“I am failing. Is it too late to get an Incomplete? Should I retake the course?”

Posted by on May 17, 2013 in Communicating with Professors, General, Interpersonal Communication | 42 comments

Failing a class? Should you go for an ‘Incomplete’ or will you hit ‘Restart’ and try again?

(Aaaaaaand… student write-in questions are back! With many terms winding down, I am receiving letters that include various levels of frustration and failure. You’ll see themes of them over the next several posts. Hopefully, the discussions will be helpful to anyone facing a similar issue.)

Hello Ellen,

Thank you so much for doing what you do. I wish I had known all these lessons as a student before I put myself in this situation.

I think I’m failing a class. I e-mailed my instructor about possibly taking an Incomplete, but I haven’t received a response.

I really have no excuse about my situation. I stopped going to class due to anxiety, which resulted in missing more classes. I can’t withdraw from the course, so without the Incomplete, I have to face failure.

Do you think it is better to fail the class and repeat it the following semester?




Thank you so much for your kind words. Let me see if I can help, based on my experiences with Incomplete grades.

I hope your professor e-mails you back so you can hash out this situation, or you can talk to the prof in class before your term ends. Here is my advice in the meanwhile:

I would be very honest with your professor since it sounds like you know exactly what led to this outcome. Honesty is the only way that you’ll have a shot at resolution.

Say, “I stopped coming to class due to anxiety and the problem kept building. Here is what I’ve done that I feel went well (show examples of any successes you had). I am wondering if failure is the only option, or if there is any way that I can take an Incomplete for the course?”

You’ll also need to say, “I have a concrete plan so this doesn’t happen again.” Then lay out your concrete plan. Of course, if you are very close to the end of your term, then there won’t be time to implement a big plan and your professor will know that.

Here is my history with an Incomplete:
-Every school’s policy differs. At my last college, you could only receive an “I” for a non-academic matter and you had to finish a certain percentage of the course successfully. At that school, an “I” would only apply to a student with a medical or life emergency that prevented continuation of the course.
-Other colleges are far more liberal with their Incomplete policies; the justification is completely left to the professor. Know which way your college goes before making the request.
-When you get your Incomplete contract, there is usually a list of what you still have left to do and a date you need to finish. At my current college, students have one year to turn around an Incomplete. Otherwise, the grade reverts to what it would have been without the Incomplete.
-Historically (finishing my 14th year of teaching), less than 1% of the students I’ve worked with actually finish an Incomplete. They end up retaking the whole course because the lingering work becomes an afterthought.

If you feel that you have enough assignments that will “count” and you can truly salvage your grade, try for the “I” (based on your school’s policy, of course!).

If you’d be better served by a fresh start, then retaking the course is the right thing to do.

I would talk to this prof, even if you don’t ask for the Incomplete, particularly if he/she would be your professor next time. You’ll want to discuss your plan of attack for another go-around.

If you will not take a course with this professor again, by all means, talk to the new prof early. Say,“I took this course once before and failed it. Here is where I went wrong, but I have a solid plan to do things differently this time (then mention those things). Is there any advice you can offer for someone retaking this course?”

There is no shame in starting over and there can be many benefits to having a feel for the material walking in. A completely clean slate does give you that benefit.

One thing that I want to ensure is that you get some support for the anxiety you’ve been experiencing. Please talk to your adviser and someone in Counseling Services, at the very least. There are mechanisms on campus to help you deal with anxiety so it doesn’t hinder your academics. If your class is the source of the nervousness, they can help with that, too.

I wish you luck and would love to hear the outcome!



  1. I failed a philosophy course, might have already told this story. The first time around we only looked at one text. It felt like a grad school course, very specific and very tough analytic questions.

    Got a D.

    I re-took the course with a new professor. This time the syllabus was full of many different perspectives on the topics. It was a general overview. Loved it and got an A. Used to have some fun debates with the teacher’s assistant and it was a lot of fun to come to class.

