Ask a Professor: What to Do if You’re Failing a Class in College

What should you do if you're failing a class in college? A professor weighs in on how to handle an F and the steps to take if you're failing.

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published on March 25, 2022

Edited by Hannah Muniz
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Ask a Professor: What to Do if You’re Failing a Class in College

You're halfway through the semester, and your professor hands back midterm exams. You failed the test — and now you're failing the class. What should you do?

As a college professor, I handed out a fair number of failing grades. And many semesters, I received emails from students after the final exam asking what they could do to raise their grade.

By that point, it was too late to avoid an F. But if you're failing a class early in the term, you can still pass — or at least make a plan if you do fail.

Many college students find themselves falling behind at some point. And failing a class in college is more common than you might think. But what happens if you fail a class? And what can you do to avoid failing?

What Happens if You Fail a Class in College?

At most colleges, a final grade below 60% qualifies as a failing grade. Depending on your college's GPA scale, that can mean anything below a 1.0 or 0.7 GPA counts as a failed class.

If you fail a class, you'll get a 0 on your transcript — and that can bring down your GPA. Failed classes count toward your GPA, though some colleges do not count pass/fail classes in your GPA calculation.

If you get an F, you still have to pay for the class without receiving any credit toward your degree. What's more, failed classes don't count toward graduation requirements either. In some majors, even a passing grade like a D might not meet those requirements.

If you realize you're failing early in the term, you can take several concrete steps to raise your grade and avoid failing.

How to Avoid Failing a Class in College: 3 Tips

Are you at risk of failing a class? Sometimes, you can pull up your grade and pass. In other cases, it might be too late to avoid failing. Even if you get an F, you have options.

1. Talk to Your Professor ASAP

Did you miss turning in an assignment? Fail a test? Talk to your professor as soon as possible. Set up a meeting, send an email, or go to office hours. Ask your professor for advice on how to get your grade back on track.

Your professor's advice will vary depending on the course and their policies. Some professors let students submit missing papers or assignments. They might offer extra credit or recommend strategies to help you improve on future exams.

Be frank with your professor. Ask whether you can still pass the class based on your current grade. And be sure to follow their advice on how to raise your grade.

2. Meet With an Academic Advisor

If you're at risk of failing, it's a good idea to meet with an academic advisor. The advisor can go over your options if you fail or pass the class. At most schools, for example, students with a failing grade can retake the same class to replace the grade on their transcript.

Academic advisors can also talk through your options to protect your GPA or potentially drop the class.

If you're failing due to a family emergency, medical problem, or mental health issue, your advisor can recommend options to help you avoid getting an F on your transcript. With your professor's approval, you might also be able to take an "incomplete" and finish the course during the next term. Alternatively, you might be able to file for a late drop.

3. Check Your College Policies

Each college maintains different policies about failing grades. And so do departments within the college. Spend some time researching these policies to learn more about your options.

Will a D count toward your general education requirements? Is there a limit on how many times you can retake a failed class? Can anyone repeat a failed class, or only first-year students?

You can also check your school's policies on pass/fail classes and dropping a class. If you're at risk of failing and can't raise your grade, you might be able to switch to pass/fail grading to protect your GPA or drop the class.

If you're failing multiple classes, you might consider withdrawing for the semester.

What to Do if You Fail a College Class

Failing a class in college is common. At The Ohio State University, around 10% of undergraduates retake a failed class every year. That means more than 1 in 10 undergrads fail a class (since not every student repeats a failed class).

What should you do if you fail? Consider repeating the course. Over 90% of colleges allow undergraduates to take a failed class again to improve their grade.

Depending on the school, the new grade may replace the F on your transcript — or both grades may appear, with the new grade replacing the F in your GPA calculation.

At some colleges, only first-year students can retake failed classes. At others, any student can repeat courses. However, schools often put a cap on the number of repeats — and you'll need to pay tuition each time. If you fail a class twice, you might want to consider a different major.

As a professor, I gave out failing grades every semester. And in most cases, students could have avoided failing with a few straightforward steps — Come to class. Study for the exams. Turn in every assignment.

In other cases, students failed for reasons outside their control. In those situations, I always worked with students to find solutions. That sometimes meant signing paperwork for a late drop or advising students to repeat the class.

An F in college often acts as a warning sign. Failing can indicate that a particular major might not fit your skill set or that you need to devote more time to school. Learning from a failing grade can set you on a solid path toward graduation.

Frequently Asked Questions About Failing a Class in College

true Is it normal to fail a class in college?

More students fail a class in college than you might expect.

At The Ohio State University, for example, each year 4,500 undergraduates retake failed classes. That represents around 10% of the undergraduate population. A higher number likely fail a class and choose not to retake it. Most Ohio State students who retake a class pass it the second time around.

As you can see, although a majority of undergraduates pass their classes, failing (and retaking) a course isn't particularly rare.

true Am I a failure if I fail a college class?

College students fail classes for all kinds of reasons. Maybe they took a challenging course load or experienced an emergency that made them fall behind. Sometimes students fail because they miss a test or struggle with the material.

Failing a class does not make you a failure. Instead, think of an F as a wake-up call. Are you taking on too much at once? Do you need to take fewer classes or set aside more study time? Should you change majors entirely? After failing a class, you can take away lessons to improve your performance.

true Is it better to drop a class or fail?

In general, it's better to drop a class than to fail it. If you drop a class, you may qualify for a full or partial tuition reimbursement. When you fail a class, however, you have to pay tuition.

Furthermore, an F on your transcript can affect your GPA and your ability to receive financial aid. Note that many colleges set a deadline for dropping a class. After that date, you'll need to file special paperwork with your professor's approval to be able to drop.

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