You Failed Your Class… Now What?

Posted by on Dec 13, 2011 in Communicating with Professors, General | 8 comments

Yes, a friend of mine just died.

Yes, the construction next door continues… starting at 7 a.m. this morning, in fact.

So, I’m thinking that you may be thinking, “The Chatty Professor is bringing me down! Just look at the title of this week’s post!”

And, indeed, while I’ve written about some challenges of late, I still have my practicality about me.

During a run a few days ago, I mentally replayed all of the “get ready for finals” tips I’d seen via blogs, articles, etc. over the past week or so.

Let’s just say more than I can effectively count.

And many of those tips are very useful.

But what few people talk about is what happens after the grades come in.

That’s right:  When students say to profs:

-”Is that really my final grade?”

-”But I can’t fail! I really needed a 3.5 in this class to transfer.”

-”I can’t have a 0.0 and still get financial aid!”

…when finals are already finished, and grades have been calculated.

Then you just might have to pick up the pieces of “I didn’t get the grade I wanted/needed. Oh, crap!”

What do you do then?

Let’s talk about it…

First thing’s first:  You have to meet with your professor, even if your inclination is to take the knife with which you carved your Thanksgiving turkey and scratch it alongside his/her car.

Ideally, your meeting with the prof should take place before official grades are posted. I don’t want to give you any false hope that the failing grade will change, but in case your discussion with the prof reveals some new opportunity, it is far easier for the prof to alter the grade before an official grade change form is required.

Where do most students go wrong in this “I failed” meeting? (Aside from the fact that barely any students actually take the time to have this meeting…): 

-They are angry and blame the professor for the failing grade:  “Your class was too hard! I could have done better if there was less work/more time/fewer tests.”
-They are frustrated and express disbelief that the failing grade is happening:  “I don’t deserve this and I wasn’t expecting to fail this class!”
-They suddenly wake up and take notice of their grades after not giving them a second thought all term:  “I thought I was doing better. I only missed a couple of assignments.”
-They beg (and possibly bribe) for a last-minute save to avoid the ominous fate of failure: “I have to do something… Extra credit. I’ll redo work. I’ll wash your car, mow your lawn… anything.”

But what should you say?

Before you say anything, calculate your grade yourself and make sure that your totals match the professor’s. If your calculations aren’t revealing a failing grade, then your first question is, “Can you show me how you arrived at this number of points? I see that I have a D, but you show that I’m failing.”

(Hey, a D may bust up your GPA, but you can still usually pull your credit out of the class. And GPA’s can be averaged up later, or you can retake the class).

Now let’s say you get confirmation that you did fail. You’ll want to determine the reason why before you continue the discussion–hopefully before you even walk into your professor’s door.

In my experience with hundreds and hundreds of students, failure takes some work, even if the “work” involves wrestling with the decision to do nothing. If you tried your absolute best and just didn’t cut the mustard (who cuts mustard, anyway? I actually Googled the origination of this phrase–give it a try. I found that the originator may have meant “mustard seed“, which is, indeed, hard to cut. But that just doesn’t quite have the right ring, does it? Hmm…), then you did do something.

What you likely didn’t do was see your professor enough for help or check your grades earlier to find out how your average was coming along. No judgment in that statement whatsoever, but being honest about the why is the quickest way to figure out how to change things for next time.

In this case, you would say to your prof, “I have failed this class. Based on my grades, it may appear that I didn’t even try, but I did. Where I went wrong is not asking for help when I really needed it and checking in with you to see what I could have done differently.” 

(If, in reality, you did very little work and the “F” is no surprise, the conversation is still worth having. Definitely own up and say, “My habits were not ideal this term. I made some mistakes and I’m going to pay for them now, but I’d like to do better next time.”)

You can add, “I realize there is probably nothing I can do at this point, but I wanted to meet with you anyway just to confirm my grade and ask for your suggestions as to my next steps.” 

What are those next steps?