    Love the advice in this post Ellen! A great help for students struggling with this problem.

    • Hi, Susan,

      I haven’t heard this story! Thank you for sharing it and bravo for making that decision. I wish I would have taken your lead with an Environmental Science course that had a horrible format. Instead, I suffered with a lower grade and walked away. I didn’t think I could stomach the subject again!

      Thank you so much for writing. I have another post coming quickly on another Incomplete issue.


      • Hello,

        I am a graduate student in Environmental Chemistry. But, I have a really weak Chemistry background. I got a really low grade on the first exam for my Chemistry class. So, even I try super hard for the rest of the semester, I would finish the course with C.

        I have asked the professor for an Incomplete. But, he suggested me to withdraw instead. I have been really hesitant about if I should drop the course. If I withdraw, I will be taking the course next year, since it’s offered once a year, and graduate after that. Because, I am going to start a project with my advisor to conduct chemical analysis on environmental samples, I am afraid that he might take me as a failure and become doubtful to work with me in the future. By future, I mean, I want to get my PhD at my current department.

        Please give me some insights.

        Thank you.

        • Sarah, I am going back through these comments. I e-mailed you with the e-mail that was on file. I hope you received it! Ellen

          • It’s a real plsaeure to find someone who can think like that

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  2. Ellen,
    I enjoy reading your blog. Thanks for taking the time to entertain my question.

    I am a masters of computer science major at a university. This is my second semester, and I have 2 more semesters to go. I am about to drop one of my CS classes. From what I hear on camps the professor is the only professor who teaches the course I am now taking and many people have problems understanding him and understanding his homework and tests. But there’s almost no way of getting around taking him because he is the only professor teaching the course and I have to take the class.

    I already spoke to my financial aid counselor and she said if I drop the class then financial aid won’t pay for anymore of my classes until I make up the 3 credit course which means I will have to pay for the next course out of pocket. We are about a month into the semester and the first homework grade I received was 42/100 and the second was 52/100 and the third I couldn’t do. I went to office hours to get help from the instructor. He explained to me how to do the problems but I still could not do them right.

    I study day and night literally. I don’t sleep. I have been taking energy drinks so I can stay up and study. Sometimes I don’t sleep for days because I want to study. I also quit my job to have more time to study. My boss said i can come back anytime. but I still failed the homework. I am already burnt out. Even though we haven’t even taken any tests or midterm I feel I should drop the class and get a grade if W before its too late.

    Any advice?

  3. Hi,
    I’m a freshman in college and will soon be in spring quarter. I’ve always wanted to major in Bioengineering, I can’t really see myself in any other major. I failed my general chemistry class and have tried getting into that class again but it’s full. I have only up until end of Sophomore year to meet my prerequisites to get into the BioE major. I got extremely LOW grades on my chem exams and I also still haven’t taken math courses yet. I have to be at a certain math level/class by the end of Sophomore year.

    I feel so dumb and unworthy of obtaining an education and going to college. I’m starting to find it crazy that someone like me would want to major in Bioengineering if i can’t even pass a GENERAL chem class. I’m too embarrassed to have a talk with my advisor because I’m doing so poorly.

    My GPA is now like a 2.5. I’m also unfortunately a huge procrastinator but I also don’t know how to study for anything; I will do practice problems in my textbook but the questions on the test are set differently!

    I just feel like I am running out of time and will not become a bioengineer or anything else for that matter. I process concepts much more slowly than other students. And it’s only going to get harder from here and I’m just so scared and anxious!

    I can’t sleep at night because I stay up thinking about how hard everything is. I feel like I’m not going to get in a BioE major, there are so many other smart students, why would they choose me? I’m between an average- below average student, and i know there will be geniuses applying to that major.

