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What Happens if you Fail a Class in College?

What Happens if you Fail a Class in College?

6 min Read|June 08 2024
|Written by:

Thomas Babb


Failing a college class can be a daunting and overwhelming experience for many students. The anxiety of falling behind, the fear of jeopardizing financial aid, and the potential delay in graduation are significant concerns that can weigh heavily on one’s mind. For those who have always excelled academically, a failing grade can feel like a personal failure, leading to stress and self-doubt.

Understanding the difference between college and university systems might help you better navigate the resources available. It’s crucial to understand that failing a class is not the end of the road; many students have faced this challenge and successfully navigated through it. This article will guide you through the consequences, next steps, and strategies for bouncing back, ensuring you can turn this setback into a stepping stone for future success.

Questions to ask if you fail a class in college

Image Listing the Question to Ask Yourself if you are failing a class

Immediate Consequences of Failing a Class

College class failing can have several immediate and significant consequences that affect various aspects of a student’s academic and personal life. Understanding these consequences is crucial for developing strategies to mitigate their impact and plan for recovery.

Impact on GPA

One of the most immediate and noticeable consequences of failing a college course is its impact on your GPA (grade point average). A failing grade will significantly lower your GPA, which can have a cascading effect on your academic standing. For instance:

Many programs have minimum GPA requirements. Falling below these thresholds can make you ineligible for certain majors or extracurricular activities. About 30% of college students are placed on academic probation each year due to low GPAs.

A good college GPA is often crucial for maintaining scholarships and eligibility for various programs. If your GPA drops too low, you may find yourself ineligible for US college admission tutors or other academic support services.

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Academic Probation and Failing a Class

If your GPA drops below the minimum requirement set by your institution, often due to failing grades, you may be placed on academic probation. This status serves as a warning and typically includes specific requirements you must meet to remain enrolled:

  • Mandatory Meetings: Often, students on probation must meet regularly with an academic advisor to develop a plan for improvement.
  • Restricted Course Load: Some institutions limit the number of courses you can take while on probation to ensure you focus on improving your grades.
  • Support Services: Access to tutoring and other academic support services is usually increased for students on probation.

Financial Aid

Failing a class can jeopardize your financial aid status. Many scholarships, grants, and loans require maintaining a certain GPA or completion rate.

Approximately half of the students lose some form of financial aid due to academic performance issues, as reported by the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. Loss of financial aid can create significant financial strain, potentially forcing students to take out additional loans or find alternative funding sources.

Graduation Delay

A failed class often means you will need to retake it to meet graduation requirements, which can delay your progress:

  • Increased Costs: Retaking classes means additional tuition fees and extended time in school, increasing the overall cost of your education.
  • Time to Degree: According to Complete College America, the average time to complete a bachelor's degree is already over five years, and failing classes can extend this further.
  • Graduation Rates: Students who experience significant delays are less likely to graduate, with only about 62% of students completing their degree within six years.

What to Do After Failing a Class

Failing a class in college can be a significant setback, but it is important to remember that it is not the end of your academic journey. Many students face this challenge and successfully overcome it. Here are some steps to take after failing a class to help you get back on track.

1. Stay Calm

The first step is to stay calm and keep things in perspective. It's easy to feel discouraged, but it’s important to remember that failing a class is not uncommon and doesn’t define your entire academic career. Around 20% of college students fail a course during their undergraduate studies. Many successful individuals have faced academic setbacks. It’s how you respond that matters most.

2. Consult Your Academic Advisor

Your academic advisor is a crucial resource in navigating this situation. They can provide valuable guidance on your options and help you create a plan to move forward:

  • Personalized Advice: Advisors can help you understand the implications of the failed class on your academic progress and financial aid status, especially if you are pursuing hardest college majorslike engineering or physics.
  • Course Planning: They can assist you in deciding whether to retake the class or adjust your schedule to balance your course load better.
  • Resources: Advisors often know about tutoring services, study groups, and other resources that can help you improve your academic performance.

