What to Say When You Have to Retake a Class

Posted by on Jul 10, 2012 in Communicating with Professors, General, General College Success/Responses to Other College Entities | 19 comments

The do-over. We're in this race together, right? #unbroken

(I wasn’t expecting to write more in the #unbroken series quite so soon, but this post seems appropriate as we move ever closer to August when many students start school. I know some students will be revisiting classes that they’ve started once before. This post is for you.)

You walk into your American Literature class.

You want to get excited about it. You enjoy writing. Or maybe you don’t, but you’re at least glad that it’s a new term.

But for every mental rah-rah you’ve attempted, there’s just no getting around this fact: You aren’t there because you want to be. You’re there because you have to be.

You took this class before.

Correction: You started this class before and for one reason or another, you didn’t finish it.

(And you even worry that another student might recognize you and say, “Don’t tell me you don’t remember me because I sure as heckfire remember you.” Come on… Ned Ryerson? Groundhog Day?).

Now, you’re back. And with or without your heart in it, you have to finish.

The do-over doesn’t feel good. Practically speaking, you may have had to pay for this class yourself because financial aid wouldn’t cover the re-take, or there may have been other ramifications, like the poor grade on your transcript.

Not only have I been there when I was in school, but I can also relate personally. I recently wrote about some physical struggles that are preventing me from continuing my fitness/health goals of half-marathons. My doctor told me that all I can do right now are 5ks. (Not that there is anything wrong with 5ks, but once I started longer races, I said I “wouldn’t get out of bed for a 5k” because I wanted to keep challenging myself).

Don’t get me wrong… I’m not comparing my loss of half-marathons to your sitting in a class for an entire term or the issues associated with that. I’m only referring to the challenge of the mindset… But, now, not only am I going to get out of bed for the IronGirl 5k this September, but I am going to honor, covet, and respect that 5k.

And I’m going to try not to think about the epic failure that precedes it: My horrible-awful Mother’s Day half-marathon.

In that race (my doctor warned me not to do it; I didn’t listen), which I have spoken of little because I would start to cry recounting it, a very elderly man and someone on crutches came in before I did (Yep, go ahead and laugh with me because I’m starting to also).

I just wasn’t well. Regardless, it felt like a failure. And maybe you feel like you just faced some of the same when you last experienced the class that you’re back.

So let’s honor your do-over of your class, celebrate that you’re going to crush it in a good way this time, and talk about how to survive and thrive (cheesy, but let’s go with it, okay?):

-First, if you are taking the same professor, this hopefully means you feel comfortable with that person. Go re-introduce yourself in the prof’s office or on the first day. Say, “Hello, I’m Ellen (your name, of course). I took this class back in ________ and I am back to retake it.” (Yes, I’ll get to what to say next in a second… you’re not going to stand there, I promise).

-If you are not taking the same professor, it does not hurt to let the prof know, “I have taken this class before and am retaking it. My goal is to complete it successfully this time.” You can certainly discuss why you did not finish the first time around (see below), particularly in order to change the outcome this time. Do not say, “I did not finish because the last professor suuuuucked!” I probably didn’t need to tell you that, but even if that was the case, leave it alone.

-If your circumstances for leaving had to do with the content, do not let history repeat itself! Tell the professor, “I really struggled with _______________ and I know I need to do things differently now. I would like to set up a schedule/establish some tutoring/find out what I need to do.”

-If you have the same professor and you stayed with the class a reasonable period of time before, say, “Is it possible for me to salvage any ‘good’ grades I had the first time or resubmit any of the same material?” Possibly, you can. Or, maybe you can re-use some of the same work, refine it, and achieve even stronger grades. Of course, a prof may have changed assignments, too, but this is a good time to find out.

-The biggest goal with your class re-take is not to let whatever happened before happen again, especially if you had a curriculum issue. Here is your opportunity to honor and respect your do-over. You must stay in close contact with your prof. Keep tabs on your grades, and, as I always say: ask for early review as much as possible. Any time you are concerned, remind yourself and your prof, “I don’t want to end up dropping or failing again. I am willing to do whatever I need to do.”

The commitment and the proactiveness always has to be yours.

One thing that I think many students forget about retaking a class is that you walk in ahead of the game. You know what to expect. Other students don’t. Hold on to that because it will give you confidence as you move forward.

For me, I’m working toward September, to go for a speedier 5k and not coming in dead last.

But let’s both focus on finishing, and finishing strong.



  1. One thing I didn’t think about, until it happened, was that retaking a class can be easier than the first go through.Often the intro courses are taught by different professors at different times. I took a class on ethics with a teacher that was not student friendly. We spoke to TA’s and our professor was rarely around for questions. I decided to retake the class when it was offered by another professor with different texts. Turned a D to an A and had a lot more fun.

    • Susan,
      I agree with you on that one. If financial aid isn’t an issue and the student can handle retaking the class, then there are times that it’s a positive. The situation you mention would definitely fall under one of those times! And the grade outcome absolutely supports it, too! I have seen the reverse situation, as well, where students like the TA better than the prof :-) .


  2. Man, I looked all over the Say This Not That book, and I couldn’t find “the last professor suuuuuuucked”. Bummer, that was such an easy excuse.

    Great instruction as always, Ellen.

    • Brian,

      That’s going into MORE Say This, NOT That to Your Professor :-) .

      Thank you!

  3. I will be going through this in a few weeks, I really appreciate the guidance, the motivation, and relating your own experience. Super helpful, thank you!!!

  4. I have failed 4 courses in uni, not sure how to tell my parents or if i should tell em, im scared

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