    • Hi Myra,
      I’d love to give you some advice ( which you can feel free to take or or leave

  4. Helllo i am an eigh grader ànd i just shifted to a new school..and i hate this school..its a goverment school my exams r next week and my work is a incomplete i dont want to attend my school wat should i do

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  6. Hi , I’m currently a senior in college and have been slacking for the past year. I’m really close to graduating but I’m not motivated. I’m about to fail a major course twice. First time being lazy and second not performing well in it. I know I can do well but I haven’t put the effort to it. I have to get a c if I don’t I have to retake it anyways. Should I fail on purpose and try for an A next semester?

    • What did you end up doing. I’m literally in your boat right now

  7. Not one of the other postings I’ve come across are like this one. You are able to tell much work went into this.

  8. Hi,
    I’m an undergraduate and failed my 1st 2 classes due to my son being in the hospital. I thought I would be able to get caught up but I just kept getting more anxious and put myself in a bigger hole. My school told me that one of the classes was mandatory to pass and if I didn’t pass it this time I would kicked out. I took it again with every intention to pass but then caught a cold from my son and ended up with the flu and pneumonia. I was so sick I had no energy to even think. By the time I got better the class was almost over. I tried to make it up but just got anxious again and just had time to write my final paper. Can I give them refund money from my student loans to take that class over? Should I mention my anxiety? I really don’t want to get out.

    • Tara, I e-mailed you on this some time ago with the e-mail that was listed on the post. Hope you received that! Ellen

  9. I wrote this letter to a community college after I talked to a Dean who said he would change my grades on my record but has since retired.

    December 18, 2015

    Assistant Dean XXXXXXX
    SUNY XXXXXX Community College

    Dear Dean XXXXXXX:

    I spoke with you on December 17, 2015 regarding a problem I had getting some insufficient grades removed from my academic record. You advised me to write this letter which will then be forwarded to the dean who would decide the outcome.

    I am a student who served in the military and was retired as a disabled combat veteran. I am currently taking advantage of a program called veterans administration vocational rehabilitation which pays for my schooling so I will have the opportunity to pursue a second career. I have been trying my hardest to get excellent grades since enrolling in Suny XXXXX C.C. and do not take my education lightly. When I tell a fellow student/teacher I will do something, I will always do as I say. My word means everything to me. This brings us to the following situation.

    I started taking classes part-time in the summer of 2013, and started full-time in the fall of 2013 and have been matriculated as a full time student ever since. During the spring 2014 semester I was happily enrolled in my classes and doing quite well. I was so proud that I was attending Suny XXXXXX full-time!

    In the beginning of the spring 2014 semester I found out my brother, who lived in Florida at the time, was not doing well financially and was about to be homeless, so I invited him to come to NY to live with me so he would have a stable place to live. My brother moved in with me towards the end of January 2014. I was unaware how hopeless he truly was when he tried to commit suicide during the middle of February. Fortunately he was unsuccessful. On the morning of March 12, 2014, Wednesday, I left for school early in the morning since I had an early class. At the time I thought it odd that he was still asleep as he usually awoke earlier than I. I thought nothing of it at the time and proceeded to my classes for the day. When I arrived home that afternoon at 2:30 pm I saw that he was still sleeping so I knocked on his door with no response. I then opened the door only to find him lying in his bed deceased. I was devastated and called 911, but unfortunately it was too late. I knew in my heart when I called 911 that it was too late because he was already stiff, discolored, and his lungs were filled with fluid. I lost friends during my time in the service, as well as a family member during September 11 2001 but this hit me like a ton of bricks.

    After my brother’s death I was devastated and suffered from PTSD. The 4 weeks after his death I still can’t even remember to this day. I blamed myself for a very long time because he used my medication to end his life. Even writing this letter today has me in tears. I thought for a long time if I had checked on him before going to school that morning that maybe he would still be with us today.

    The spring 2014 semester I was enrolled in 4 classes, 2 online and 2 physically. I found that driving to school I physically could not get out of my car to go to class and spent the time in my car. I sent an email to all my professors at the time and they sent their condolences. After many months of counseling I found my sanity and was finally able to move on without him.

