signal that your frat’s raucous Saturday afternoon darty tradition isn’t doing you any favors either. Remember to put that one bad grade in context. When it seems like a failing grade came right out of left field, it might also be a sign that you’re forcing yourself into a path of study that’s just not for you. “To my mind, [an F is] a sign that if you don’t like calculus, the econ major is not for you. It’s not gonna get easier. That F can be instructive,” said Asst. Dean Siegel. In this case, it’s probably a good idea to set that class to rest instead of retaking it and focus on a change of study.
4. Never Fear, Counseling for Career is Here
At this point, in your mind the career options have drastically narrowed down to professional burger flipper or golf cart valet. Don’t despair; go to career counseling. Many employers won’t even look at college grades. There’s a reason the average CEO’s college GPA is 2.9. And don’t fret, employers aren’t going to be flipping through old transcripts either. “When I look back, I don’t think there was ever a conversation in a work setting where someone asked ‘What was your GPA? What grade did you get in that biology, or chemistry, or art history course?’” said Dean Kuan Tsu. In fact, people skills are much more important for nailing that interview. “A potential employer is really evaluating you on whether they’d like to work with this person someday. It’s really not about whatever knowledge base you’re bringing, because you’re gonna learn whatever you need to learn on the job,” said Dean Kuan Tsu. So take a chill pill, and remember that if Brad Pitt could drop out two weeks before graduation, you can survive a failed course.
5. The Doctor Prescribes One Chill Pill to be Taken Orally Daily
Think about what seemed like the end of the world just five years ago: your plans to go drifting in the parking lot behind the Albertson’s on Thursday night got canceled because you were grounded? Persuading mom not to make you wear Grandma’s spider web-covered family heirloom dress to prom? Whatever it was, it probably seems like an insignificant trifle now. That’s how failing this class will look with five years of distance between you. “This particular grade…what is it in the grand scheme of things? Twenty years from now, are you going to remember this one grade?” said Columbia University senior, Christopher Smith. It may look like the end of the world now, but with every day that passes, your perspective will change.
What resources do most campuses offer to help students who are struggling with grades?
“There’s tutoring, and this office and probably others on other campuses offer free tutoring in the foundational classes offered. There are office hours, and TA’s. Usually an F doesn’t come out of nowhere… If it is a failed midterm, and the student is really not getting a handle on the material, then that student shouldn’t be shy about talking to the professor and seeing what happened and taking a look at that test. Professors and TA’s are a resource. Some students are reticent to actually go and consult them. Some of them are friendlier and cuddlier than others, but that’s what they’re there for.
Disability Services is a great resource if there’s some underlying issue, if a student needs extended time on a test. DS can’t make diagnoses, but they can provide accommodations once the student has medical documentation for that. If it’s an issue of wellness, then counseling and psychological services is wonderful. There are tons of support groups for students. A student who’s connected and tapped in can do a lot to avoid getting an F. The main thing is reaching out, starting with an advisor.” – Dean Siegel, Columbia University
How much will an F affect graduate school admissions?
“One thing about grad school admissions is it’s really holistic. They take more than just your transcript, they take an abundance of multiple pieces of an application, your statement of purpose, your letters of recommendation, your test scores. All of these come together to form a picture of who you are… An added bonus is many graduate or professional schools have an area [on the application] where you can add an addendum… So you can add an explanation, or something you wanted to clarify more about, and I think that’s a great way to say how you learned from that bad grade, and how you learned from that experience, and how this has taught you how to approach things differently, or you see it at a challenge you’ve recovered from. I think that’s a sign of growth that grad schools like to see in individuals.” – Dean Youngblood Giles, Barnard College
How can students avoid failing a class they’re not doing well in?
“Hopefully, the student has a sense before they get to that point. If a student doesn’t do well on the first exam, they should go in and meet with the professor and try to determine what it was about the exam and the student’s preparation before going in that might have not worked out well. It’s learning from that first experience. Students who do that will often improve the next time because they learn that they didn’t prepare enough in a certain way. That conversation could be very helpful.” – Dean Kuan Tsu, Barnard College