3. Evaluate the Necessity of Retaking the Class

Not all failed classes need to be retaken. Evaluate whether the class is essential for your major or graduation requirements:

  • Required Courses: If the class is a core requirement for your major or a prerequisite for other courses, you will need to retake it.
  • Elective Courses: If the class is an elective, you might choose to take a different course instead, depending on how it fits into your overall academic plan.
  • GPA Considerations: Retaking a class can improve your GPA since many schools replace the failing grade with the new grade if you pass the class the second time. Many students retake failed classes to boost their GPA and meet academic standards.

4. Develop a Plan

After consulting with your advisor and determining whether to retake the class, develop a plan to ensure future success:

  • Identify Challenges: Reflect on why you failed the class. Was it due to poor time management, lack of understanding of the material, or personal issues? Identifying the root cause can help you avoid the same pitfalls in the future.
  • Seek Academic Support: Utilize academic support services offered by your college. These can include tutoring centers, writing labs, and study skills workshops.
  • Time Management: Create a realistic schedule that allows adequate time for studying, attending classes, and participating in extracurricular activities. Tools like planners or digital calendars can help keep you organized.
  • Join Study Groups: Collaborating with peers can provide motivation and different perspectives on the material, making it easier to grasp complex concepts​.
  • Understand College Policies: Research and understand your college policies related to failing grades, such as impact on GPA, retake options, pass/fail grading, and withdrawal considerations. Policies can vary between universities and even within different departments of the same college.

How to Avoid Failing a Class in College

Failing a class in college can be a daunting experience, but there are effective strategies you can employ to avoid this outcome. By attending all classes, utilizing campus resources, and staying organized, you can significantly enhance your academic performance and stay on track for success.

Pass Fail Rate by Major

Graph Showing Pass Fail Rate According to Majors

1. Attend All Classes and Participate Actively

Regular attendance and active participation are fundamental to academic success. Missing classes can lead to gaps in your understanding of the material, making it harder to catch up and perform well on exams and assignments:

Actively participating in class discussions and asking questions helps reinforce your understanding of the material and keeps you engaged in the learning process. According to a study by the University of Oregon, students who attend 90% of their classes are more likely to achieve higher grades compared to those who attend less frequently. Regular attendance ensures you are prepared for quizzes, exams, and assignments, which are often based on class lectures and discussions.

2. Utilize Campus Resources

Most colleges offer a variety of resources designed to help students succeed academically. Taking full advantage of these resources can provide the support you need to excel:

  • Tutoring Centers: Many schools have tutoring centers where you can get help with specific subjects. These centers often offer one-on-one sessions, group tutoring, and workshops on study skills. This is particularly useful if you're juggling a college minor along with your major.
  • Study Groups: Joining study groups allows you to collaborate with peers, gain different perspectives on the material, and stay motivated.
  • Office Hours: Professors and teaching assistants hold office hours to assist students with questions about the course material, assignments, and exams. Utilizing these hours can provide clarity on difficult concepts and show your commitment to the class.
  • Counseling Services: Academic counselors can help you develop study plans, manage stress, and address any personal issues that might be affecting your academic performance.

3. Stay Organized and Manage Time Effectively

Effective time management and organization are key to keeping up with your coursework and avoiding last-minute cramming sessions:

  • Planners and Digital Tools: Use a planner or digital tools like Google Calendar or Trello to track assignments, exams, and other commitments. This helps ensure you never miss a deadline.
  • Set Goals: Break down your tasks into manageable goals and prioritize them based on deadlines and importance.
  • Avoid Procrastination: Establish a study routine and stick to it. Allocating specific times for studying and breaks can help you stay focused and productive.