    Before registering for each semester I have to see my vocational rehabilitation counselor so he can sign off on the classes I plan to take and he then gives me a voucher so the school will bill the veterans administration. When I was at my appointment for the Fall 2015 semester I had to explain to him why I failed all my classes except one, which I earned a C-. He advised me to talk to the school to see if I could get the grades dropped on the grounds of extenuating circumstances that were out of my control. I talked to my professor and advisor, XXXXXXXXX, and he sent me to talk to Dean XXXXXXXX. I went straight to his office and he told me he would take care of the classes by sending a letter to each professor stating my case. During my visit with Dean XXXXXXXX he contacted XXXXXXXX and asked him about the classes. XXXXXXXX told him it would not be a problem. Leaving his office I felt a huge weight released from me and I felt that I had a chance to really apply myself in future classes and the one semester would not affect my GPA standing. I was wrong.

    Every couple of weeks I would logon to the portal to check if the failing grades were still there, to my surprise they were never changed. I did not know how long the process took so I patiently waited for any word, but that never happened. I contacted XXXXXXXX when I was registering for the Fall of 2015 and mentioned to him that my failing grades were still listed on my transcript. He informed me that both Deans who had a role in getting the grades off my record had since retired. XXXXXXXX then referred me to yourself and told me you were the person to contact.

    When I visited you in your office you told me that too much time may have passed to do anything about the problem now. I am planning on transferring to RPI in Troy, NY and with the failing grades on my record I currently have a 3.14 GPA, without the grades I would have a 3.79 GPA. I do not think I am asking for much, just because I fell through the cracks I do not believe it was my fault. I am just asking for Suny XXXXXX to keep its word, which means everything to me. I hope that this letter is not in vain and you can possibly do something for me. You asked me to go back and see if I had any of the emails that I had sent out to my professors, unfortunately I looked and I do not. I do not have any evidence other than talking to professor XXXX, and my counselor but I hope that may be enough. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

    Very Truly Yours,

    I am wondering if the letter does not work if there are any other avenues I can consider trying? Thank you for your time.


  10. On the second to last paragraph I was registering for the Spring of 2016

  11. None of the other posts I’ve come across are like this one. You can tell alot of work went into this.

    • Thank you Maudie7854, I have been dealing with this for some time. Hopefully soon it will be resolved. Best of luck.

  12. I just wanted to publically thank the Chatty Professor for all she has done for me. I wrote the letter one day and received a response the second day. She has given me more than enough recommendations in case this letter does not do its job. I am so fortunate that I found this blog, otherwise I would still be stressing out about the possible outcome. Thank you again for all the hard work you put into your response!

  13. Hi!

    I’m in desperate need of advice. I’m usually a dedicated student, but this semester I completely messed up all my classes because of some serious issues back home. Long story short, at the beginning of the semester my little brother was diagnosed with leukemia. They caught it early enough and he’s getting chemo, so the outlook is good. But I didn’t deal with it at all well, especially because I was so far away (I’m an international student from the UK). Instead of talking to anyone at school about it, I kind of locked myself in my room and hardly left.

    But what woke me up was my friends posts about graduation and I guess it sunk in that I have to graduate this semester too! I’m freaking out, classes end on April 22nd and then its finals. I have really no time at all to pull myself together and sort this mess out. What do I do? I’m thinking to go and talk to all my professor’s and beg, but will it sound like excuses? I wish I’d thought of my future sooner and I’m so angry with myself. Plus I don’t want to disappoint my parents at such a difficult time. And we wouldn’t be able to afford me staying another semester to fix this. Any suggestions? I need some courage and guidance to walk into those offices and know what to say.

    Thank you for your great blog and advice.

  14. Hi there, is school getting a little tough to handle, did you slip and want to get back on track? do you need to change that F into an A, then contact ryan brown today? i have absolutely no school worries since i discovered him. he helps me change my grades everytime. youshould contact him, he’s very good and his prices are quite fair- hackforce89@gmail.com

    • Thank you very much for this. i just got my grades changed by Ryan. oh my God!!!!!

