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Should I Drop a Class?

It happens: For whatever reason, a class you signed up for isn’t working out. Here’s what you need to know about your options.

There are a few good reasons why you might want to drop a class from your schedule. Maybe the instructor’s teaching style isn’t for you, or the syllabus is so demanding that you don’t have time for other homework. Or the material is way beyond your skill set and you feel in danger of failing. Perhaps the catalog course description sounded right up your alley, but the lecture is more of a snooze than stimulating discourse. Remember, you’re paying for this, so if the struggle to keep up is threatening to compromise your performance in other subjects or derail your GPA, or the class isn’t firing up your brain cells, you may need to walk away.

That said, you can’t just stop going to class. To officially opt out of a class that you’re enrolled in—and not end up with an F on your transcript for nonattendance—you’ll need to follow the protocol set in place by your school. Generally speaking, you have three options.

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1. Drop

The rules: Colleges have a built-in deadline, an “add/drop” date that usually falls within the first 3 weeks of the semester. (Some schools only give you 7 days, while others have a longer grace period.) If you want to drop a class and get some form of tuition reimbursement, this is your window. Typically, there’s a form you need to fill out and have signed by the instructor.

Pros/cons: If you’re considering dropping a course, sooner is better than later. If you stay ahead of that add/drop deadline, the class will disappear from your transcript and have zero impact on your GPA. Most schools will even refund some or all of your tuition for the class.

But there are other things to consider. If the class is a requirement for your major, you’ll need to retake it. Remember, some courses need to be taken in sequential order, so check to see when the class you want to drop will be offered again, and how it might affect your schedule for next semester. Additionally, some scholarships and almost all financial aid are contingent upon your remaining a full-time student, so make sure dropping a course won’t push you down to part-time status—or, if the issue isn’t the workload, that you can pick up a different course that will be useful to you.

A word of advice: Drop only for the right reasons and consider the long-term implications. If you think this is your best option, talk to your advisor, who can make sure you have completed the proper paperwork and create a plan for moving forward. Finally, check with the financial aid office to make sure you aren’t jeopardizing any aid money.

2. Withdraw

The rules: Once the deadline for add/drop has passed, most colleges will still let you “late drop,” or withdraw from a class. The deadline for withdrawal typically falls between the 3rd and 10th week of the semester. In fact, some schools will allow a withdrawal right up until a few weeks before finals. Generally, you will not need to provide a reason for your decision, but some schools require you to be passing the course at the time you withdraw. You’ll usually find the late drop policy for your school posted on the student portal; check yours carefully before making your decision.

Pros/cons: When you withdraw, a W will appear on your transcript and you won’t be reimbursed for the course fee. A W won’t affect your GPA, but some grad schools and employers might consider it a red flag. (They want to be sure you don’t shy away from taking on rigorous coursework or challenging situations.)

That said, a W is better than an F, so if your grade really is in trouble, a late drop may be the smarter move. Plus you’ll have more time to devote to your other classes.

A word of advice: Because you’ve already invested a good amount of time in the class, talk to your instructor first. Sometimes, a tutor or extra help during office hours may be enough to push you past whatever hurdle you’re facing. And if withdrawing really is your best option, speak with your advisor and the financial aid office as well, to make sure a late drop won’t push you off your graduation track or put your financial aid package at risk.

3. Choose pass/fail

The rules: Most schools place a lot of restrictions around petitioning to take a class pass/fail rather than for a letter grade. For example, there are deadlines for applying for pass/fail status, rules about which courses are eligible (usually only electives that are outside your major), minimum GPA requirements that could affect your eligibility, and limits to the number of times you can use this option during your four years. Also, some colleges only offer this option to juniors and seniors.

Pros/cons: Pass/fail has no bearing on your GPA, but you do still need to pass the class. In other words, if you truly are in danger of failing, this option isn’t going to help you.

On the other hand, pass/fail is a fairly stress-free way to explore classes outside your major. It enables you to learn something new, without the pressure of earning a letter grade.

A word of advice: Petitioning to take a class pass/fail can get a little tricky, so if you’re thinking about this option in advance, research your school’s rules as soon as you can. Some schools require students to provide a written rationale with their request; others only allow pass/fail for a limited number of courses. Before you take action, set up a meeting with your advisor, who can help you navigate your school’s policies and guide you through the necessary steps.

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