Most Failed College Classes

Certain college courses have a reputation for being particularly challenging, leading to higher failure rates among students. Understanding which classes are most commonly failed, especially within the hardest college majors, can help you prepare and seek out additional resources to succeed. Here are some of the most notoriously difficult college courses:

1. Calculus

Calculus is often cited as one of the hardest college courses due to its complex concepts and demanding problem-solving requirements. This course is a common challenge at some of the hardest colleges to get into. This course introduces students to derivatives, integrals, limits, and theorems, requiring a strong foundation in algebra and trigonometry.

The high failure rate is attributed to the abstract nature of the concepts and the need for rigorous practice to master problem-solving techniques. According to Dawkins & Epperson, nearly 25% of students fail introductory calculus courses, indicating the high difficulty level of this subject.

2. Organic Chemistry

Organic Chemistry is known for its challenging material and the heavy memorization load required. The course covers the structure, properties, composition, reactions, and synthesis of carbon-containing compounds. Students often struggle with the complex reaction mechanisms and the extensive amount of material that must be memorized. Many pre-med students find this course particularly difficult, as it is crucial for their future studies and careers. Consequently, Organic Chemistry has a high failure rate and is considered a "weed-out" course for many science and engineering majors.

3. Physics

Physics is another course that many students find difficult due to its mathematical and conceptual demands. The course typically covers a wide range of topics, including mechanics, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, and quantum mechanics.

Students often struggle with applying mathematical principles to physical problems and understanding abstract concepts. The difficulty of Physics courses is reflected in their high failure rates, with many students needing to retake these classes to achieve a passing grade. Students often need to retake the same class to replace the failing grade on their transcript.

4. Engineering

Engineering courses, particularly those in fields like electrical, mechanical, and civil engineering, require strong analytical skills and extensive study time. These courses often involve complex mathematical calculations, in-depth understanding of physical principles, and the ability to apply theoretical knowledge to practical problems.

The rigorous coursework and high expectations contribute to the high failure rates in engineering programs. According to the ASME, the attrition rate for engineering students is approximately 50%, with many students dropping out or failing due to the challenging nature of the courses.

estimate of bachelors degree attainment

Graph Showing Estimate of Bachelor's Degree Attainment

Is It Better to Drop or Fail a Class in College?

Deciding whether to drop or fail a class in college is a critical decision that can have significant implications for your academic career. There are plenty of examples of the famous people who are college dropouts. Both options have their pros and cons, and understanding these can help you make an informed choice.

Dropping a Class

Dropping a class before the deadline can be a strategic move to avoid a failing grade on your transcript. Here are the key considerations:

  • Impact on GPA: Dropping a class will not affect your GPA, which can be crucial for maintaining your academic standing and eligibility for financial aid and scholarships.
  • Tuition Costs: You might still be responsible for the tuition costs of the dropped class, depending on your school's policies. This can add financial strain, as you will need to pay for the course again if you choose to retake it.
  • Credit Requirements: Dropping a class means you will need to make up those credits later, which can delay your progress toward graduation. This might require you to take additional courses in future semesters or extend your time in college.
  • Withdrawal Deadline: Each college has a specific deadline for dropping classes without academic penalty. Missing this deadline can result in a "W" on your transcript, which indicates withdrawal but does not impact your GPA.

Failing a Class

Failing a class has more immediate negative effects but also offers the opportunity for redemption:

  • Impact on GPA: A failing grade will significantly lower your GPA, which can affect your academic standing and eligibility for financial aid and certain programs. This immediate impact can be detrimental, especially if your GPA is already on the lower side.
  • Retake and Replace: Many colleges allow students to retake a failed course and replace the failing grade with the new grade. This can improve your GPA, but the original failing grade may still be visible on your transcript.
  • Financial Aid: Failing a class can jeopardize your financial aid status. Many scholarships and grants require maintaining a specific GPA or course completion rate. Failing multiple classes can lead to loss of financial aid, increasing your financial burden.
  • Academic Standing: Repeated failures can lead to academic probation or even dismissal from your program. This status usually comes with requirements to improve your grades within a specific timeframe, adding pressure to your academic life.