  15. Hello Ms.Bremen!
    I am a undergraduate at a community college. My first semester I only had 3 classes which I received 2 a’s and a b. The following semester my final grades were 3 b’s, 1 c, 1 d and 1 f. The grade that I am mainly concerned about right now is the f in psychology. I was not surprised with the grade that I received. I definitely knew that I was going to fail the class but it kind of hit me that the f would be on my transcript. I talked to my adviser and she said that it could be possible for me to retake the course and have my grade exchanged. I’m smart its just that I got caught up in my other subjects that I abandoned that course. I am a first time college student. I graduated high school in 2015. I know it’s common for some students to struggle a little bit but when it comes to my situation, I feel that now I am a failure. I have to remind myself that there will be some bumps in the road and I shouldn’t let that 1 bad grade define my future but it’s really getting to me. Sorry for the long rant, I just had to let that out. Here is my email jasmine.payton23@gmail.com. I would really appreciate if you could send me your thoughts and feed back.

  16. HI, I am a freshman in college and I want to drop out of a class(Psychology) because to be honest I’m not feeling it lol. I don’t understand I took 4/5 quizzes already and I got one 80 one 70 and 50′s on a exam I got 74 my average right now is a 52. I was taking it because I planned one being in pre-med and its necessary. I am planning to switch my major from indisciplinary(undeclared) to something that has to do with law and I wont need psychology. I am a bit confuse and very stressed out should I justwithdrwl ?
    Thank you

