An F on Your Transcript and Your Dream Job: What Do You Say About That?

Posted by on Feb 12, 2013 in General, General College Success/Responses to Other College Entities | 42 comments

Your heart is set on a particular job. Could an F on your transcript lock you out of it? What should you do? What should you say?

(I was not intending to take a two-week hiatus, but apparently, a hiatus decided to take me! Darned winter illnesses that strike family members back to back–but fortunately, not Mom. I’ve missed interacting with everyone and wanted to continue on our theme from a couple of weeks ago: When college is supposed to help dreams come true, but then something in college actually threatens that dream. Here we have yet another letter to that end. What do you think about this situation?)

Dear Ellen,

I read your blog about failing a class. I am a graduate student. I took a course last semester and failed it. I am feeling very depressed. I wanted to pursue a career as a professor, but I think failing this class has ruined it. I don’t see any hope. You mentioned that you failed a class, as well. How has this affected your employment as a professor? Did anyone look at your GPA and ask you why it happened? If so, what was your answer?



Dear Student,

I am really sorry about the failed course. I definitely know how that feels–awful!

You are remembering correctly, but I only told part of the story. I actually failed two courses. They were when my father died and I blogged about fading out of school. One of the courses, I retook because I had to (Public Speaking). The other course, I never retook. It was a History course, and for whatever reason, I just decided that I didn’t want that particular course again. I was an undergrad at the time and I feared those F’s on my transcript would keep me out of graduate school. So, due to my circumstances (the death of my father), six years later, I petitioned to have them stricken and turned into W’s. It was not an easy process at all, but I want you to have full disclosure that I actually was able to take care of those failing grades. I don’t want to give the impression that my situation would be universal.

Beyond that, I did have a C on my transcript from my community college, but I didn’t really worry about it. In my graduate school, had I gotten any less than a B in my courses, I would have had to retake them. That didn’t happen, but believe me, I could have easily failed my Stats course without extra help. Math is not my strong suit.

In many graduate schools, there is a similar policy. So my first question is, are you truly going to “fail” if you have to retake your course? My next question: Can you retake the course? Before we tap into the career issue, I would try to figure out what went wrong. The lessons you take away that led to the failure are going to be critical for you in becoming a professor. You’ll want to figure out why the problem happened and see what you can do differently. Again, I really think that the exercise of doing this, rather than leaving the F alone, is going to be monumental for you in the future. I draw upon my own academic experiences all the time–the good and the ugly. I bet many of my colleagues would say the same.

Now let’s get to the heart of the matter: I don’t believe that getting one “F” is going to sink you on becoming a professor, but this is going to depend on a couple of things that I’ll explain. I do think that a professor failing a course or having a poor grade in a class makes that person a) human; and b) able to connect to the struggles that actual students have. I’m going to put a huge qualifier on this, though. If the failing grade is in a main teaching area for you, a college would likely squint on that. Another reason to retake the class.

If you failed a course in, say, statistics (required for many graduate degrees), but you won’t be teaching statistics, hiring committees or HR Departments often review transcripts more to prove that you actually hold the degrees that you claim (yes, some people fake their credentials!), rather than to pore over every single individual grade. But it wouldn’t be inconceivable to have a series of low GPA’s on your transcripts questioned.

If everything else looks strong, then a bad grade (not in your primary teaching area) should not be a deal-breaker for you becoming a professor. Many students have a blip at some point–some blips are worse than others. Mine happened to be a “C” and had I not been able to turn those “F’s” into W’s after my father died, I would have had the two “F’s” on my transcript and I would have likely had to put a note with my transcript explaining why they were there.

I think it is definitely time to go back to that professor with whom you failed the course. Say, “Professor, I really need to discuss my  performance in our class that just ended. I failed the course and I am very worried about how this is going to affect not only my academic standing, but also my future career. I have plans to become a professor and am concerned about how this is going to look on my transcript. What advice do you have so this does not adversely affect me?” You may also want to have this same discussion with the adviser of your program.

Bottom line, I would do everything you possibly can to turn things around now before you start applying for jobs. If you cannot reverse that F, be prepared to speak to it candidly. If it is the only “F” on your graduate school transcript, I would position it as, “I struggled tremendously in X class as a graduate student. What I took away from the course were these valuable lessons and I feel I am going to be a lot more empathetic to my own students when they face these same struggles.”

