So you got off to a rough start. It happens to the best of us. But a rough start doesn’t have to be your undoing. If you find yourself partway through the semester wondering how the semester got so out of hand, here are some guidelines to help you turn things around.
Once you realize you need to get back on track the First thing you’ll want to do is get organized. Gather the syllabi for all of your classes, plus any other schedules that you need (e.g. your work schedule, or if you play a team sport, the schedule for your games and practices for the rest of the semester). go through each calendar and syllabus and add important dates to your personal calendar. For most students, an app like Google Calendar works well, but others may prefer an actual physical calendar or a planner. Make sure to note all of your exams, deadlines for projects and papers, and due dates for anything else that could affect your grade. Make sure you also include personal events (like birthday parties or other social events you plan to attend) on the calendar, because you need to take these things into account when you plan your studying. Otherwise, you may continue pushing off your studies when fun events pop up.
Once you have everything in your calendar, your second step is to prioritize. To help you prioritize, we suggest checking your grades in all of your classes. In most cases, you should be able to do this online or by looking back at the grades you received on assignments and exams that have been handed back to you. With an awareness of your grades in mind, you can figure out if you’re struggling equally in all of your classes or if you are only having trouble in one or two.
In addition to your current grade, you also need to consider how much of your grade is already set. Some classes have many of the graded assignments loaded in the second half of the semester, so even though you might be almost halfway through the course, you might still have 70% of your grade left to earn. Other classes heavily weigh midterms or papers due early in the course. If you only have a few assignments left to turn in, you will need to excel on those in order to pull your grade up. additionally, consider the grade that you need (or want) to get in each course. Often, you need better grades in courses that count toward your major than you do for general elective courses. If that is the case, you may need to prioritize the work for your major classes over work for your other classes. It may help to use a grade calculator like this one in order to determine what you need to earn on remaining assignments to get the grade you want.
Now that you have gone through your calendar and syllabi, you should have a good idea of what you need to do going forward. Maybe the situation isn’t as bad as you thought, or perhaps you have found that you are really in dire straits in one or more of your courses. If you find yourself in the second situation, pour yourself another cup of coffee (or crack open another Red Bull) because you have some more things to think about. If you are failing a class and at the moment it seems mathematically impossible to pass or to achieve the grade you need, the first thing you need to do is to thoroughly read through your syllabus. You may notice something you overlooked before – such as a section about extra credit opportunities. If the syllabus doesn’t mention extra credit, it’s time to visit your professor’s office hours (which should be conveniently listed on your syllabus). You only need to visit office hours if you are struggling to figure out how to pass the class on your own. If you know that you just need to study more and party less and it’s well within your ability to succeed in the class, a visit to office hours is likely unnecessary.
Here are some tips for discussing your grade with your professor during office hours. Note: A face-to-face visit is preferable, but if you can’t make it to office hours, send an email. Most of the tips below apply to email as well. In addition, make sure you proofread (or have a friend proofread) for clarity and typos:
- Read the syllabus before you go. Professors HATE when you don’t read the syllabus, and when you sit in their office hours and ask them questions that are very clearly answered in the syllabus, it makes them annoyed. You want the professor on your side, so you should show that you are trying by being familiar with the syllabus. Also, the syllabus is your guide to how to succeed in the class, so you should read it anyway.
- Use basic etiquette. Unless your professor has explicitly told you to call them by their first name, refer to them as Professor Last Name, or if they have a doctorate, Dr. Last Name. If you’re not sure, stick with Professor – that’s always okay. In addition, make sure your phone is on silent and abstain from looking at your phone while in their office.
- Be honest. Professors hear mountains of excuses about bad grades. Do not invent an excuse to explain your poor performance in the classroom. If there is something going on in your life that genuinely relates to your academic performance (e.g. you are caring for a sick parent, or you are struggling with a mental health condition), you can bring that up to your professor if you feel comfortable doing so. If the reason for your poor performance is that you have been spending a lot of time partying, it’s better to say something vague like, “I am not pleased with my performance in this class so far. I am trying to turn things around academically, and I wanted to talk to you about study strategies and other ways to improve my grade.” Whatever you say, stick to the truth. Your professors are human beings and they dislike being lied to just like you do.