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  20. Dear Ms. Bremen,

    I have read your blog for a number of years and enjoyed it throughly. I have not felt compelled to write until now.
    I have not seen my situation appear and I am hoping you could assist me. I have learning disabilities that have made school very hard. It has been more than 15 years since I was last in college. I returned in the fall of 2015 in hopes of completing an associates degree and then transferring to a university to finish my undergraduate degree. I have completed almost all of my classes for my associates degree. I have 3 classes left. I always meet with each of my professors at the beginning of the semester and found tutors at my school to help me. The remaining classes are in math. I knew they would be the hardest for me and left them until the end. I took a placement test, but did not test into college algebra. I was placed in remedial algebra courses. I have passed two of them and had one more to complete before moving into college algebra this fall. The last remedial course was this summer. I had registered for a night class
    , but it didn’t work well with my schedule. Three weeks into the summer class, I asked if I could transfer to days. The chair of the math department told me to meet with a daytime professor and if they agreed to it, then he would approve of it. There was exactly one daytime class I could transfer to , and I met with the professor. I told her the subjects we had covered and that I had a test I needed to take that night before transferring to her class. I will call my daytime professor Mrs D. She told me transfers are never approved by the chair, but she would be happy to email him that we had met, and approved of me being in her class. The chair approved of my transfer that day. I sent an email to my night instructor to explain why I was changing to a day class even though I would see her that night. I think it’s important to explain in person if possible, but if not at least putting it in an email. Unfortunately, bad weather hit and school cancelled classes which meant I could not take my scheduled test. I met with Ms. D the next day and began her class. She was very surprised the transfer was approved. When we met that morning, I told her I could not take my test and provided her with my disability paperwork the school gives me each semester. It specifies my approved accommodations. She told me not to worry about my missed test grade because my final would take the place of it. I have never worked so hard in any of my other classes as I did this one. When I got to her class, I found out that none of my homework or the test I had taken in my previous class would count towards my grade. I was behind in my homework when I arrived and she gave me two days to complete those 200 problems in addition to the new 100 problems that she assigned each day. (The 200 assigned was nothing I had covered before). She repeatedly told our class she makes it as hard as possible because remedial math should not mean easy. When I tried to schedule meetings, she told me it was summer and she did not meet with students. I arrived earlier for class and asked questions, but she told me to stick with it and the material would come to me. My first quiz I scored 9% and knew I was in trouble. I did not understand the material and the tutors I had did not understand it either. My regular tutors aren’t at the school during the summer. They academic learning center suggested I look at khans academy. When I attempted again to meet with Mrs. D she told me I study wrong. (I always study several hours with breaks in between because my disabilities are so challenging). When I asked if she had any suggestions or recommendations, Mrs. D would say she didn’t know what to tell me or to stick with it and the knowledge of the material would come to me. It never did. The last day to withdraw was approaching and I asked her if I should withdraw from the class, because I had a 68 and I was not confident I would pass. The only reason I even had that grade was because I had done all of my homework and attended my classes every day. I had failed two quizzes and one test at this point. Ms. D told me she could not tell me what to do, but as long as I did my best I would be fine. I stuck it out and made a 70 on the next test. I was hopeful I might pass. The next two sections we were to cover, according to the syllabus were not discussed in class. I read my book and tried to work through examples. I tried to ask a question about one of the problems the next day in class. I felt nervous and stated while I am not good at math, I keep trying and asked my question. She told me in front of the entire class that if I said that again she would deduct 5 points from my grade daily and refused to answer my math question. daily. The next week, which was 1 week from final exams, she changed the weights of our grades and it dropped my grade to a 48%. She also assigned us 300 homework problems that were the due following Monday (the week of our final exam), that she did not cover in class. I failed almost all of the homework, but completed the assignments. When we showed up to class on Monday, to get our study guide, she told us that was the last day of class. If we did our study guide we would be able to pass the test. Three classmates and myself met that day to work out the problems. We worked for 5 and 1/2 hours on it together. When we went to class the next day hoping to get help for the ones not answered and to check our other answers. Mrs. D told us she would not give us the answers because this is how she prepares students. The next day was our final and she told us the time was unlimited. This made me very nervous because all final exams have limits. I went home and tried working through each problem until I could remember the steps required to solve them. The next day when I saw my final, I literally thought I would faint. It was 375 problems and looked nothing like the problems on the study guide. It took me 6 hours to complete it and I knew I had most likely failed it. My classmates were still working on their exam when I left. I waited and waited, but my grade never posted. The day of our final grades to be turned in came, but mine only showed the 48%. I emailed my professor, but she did not respond. I emailed the math chair asking for my final exam grade, but he did not respond either. So I registered for the fall semester to repeat the class. Do you know what I could have done differently in meeting with my professor? I am devastated that I did not pass, but more so that my community college will not respond to me. I really wanted to know my final grade. However, since I have three math classes left, I don’t want to label myself a problem student with the department. I have a lot of apprehension for the fall semester. Do you have any recommendations for me?

    Kindest Regards,

  21. I am a freshmen in my first semester of college, and I’ve really made a mess of things. I withdrew from my trigonometry class because I did very poorly on my first two tests (our entire grade was based on five tests) and my remaining classes are just about all failing grades. I had been sick for the past few days, but like an idiot I forgot about a chemistry exam and I did not email the professor or get a doctor’s note (I didn’t even leave my dorm room). I’m worried about how my family will respond to this news and if they’ll even give me the chance to redeem myself next semester. I have no good excuses, I slacked off and didn’t take it seriously until now.

  22. i just want to ask if there’s a posibility that i will fail my one major subject because i missed its quizes 1 time and this time around…and i feel bad because knowing the reality that i would take the subject next sem and it would be one of my majors again…and my family…what will i tell them….

    hoping you answer my worries,

  23. I am failing a class, but I have been active and going to professor office hours taking time and trying to do better. however, I was not able to pull my grade up. professor refuses to help me what should I do?

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  1. "My prof encouraged me to stay. I thought I should go. I failed. Now what?" - [...] week, I wrote about an “Incomplete” grade versus failure, based on a student question. Here is a slightly different ...
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