You can also say, “Based on the issues I faced in this course as a student, I researched and devised these teaching strategies so other students won’t face the same problems I did.”

I think those answers would show that you were extremely reflective about your experience and forward-thinking about other students’ experiences.

I wish you well!




  1. As always, this is good, and empathetic, advice. It is so important to value this mistakes that we make and the failures that we have. They sometimes mark the most important lessons that we will learn. To be able to point to this failure and talk about how this will help you identify with your students may be what sets you apart from everyone else who simply knows the subject, but not the students and their potential struggles.

    Also, as a bit of reassurance, I have served on several faculty search committees. I know that it is different in each institution, but the individual grades on a transcript carry much less weight than your resume and a strong interview. Keep this one grade in context.

    • Hi, Vicki,

      Thank you so much for your comments, as always. I appreciate your perspective. I really remember those F’s and even my C’s so much. I definitely empathize with my own students who struggle and this is why it pains me when students aren’t more proactive and can save themselves!

      I have not had a lot of search committee experience, so this advice is particularly valuable.

      I look forward to your next assistance. I have a tricky one coming up.

    • I just have a quick question, I took a class that is in my major and I failed it because I failed a final that was worth 25% of my grade but the other 75% I averaged a B but I failed the class because he put in his syllabus that you need to pass both finals in order to pass the class. Is that legal to do? I don’t know what my next steps are. Thank you so much would really love some advice!

      • Hi Alex,

        At most institutions, the syllabus functions much like a contract between the instructor and the student. It is one of the reasons that, as faculty members, we do everything that we can to make the policies in the syllabus as clear as possible. If your professor said that you need to pass both exams in order to pass the class, and that was clear on the syllabus, then that policy stands.

        As Ellen suggested in her original post, I’d talk to the professor. Ask whether there is anything that you can do that would cause him to reconsider the grade. If not, then move on. Retake the course if you can, knowing that you have a head start on the material but that you need to focus your efforts on the exams. If you can’t retake the course, or choose not to retake it, then move on and keep it in perspective.

        Good luck moving forward.

  2. Ellen,

    As you stated, in the interest of full disclosure, I have a degree in Social Work (now a stay-at-home dad). I did not obtain that degree until I was in my 30′s. However, I did attend college a decade prior. When I attended college the first time I was not prepared for my new freedom and young adulthood. I played far more than I studied. It cost me a great deal but I did not see it that way at the time.

    As I matured and life circumstances changed I realized I wanted a degree. The problem was my first trial at college left me with an entire semester of F’s (not one… but five). I believed in myself and retook the course and passed them all with some help. I continued bringing my grade point average up to the point where I graduated college with a 3.3 (it would have been much higher if not for my semester of failing and immaturity)

    My point is never give up and stop believing that you can something. I am a firm believer in the only true failures in life are when we stop trying and allow other people to dictate to us what they say we “will” believe. Just my two cents….

    Aaron Brinker aka DadBlunders

    • Hi, Aaron,

      Wow, how many faculty out there can relate to THAT picture? I bet so many! Also, a lot of non traditional students, as well. A bunch of students go to school early, don’t do as well as anyone would like, and then return when they are more “serious.” I think this is an extremely important perspective. This student is hardly alone and from what I’m hearing, the situation doesn’t sound like a deal-breaker in terms of being a professor.

      By the way, I didn’t finish my education until I was 30 either. There are a lot of us out there!

      I appreciate your thoughts. Thank you so much!


  3. Really great examples. Grad school seems so far away now. Unfortunately, I don’t have any of my own advice to offer. I am really glad there are professors like you out there Ellen who speak so candidly!

    • Hi, Susan,
      I am behind on my commenting since I haven’t blogged in a month! Thank you! Your comments always mean so much to me.

  4. Hello Ellen I was wondering I am graduating in the summer but for right now i think i am going to have to F’s on my transcript can i still graduate with those F’s

  5. I’m an undergrad and I have a double major in Bio and Psych. I plan to carry on with psych but i failed chemistry in first year. Because it isn’t a prereq for anything I’m doing and because my school won’t remove it I didn’t retake it. But I want to apply to clinical psych programs and i’m so scared that it will affect me from getting accepted to grad school. I also have a few Cs and Bs but a ton of As and one A+. I’m going into my 3rd year now with a 3.66 degree GPA but a 3.1 cumulative and I’m so worried. Not sure what to do :/

  6. I’m a graduate student. I have an F on my transcript for a History due to a plagiarism issue. I was rather stupid/depressed at that particular time. My record won’t be purged until 5 years but I still want to be an English professor. Do you think that I have any chance or is it time to start thinking about something completely different?