Well, your prof could investigate how close you were to a passing grade and offer you some extra credit. But he/she may not do this, and is certainly not required to. You can ask, but really, it’s likely too late for that.

More than likely, your prof will discuss your retaking the class. Then, you’ll have to figure out if you can repeat the class (particularly if you used financial aid to pay for it, you will probably have to pay yourself on the second go-around), and if you want to stick with that prof when you do.

I have definitely had students either drop my course or fail it (the latter is a far, far fewer number) and then return a term or two later and they are actually ahead of the game. They know about the assignments, they know my expectations, they know what they have to do. Familiarity with a prof/class is one large benefit to retaking a class. Don’t discount it! Even if you switch to another prof in the department, you’ll still have a leg up on the subject matter.

Other things you can ask:

-”Would I be eligible for an Incomplete in this class?” At many colleges, an Incomplete is usually not available for an academic reason, but it’s worth checking into.
-”Is it too late to drop this class so my transcript shows a ‘W’, rather than a failing grade?” Again, probably not possible, but can’t hurt to ask.
-”Are you teaching this class again next term? What recommendations would you make so I have a better chance of passing?”

I know you will probably want to run off your campus and stay away for a while. But an “F” does not mean that you can’t or won’t reach your educational goals. Many great students have failed a class (myself, included… remember this post?) and went on to overcome it and excel. With the idea that you will return and thrive, I want to encourage you to have three other campus conversations before your next term starts:

Financial Aid Department: “I failed my class. How will this affect my financial aid?” Of course, you’ll need to see what financial ramification the “F” has and how that will affect your future aid. This also applies to any scholarships you’ve received. 

Counseling Services: (Typically free on campuses and especially important if a life or other crisis situation got in the way of you doing your best) “I failed my class because I was going through X. I would like some support to make sure that I do better next term.” Why not get as much help in place as possible? Then follow up with your appointments!  

Your Academic Adviser: “I failed my class. I was on track to graduate in (month/year). How does this affect my plan? Do you recommend changes to my upcoming class schedule?”

And, if you failed every class this term, ask your adviser: “What is the college’s policy on academic renewal?”

Academic renewal is a one-shot opportunity that many colleges offer to erase a term from your transcript. Different colleges have different rules about academic renewal:  Some colleges require you to wait for a period of time before making the request. Often, you wipe out the whole term; you can’t pick and choose a couple classes that you didn’t fail and ask to keep that credit.

Your Parents:  As a parent, myself, not intentionally putting this one last, but you probably will have to come clean to your parents. Will they flip out? Quite possibly, but if you own up to your mistakes quickly and have a ready plan for improvement, the blow might be lessened:  

“I failed my class this term. I want to be honest with you. I know you’ll be disappointed and I’m disappointed in myself. The only way I can do better is by changing the way I did things this term. So, here’s my plan: I saw my professor and he suggested ___________. I went to see my academic adviser and she suggested _________ (mention any other pre-emptive measures you’ve taken). I feel more confident about going into next term and am confident that with this support in place, I’ll be able to turn this around. 

Of course, don’t miss this opportunity to ask for any specific help that your parents could give you!

Wonderful student (and, yes, you’re still wonderful, even if failed a class!), I’m going to step out of the practical advice for a moment and get a little psychological/emotional on you:

Your “F” grade does not have to define you.

Failure is part of your journey right now, but you are not a failure.

Yes, it’s time to get really honest with yourself about why you failed the class. Too many students blame all sorts of external forces. By owning up to what went wrong and specifically what you did or didn’t do that contributed to the outcome, you can take steps to make positive changes for next time. If you truly believe that the failure was something done to you, then one of the conversations above will help you find a remedy.

For now, strategizing your next move and communicating with those on and off campus who have signed up to support you is your absolute best measure.

Be truthful, be humble, be open.

People are more inclined to help you when they see that you genuinely want to create change.

I’d love to say that this is the last time in your life that something won’t go the way you hoped. One of my favorite books is When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold S. Kushner. Full disclosure: It is somewhat more religious than I am (Kushner is a Rabbi whose own faith was challenged when he lost his son to a rare, terminal illness), but the core message resonates with me:

“Why did this happen to me?” is the wrong question to ask.