- Take responsibility. You might think that the class is hard or confusing, but at the end of the day, you are the one responsible for your grade. Professors will likely be more receptive and willing to help if you take ownership of your grade rather than accusing them of high expectations or overly rigorous standards.
- Write down notes. If your professor is sitting across the desk, rattling off a list of resources you can use to improve your grade, write them down. This accomplishes two goals – it gives you a written record so you can remember their useful advice later on, and it shows your professor that you are listening and trying to improve.
- Emphasize that you have a plan to improve on future assignments (e.g. “I have joined a study group for this class,” or “I blocked off some time to study 30 minutes every day.”) and then ask about extra credit. If the syllabus explicitly mentioned that you can’t get extra credit in the class, address that to show that you did read the syllabus (e.g. “I know from the syllabus that you don’t typically offer extra credit, but I was wondering if you make any exceptions.”)
- Thank your professor for their time at the end of the meeting. An even better way to show your gratitude is to actually follow through on the suggestions they gave you. If they advised you to visit the Writing Center before turning in your next paper, actually do that.
After you’ve visited your professor, you will know if it’s mathematically possible to pull your grade up. If you are certainly going to fail, you could look into withdrawing from the class, which will leave you with a W instead of an F on your transcripts. However, before you do that, you need to talk to the registrar about how that would affect you – some financial aid only goes to full-time students, so withdrawing to less than a full course load could impact your financial aid.
Even if you are nearly positive you’re going to fail, it can be a good idea to keep going to class and giving it your all. It’s possible that if you get close to passing, your professor might have mercy and round up or offer you extra credit. But even if that doesn’t happen, you might have to take the class again in the future, and the best way to pass it next time is to learn everything you can the first time around. After all, you’ve already paid for it!
If it is mathematically possible to get your grades to where they need to be, now you have to actually do the work. If you’ve been slacking and just need to step it up, it’s a good idea to schedule your study time. Mark it out on your calendar and actually stick to it. Go somewhere conducive to studying, like the library or a coffee shop. You might be the type of person who has a hard time focusing without getting distracted by things like social media. If that’s the case, consider trying an app like AppBlock, which blocks certain apps and their accompanying notifications (like those from Instagram and Facebook) for a set period of time so you won’t be tempted to wander. It may also be helpful to structure your studying or writing using the Pomodoro Technique, which basically requires short periods (~25 minutes) of focused work, punctuated by shorter breaks.
You also need to think about how you got here. Ask yourself why your semester got derailed. You might have to do some soul-searching to get to the bottom of it, but this is an important step. If you don’t know why you’re having trouble in the first place, it will be hard to avoid having trouble in the future. You need to address the underlying problem. If there’s something in your life causing you stress, think about how you might mitigate that stress. Are you getting sick a lot and missing classes? That can easily result in falling behind. If that’s the case, try to tweak your lifestyle a little – get more sleep, get some exercise, and eat more fruits and vegetables. If you’re having mental health challenges, talk to a therapist – many colleges offer this service to their students for free or at a reduced cost. If you know you’ve been spending too much time socializing or partying, recognize that you are going to have to cut back so that you can get your degree. Try to deal directly with the problem getting in the way of your academic success.
When you fall behind early in the semester, sometimes it can be hard to catch back up because the material builds on itself gradually. This is especially common in math and science courses – you can’t understand a polymerase chain reaction without first understanding a nucleotide, for example. When you find yourself continuing to have trouble despite increased and consistent studying efforts, it’s wise to ask for help. See if you can join a study group, visit your campus’s Tutoring Center or hire an online tutor, or write down the things that are confusing you and go to your Teaching Assistant’s or professor’s office hours. Read this article for more ideas on how to utilize campus and other resources to help you succeed.
Just because your semester got off to a rocky start doesn’t mean you have to end it the same way. With some planning and more time hitting the books, you can get your academic life back on track. Good luck!
This article was written by BookScouter contributor Crystal Koenig.
Crystal Koenig is a freelance writer and adjunct college instructor based in Southern Utah. She holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.