  7. I am so depressed about my undergrad GPA that I feel like ending my life. I am graduating from college with my Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology next semester. Unfortunately, my cumulative GPA is only 2.5 because I had below a 2.0 during my freshman and sophomore years. However, I had a 3.8 during my senior year. Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do now to change the past. I wish that I could go back in time and study harder my first two years of college. I lost interest in everything, stay alone in my room all the time, and didn’t go out in like six months. I am passionate about human and primate evolution, osteology, population genetics, forensic anthropology, Mesoamerican archaeology, and Viking archaeology. I live in NYC. I would be interested in working for a museum, a historical society, an archaeological research center, a primate conservation center, or a national park. I think that I ruined my future and I will never be able to get an entry-level job or get into a Masters program. Most employers ask for transcripts and no one will hire someone who graduated with a 2.5. Do you think that my life is over because of bad grades in the past? I am planning to jump off a bridge. Should I kill myself this weekend or wait until after I graduate?

    • Anna, it is so important to keep things in perspective. There are many ways to enter into the job/profession that you want and many ways that employers look at potential candidates. Your transcript and GPA are just two avenues. Get out of your room and get some experience in addition to your formal studies. Do an internship. Volunteer. Network and meet people who are working in the field that you want to enter. Once you have graduated and are ready to look for work, persevere because it isn’t easy starting out. Don’t be too fussy. Take anything that will give you experience. Once you begin to build experience, that becomes so much more important that your GPA. When you go to interviews, talk about the lessons you learned in your last two years and point out the difference in your grades. Employers were students once, too. They will be interested in the lessons that you’ve learned. Be flexible, be persistent, be patient, and most of all, create a positive attitude. Don’t let go of your goals, and begin now to take some positive steps. The more you do and have to offer, the less important that GPA becomes.

      • I’m coming to this discussion late (THREE years late) but I need to add my two cents. I was once in a very similar position that you are in. I have a liberal arts bachelor’s degree from an elite Ivy league school, but my GPA was(is) only 2.6. I have suffered from depression for many decades and suffered during my undergraduate program, Master’s program, PhD program, JD program and even still struggle to manage it today.

        While I was an undergraduate student, the effort that it took me everyday to just get out of bed was exhausting. Add to that the psycho-physiological effort to get out and interact with other people in addition to the mental focus and energy required for classes and study and I was perpetually worn down and worn out: school was like working three full time jobs that I’d been poorly trained to handle! Depression is a burden, and unfortunately most people do not understand that it’s a great achievement of will and strength to manage “simple tasks” like getting to class on time… The suggestion that you’ll feel better by “networking” and “getting out and getting involved” in your field of interest is at best a platitude but likely unrealistic.

        Unfortunately, reality cannot be ignored: if your grades are low, then they will impact your career aspirations in any career field where GPA is used as a sorting/measure stick for recruiting. Not all fields rely on GPA: if your aspiration is to be a classical singer, then all you need is a trill reminiscent of Renee Fleming’s to get into the Master’s program at Yale University’s School of Music. But if grades are a criteria of selection for your preferred Anthropology programs, then anyone that tells you low grades will not impact your chances (and is not responsible for the final hiring/acceptance decisions) is lying to you.

        Moreover, and equally frustrating, depression may have held you back from developing some of the social interaction skills that your peers have mastered at this point in life. It may be emotionally too difficult for you to “network” yourself into an opportunity, or explain away bad grades because they resulted from a difficult time of your life. Therefore, getting your foot in the door during the ENTRY-LEVEL stage is going to be 20, even 200, times harder simply because the criteria are a poor match to your academic and life experiences.

        That being said, it seems to me that your real question is whether low grades have foreclosed your opportunity to live your passions and achieve your career goals. And the answer to that question is a resounding no. Despite the stop-gap that bad grades might present at this early stage of your career, you will later appreciate how many REAL successes, talents and professional strengths they actually represent.