The right question is, “What will I do now that this has happened to me?” 

Digging deep to answer that question, dear student, is, in my opinion, the opposite of failure.

Students, have you failed a class? How did you overcome it? Colleagues from all parts of education and business, what is your advice for getting past a failing grade?


  1. Ellen, aloha. It is so important to ask the "right" question because any other gives an incorrect answer. Far too often, people ask what comes to mind rather than what they want to know or need to do. Until next time, aloha. Janet

  2. Hi, Janet,

    I totally agree with you. For students, asking the right question means looking at the truth and taking responsibility. Actually, I guess that's what we all have to do to ask the right question and move forward :-) .

    I appreciate you!

  3. Ellen, excellent advice! I know all too well the humbling experience of having to go to a professor to ask for help. Especially for students who typically do well, if they struggle in a certain class and end up failing, it is much easier to defensively blame it on the professor or stress in their lives. It's hard to come to terms with failure. But I love the sugesstion of going to the professor and asking his or her advice on which steps to take next.

  4. Oh, Doug… seriously. I wish, wish, wish more students would actually close the loop and have the conversation! I know it's embarrassing and difficult. We've all been there on various levels (I am thinking of Weight Watchers weigh-in's on weeks that I know didn't go so well ;-) .

    But there is so much to be gained from just owning up to whatever happened and dealing with it.

    I'm always so glad to hear from you :-) .

  5. Hi, I'm a sophomore just getting grades in for the semester…fall of my freshman year, I "failed" a class…passed, but with a D and didn't get credit for it because it was a requirement for my major. I also did fairly badly in other classes that semester, I'm still trying to recuperate from the huge first hit to my GPA and I'm still struggling with classes. Do you have any suggestions for bringing your GPA up to par when you can't seem to find your feet at the college level?

  6. Hi, Sam,

    I'm so glad that you wrote! You are totally NOT alone in your situation. Many students find themselves struggling through the first year or so of college.

    I would like to answer your question in a longer post and even correspond with you via e-mail. I think you could help a lot of others who are in the same situation.

    Feel free to answer the questions I'm asking via e-mail:

    First of all, I'm wondering what measures you've taken already: Have you gone to see a prof or two that you trust and ask them what their recommendations are about what could have gone better in their classes?

    Second question: Is there a specific component of your classes that you're finding to be a challenge? For example, test-taking? Writing research papers? Dealing with sources? Each of these issues can be helped separately with various resources on campus, which is why I'm asking.

    Third question: It sounds like your first term had some challenges. Will you have to retake all of your classes? Or just the one with the "D" because it pertains to your major? Does your college allow academic renewal so you can clear out that term?

    Fourth question: Are you in a two-year program that requires a certain GPA to get into a four-year program? Of course, most students want all A's and B's, but the reality is that many students have some C's sprinkled in their transcript. This, of course, all depends on your major and if you need certain grades as a springboard.

    I'd love to help further if you feel comfortable answering these questions.


  7. What about when you really didn't deserve the grade? My professor was her first time teaching, she was proud and completely inflexible. She is failing a straight A student!

  8. Hi, Anonymous,

    I would love to hear more, and please feel free to e-mail at When you say "What about when you really didn't deserve the grade?", are you referring to work that you turned in that didn't get the grades you were expecting? Were you tested in just one way i.e., all rote memorization, multiple choice tests?

    When you say that the prof was inflexible, what was she inflexible about?

    As a straight A student, I'm sure you've already developed some pretty great habits, such as talking to the professor ahead of time and respectfully discussing grades that you disagree about. Did your professor make herself available for this?

    If you can answer a few more questions, I would be glad to follow up with some further advice.



  1. What to do if you have failed a class in college - CengageBrainiac - [...] so it doesn’t happen again. Part of that process will involve meeting with your professor. “You Failed Your Class… ...

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