Making the Decision

When deciding whether to drop or fail a class, consider the following:

  • Academic Goals: Evaluate how each option aligns with your long-term academic goals. If the class is essential for your major, you might prefer to drop it and retake it later when you are better prepared.
  • Current Academic Standing: Assess your current GPA and how a failing grade would impact it. If your GPA is close to the minimum requirement, dropping the class might be a safer option.
  • Support Systems: Utilize avrrrrrailable resources such as academic advisors, counseling services, and tutoring centers to get advice tailored to your specific situation. These support systems can help you make a more informed decision.
  • Financial Considerations: Consider the financial implications of both options. If dropping the class impacts your full-time student status, this could affect your financial aid and housing eligibility.

Strategies for Academic Improvement

Failing a class can serve as an important indicator that adjustments are needed in your approach to academics. Here are some effective strategies to help you recover and improve your academic performance:

Identify the Causes of Failure

Reflecting on the reasons behind your failure is the first step toward improvement. Common causes include lack of understanding, poor time management, and external factors such as personal issues or health problems. Understanding these root causes is essential for making necessary changes:

  • Lack of Understanding: If the material was too difficult, consider whether you might need additional help, such as tutoring or more focused study sessions.
  • Poor Time Management: Assess how you allocate your time. Are you procrastinating or getting distracted easily? Improving your time management skills can make a significant difference.
  • External Factors: Sometimes, external factors like health issues, family problems, or financial stress can impact your academic performance. Acknowledging these can help you seek the appropriate support and resources.

Develop a Plan

Creating a structured plan can help you stay on track and make the most of your study time. Here are some components of an effective plan:

  • Attend All Classes: Regular attendance is crucial for understanding the material and keeping up with assignments.
  • Participate in Study Groups: Joining study groups can provide different perspectives on the material and keep you motivated.
  • Utilize Tutoring Resources: Many campuses offer free tutoring services. Take advantage of these to get help with difficult subjects​.

Improve Study Habits

Adopting new study techniques can greatly enhance your learning efficiency and retention:

  • Time-Blocking: Allocate specific blocks of time for studying each subject. This helps in avoiding procrastination and ensuring consistent study habits.
  • Flashcards: Use flashcards for memorization of key concepts and terms. They are particularly useful for subjects that require a lot of memorization, such as vocabulary in foreign languages or formulas in science.
  • Mind-Mapping: Create visual representations of concepts to better understand and remember the relationships between different topics​.

Manage Your Time

Balancing coursework with extracurricular activities and personal commitments is crucial. Use planners or digital calendars to stay organized and ensure you allocate sufficient time for each activity:

  • Use a Planner: Keeping a planner or using digital tools like Google Calendar can help you track assignments, exams, and other commitments.
  • Set Goals: Break down your tasks into manageable goals and prioritize them based on deadlines and importance.
  • Avoid Procrastination: Establish a study routine and stick to it. Allocating specific times for studying and breaks can help you stay focused and productive.

Long-term Strategies for Success

Achieving long-term academic success in college requires more than just short-term fixes; it involves consistent strategies and utilization of available resources. Here are some key strategies to ensure sustained academic performance and success:

Seek Support Services

Many colleges offer a range of support services designed to help students overcome academic challengesand stay on track. Utilizing these resources can provide significant benefits:

Counseling Services: College counseling services can help address personal issues that may be affecting your academic performance, such as stress, anxiety, or other mental health concerns.

Academic Workshops: Workshops on study skills, time management, and exam preparation can equip you with the tools needed to succeed academically.

Study Skill Seminars: These seminars offer guidance on effective study techniques, note-taking strategies, and other skills essential for academic success​​.

Consider Course Load Adjustments

If you find yourself overwhelmed by your current course load, it might be wise to adjust it in future semesters. This strategy is often recommended by US college admission tutors to ensure a balanced and manageable academic schedule. Taking a lighter course load can help you focus better on each class and improve your overall performance:

  • Balanced Schedule: Opt for a mix of challenging and less demanding courses to maintain a manageable workload.
  • Reduced Stress: A lighter course load can reduce stress and give you more time to dedicate to each subject, leading to better understanding and higher grades.
  • Planning Ahead: Work with your academic advisor to plan a schedule that balances your academic requirements with your capacity to manage them effectively.