        First of all — the very fact that you graduated demonstrates that you have the professional fortitude to stay committed to a project regardless of being dealt a “bad hand”. Many an apple-cheeked young professional has run for the proverbial hills when faced with professional failure on the job. In fact, one of my direct reports, a summa cum laude Ivy-league MBA, literally walked out of the office during a major crisis a few months ago because she was so overwhelmed by the immediate, glaring failure of her management.

        The fact that your grades improved, shows that you understand how to take critical feedback to assess a situation and implement necessary changes. You took very low grades and not only made them conform to standards, you actually excelled beyond expected standards during your senior year. As you go through your career life, you will notice that many of your peers have a set performance level and are unable to adjust their performance capacity. This analytic ability to review and revise performance is a particularly marketable skill and it will ultimately set you apart from your peers if you hone and refine your techniques.

        And this achievement is, in my opinion, too often overlooked for its worth in the professional world:

        The very unfair social effect of failure in school is that bad grades further isolate and ostracize their recipient. Study partnerships, fraternity/sorority affiliations, clubs and even roommates are out of grasp when grades are low. Teachers, TAs and administrators write off bad grade recipients and do not take our aspirations seriously. Inversely, the better a student performs academically, the more aggressively his school supplements and supports his continued opportunities.

        In my opinion, it is an extraordinary example of personal grace under fire that you so significantly improved your grades. But even more importantly, your improvement demonstrates that you are a self-managing and self-motivated professional who can focus and achieve success without team support or immediate management supervision. In my long career life, I am continuously amazed at how many credentialed, pedigreed professionals are unable to work “alone”, i.e., without engaging co-workers/supervisors/staff’s time, attention and energy to their own assignments.

        I know that is difficult to believe in the moment, when you are confronted with the immediate sting of bad grades and have no assurances about your future, that you still can do and be who you want despite a low GPA. However, please try to understand that there will be many disappointments in your career life: every time you go forward in your career, you will face rejection, scrutiny and dismissal, despite your hard-work and many talents. Every such experience will be an opening for self-doubts to cloud your thoughts. And unfortunately, I can’t even guarantee that self-doubts ever get easier to accept or manage.

        I would just like to encourage you to remember whenever a doubt arises: just as you fought through six months to get up and out and at least stay in the game, you have the fight in you to get up and get out no matter how lackluster the circumstance may seem. And you can know for a fact that the same fight, tenacity and skills you needed to earn a 3.8 during your senior year are all still at your service and available to build whatever kind of career life you want to have.

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  10. I’m currently a junior in college and I feel like I’ve went into a slump. I’ve never failed a class in my academic life until my second semester as a junior in college. I always had a gpa that was at least 3.6-3.7. I’m currently a bio major but I’m planning on switching to Public Health Administration because my bio advisor told me that this major is far more relevant and useful for me, since I’ll be going into nursing school after I graduate. However, since I’m still considered a bio major, I’m currently taking a physics course and a bio (genetics) course. I have a feeling that I won’t pass and I’m thinking about whether I should withdraw from those classes or not. I know this decision will affect my financial aid, but I don’t know what to do: lose my aid or lose my gpa.

    • If you feel you won’t pass then please be sure to understand how the mind works as a barrier. You cannot think you “cannot” do something because thats exactly what the negative part of you wants to hear so it can can continue to beat you over the head with everything you are insecure about. Can’t is applied when the other person telling you that is a failure themselves and they want you to be one too, we get slapped in our faces with cants since child hood. You can’t do this you can’t do that, but really ask yourself if you “can’t” or are you telling yourself that because you’ve been fed that all your life in some way shape or form, so ask yourself Why can’t you? and write down those things that make you feel that way and strike them, one by one. Its tough to do I know, and it won’t change your mindset over night but believe me its worth a shot to ask the can’t voice “Why exactly ‘can’t I?” and oppose it with “CAN,” yes its easier said than done, but not when this becomes you. That YOU can, and YOU will.

      Look Whatever you are going through, my situation is horrible too. Trust me, but something happened to me one day and my life changed. I’m not beholden to a grade! And if a prospective employer does not see how awesome you are and what a good person you are for having the gall to further your education and make better money, then tell them to “muck off” with a smile and find somewhere appreciative of your talents! because they don’t deserve to have your awesomeness on their team anyway. I really mean that! Imagine what it would be like to work for someone who is giving you Flack for an F, I call that self-righteous and judgemental. Something we humans seem to have in spades especially when using it to inflict pain and take down someone’s self esteem. I guarantee you just because an instructor holds a letter grade over you and they finished their studies DOES NOT MAKE THEM BETTER, instructors and teachers these days think because their own lives are so pathetic, they must be your judge, your executioner, and your daddy. These professors are not more likable than you and that’s where you will succeed and remember that you yourself did not let the “morons” hold you back. Chin up. Nothing is easy, if it was eveyone would be graduates.

  11. Hi, Sorry for the long post.

    So here is my two cents, I’m a parent of three with two of them special needs, I have a Bachelors and I am 2 courses away from my Masters, at least I was. I’m not even going to a Brick and Mortar school, its an online school which in perception is considered “less” maybe by some employers. I got an F, 2 courses from graduating and the professor is a world class “F” himself. HE was sending back corrected work for us, but had spelling grammars in his own corrections. LAUGHABLE> I failed the class, a blow to my ego, but thats not why I am mad. I am filing a grievance and taking it all the way to Budapest event the Higher learning commission if I have to. I know I did not deserve it, and I even appealed to the instructor and as I knew he would he told me no. Why because he’s a Failure himself. Thats what I think. I am also suspicious of a scheme to have student retention that way you keep getting their federal money, yet they can’t give you back your money when no one gives you a job because the bloke from Harvard has a better bang for his buck and I am stuck appealing a grade that I got from a “toad” of an instructor. The F did do one thing, it set me on fire because I know I am NOT a failure, I excel at everything I do because I work hard. I work extra hard because I like working. So to these instructors giving adults and students Fs, they should get a life and get “laid” already and stop being pathetic. A teacher to me giving a student or a pupil Fs is a pathetic individual. Trust me. They are not likeable and are generally miserable people, I dare you observe them quietly when they are not looking at a grocery store or something, they are usually mean and somehow ugly on the inside as I believe I am sensitive to a evil soul. A teacher who would give a good student an F, is EVIL no matter what you. I don’t even care if the student has a potty mouth, “I don’t of course” I’m just blunt. How’s an F going to make a student feel? its going to make the student feel like a failure, which is its intent I’m sure, a VICIOUS one that instructors are guilty of inflicting just like some bad cops who use their power to step on people or a judge willing to take a bribe. What goes around comes around because those teachers are not likeable AT ALL. Even if someone was a terrible student, I could never give them an F, because they are human beings and are NOT failures. My job as a teacher, unfortunately not my career path, but the kind of style I would use as a teacher is a mentorship style. Some students are lost and struggling all sorts of ways! these instructors…leave them to time, hopefully the Fs they insist on slapping on their students makes them lonely in hell when they get there and I am not ashamed of saying the can burn for all I care. I guess all that good advice I gave above just flat-lined by that negative comment but I couldn’t help it. The point is an F does not define you, DO NOT let it threaten you, you are a person, NOT a FAILURE! if I cannot change the F through grievances I will probably have to take the class over to strike it, I know that’s what they want along with my money and I may very well not re-take it even if I have to explain it. It depends on how passionately I feel it needs to be removed, however, If I do decide to not re-take it I will not have a problem explaining it. I will take full responsibility for it and hope that I further my career that way. I will confidently explain that I had a “human” moment and was going through some stuff (excluding that my instructor had been an obvious “sexless bore who berated his students and had a nasty tone every time he responded to us since I’m sure I’m not the only one) but I will furhter explain that the particular class isn’t my strong suit, I won’t talk bad about the instructor to a boss, I wont blame them,I won’t be bitter but I will never recommend the school and will never talk to them again, all their surveys will be filled out with exactly what I think of them, put in as decent a way as possible, and just hurry and try to get out. I will let the entire world know to stay away from them for as long as I live, not in a mean way but I just wont have nothing good to say. The business I am in, word of mouth carries a lot of weight, I don’t think schools take into consideration how students can ruin their reps and cost them students. Sorry for the long post.

    • what school was this online school you attended?

    • I have been threaten by this professor may give me a F in my mortar brick school if you get an F in graduate school you get kicked out. I am trying to study teaching and have adhd, he was working with me until this middle school teacher called my college and said I said things about her when I didn’t. I am waiting to see what he will give me. Grades should if he is really going to give me F or what. I can appeal but I will be kicked out of the program if I get an F. I just want a D to do it over and another chance.

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