Explore Pass/Fail Options

If your college offers the option, taking a course on a pass/fail basis can be a strategic way to protect your GPA while still earning credit toward graduation:

  • GPA Protection: A pass/fail grade does not impact your GPA the same way a letter grade would, which can be beneficial if you are unsure about your performance in a particular class.
  • Credit Earned: You still earn credit for the course, which can help you meet graduation requirements without the pressure of achieving a high grade.
  • Flexibility: This option is particularly useful for elective courses or subjects outside your major where the primary goal is to gain knowledge rather than achieve a high grade.


Failing a class in college is not the end of the world, but it does require careful handling to mitigate its impact. Remember, many successful individuals have faced similar setbacks and persevered. By staying calm, consulting with advisors, and implementing effective study and time management strategies, you can recover from this setback and continue on the path to academic success.

Embrace this challenge as an opportunity for growth and learning. With determination, the right resources, and a proactive approach, you can overcome this hurdle and achieve your academic goals. Keep pushing forward, and don't let one setback define your entire college experience.


Can failing a class affect my eligibility for graduate school?

Failing a class can impact your GPA, which is an important factor for graduate school admissions. Many graduate programs have minimum GPA requirements. However, a single failure might not ruin your chances if you can demonstrate improvement and maintain a strong overall academic record.

What are some common signs that I might be at risk of failing a class?

Common signs include consistently low grades on assignments and exams, difficulty understanding course material, missing classes regularly, and feeling overwhelmed by the workload. Seeking help early can prevent failure.

How can I balance work and studies to avoid failing a class?

Effective time management is crucial. Create a schedule that allocates specific times for studying, work, and rest. Communicate with your employer about your academic commitments and consider reducing work hours if necessary.

What should I do if I feel overwhelmed by multiple classes?

If you're feeling overwhelmed, talk to your academic advisor about adjusting your course load. Utilize campus resources such as tutoring centers and counseling services to manage stress and improve study habits.

Are there any financial aid options available if I lose my scholarship due to failing a class?

If you lose your scholarship, explore other financial aid options like grants, student loans, and work-study programs. Contact your financial aid office to discuss your situation and available alternatives.

Can I retake a failed class at a different college and transfer the credits?

Policies on transferring credits vary by institution. Check with both your current college and the potential transfer institution to ensure the credits will be accepted and applied to your degree requirements.

How do pass/fail options affect my GPA and graduation requirements?

Taking a course pass/fail can protect your GPA since a pass does not impact it negatively. However, you still earn credits toward graduation. This option is often best for elective courses or non-major requirements.

What are the long-term effects of repeated failures on my academic record?

Repeated failures can lead to academic probation, dismissal from your program, and difficulty in transferring to other institutions. It can also impact your confidence and motivation, making it important to address issues early.

How do I explain a failed class on my resume or in a job interview?

Be honest about the experience and focus on what you learned from it. Emphasize how you addressed the issue, the steps you took to improve, and any positive outcomes, such as improved time management or study skills.

What strategies can help improve my academic performance after failing a class?

Strategies include identifying the root causes of failure, developing a structured study plan, utilizing campus resources, improving time management, and seeking support from academic advisors and counselors. Engaging in study groups and maintaining a balanced course load can also help.

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Professional tutor and Cambridge University researcher

Thomas Babb

Written by: Thomas Babb

Oxford University - PhD Mathematics

Thomas is a PhD candidate at Oxford University. He served as an interviewer and the lead admissions test marker at Oxford, and teaches undergraduate students at Mansfield College and St Hilda’s College. He has ten years’ experience tutoring A-Level and GCSE students across a range of subjects.

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