Failing a class in college is weirdly taboo, even though it happens to all kinds of students. If you found this post, you’re likely facing the likelihood of failing a class. It’s hard to know what to do after that. Like, what … happens to you? The answer is actually nothing, unless you’ve failed a bunch of them. What’s more important is what you do next. If you just failed your first class, here’s what you do.

Do not freak out when you get your grade

I’ll be honest here: I went back to school for my master’s last year, thinking that because I had a whole decade of adult experience under my belt and I was always a good student, it would be easier than ever to do well in class—especially now that I was taking specific courses I already know I’m interested in. What I did not account for was that there would be math involved at this level. Math is something I struggle with tremendously; I barely scraped by in the intro-level stats class I had to take in undergrad. It did not occur to me, as someone who cannot do math, does not do it in daily life, and has no plans to do it in the post-grad future, that there was a chance of it coming back around. I thought, when I signed up for epidemiology, that I’d be learning about diseases—and I did! But it was basically math. It was a ton of math. And, I soon found out, all of my other classes were based on the foundational stuff I learned in that secret-math class. Despite my best efforts, I did not pass on my first time through it. Even at my big age, this “failure” hit me hard. Was I going to get in trouble? Was I going to get tossed out of my institution? Was I an idiot for thinking I could go back to school at all? No, no, and no, it turned out. What happened was I had to have a slightly embarrassing chat with an advisor and retake the class, since it was a required course. 

When you find out your grade at the end of the semester, don’t panic if you didn’t pass a class. It’s not going to help; what’s done is done. As Dr. Kim Crowley, Associate Professor of English at Bismarck State College puts it, “Don’t ruminate.” First, remind yourself this really does happen to people. For instance, Crowley—who has a PhD—had to take college algebra more than once in order to pass it. You’re in good company if there’s a class you struggle with. Next, consider a very simple question: Is the class required or not? 

What to do if you fail a required class

If you failed a class that is required for your major or program, you don’t have much of a choice but to take it again. You do have some choices when it comes to how you take it, though. Crowley says you should consider whether you want to take it the next semester “while material is fresh in your mind” or “wait to let the emotion of the whole thing go” and try again after a little break. When I retook epidemiology, I opted to do it right away—but that was because it was a prerequisite for all the other classes I had to take. I found this out by conferring with an advisor, which you should do right away when you find out you didn’t pass. Their job is to help you figure out your next steps; mine worked fast to help me get into a second-semester class. While I had no choice about having to retake it, I did get to choose if I took it online or in person, which is something Crowley says you should think over, as well. My first shot at epidemiology was in one of those big, bowl-shaped halls with hundreds of seats; I didn’t stand a chance of retaining a thing and usually sat in my stadium chair feeling vaguely sick. When I got to go at my own pace, sit in my un-intimidating apartment, and read (and reread and reread again) the materials online, I did way better. (I got a B+!) If you took your failed class in the morning, consider an afternoon slot. If you took it online, try in-person for some extra accountability. If you really hated your professor, you already know whom not to retake it from.

There are some questions you’ll need to ask your advisor when you chat about failing a required course. An academic advisor I spoke to (who will remain anonymous because she forgot to check her employer’s media policy before agreeing to the interview) suggested these:

  • When can/should I retake the class?

  • Does this impact my financial aid?

  • Am I able to remain in my major?

  • Which of my other required classes can I not take until this is done?

  • What is the consequence if I continue to do poorly?

You’ll likely end up on academic probation, which means you’ll have to check in with your advisor periodically. In some universities, you’ll get a humbling email explaining that to you. In others, you might have to reach out to the financial aid office and your advisor directly to see what repercussions you’re facing. The good news is that in most schools, when you retake a failed class, the new grade replaces the old one, shoring up your GPA. 

What to do if you fail a class that isn’t required

Here’s where it gets tricky. If that class wasn’t required, you may not want to retake it at all. Crowley suggests calculating your GPA overall to see just how big of a hit one F is going to give you. If it’s a significant drop, retake the same class, if you can, to replace the grade on your transcript. If it’s not, though, it might just be OK for you to skip it. For instance, if you need three credits of some kind of art and you hated theater and ended up failing, there might be wiggle room in your GPA to just sign up for drawing or something and take the loss. 

Again, discuss all of this with your advisor before proceeding, but consider if retaking something that was hard for you and sort of unnecessary is really a way to keep morale up while you’re on probation. Bear in mind, too, that required classes are usually offered abundantly at various times, with different professors, and using different structures, but electives are rarer. In your school, it may not be possible to retake the same exact class again, so work this out directly with your advisor. The worst thing you can do is dither over it and let it slow down your progress into the next semester. One F won’t destroy a GPA full of other good grades, but spending weeks agonizing will torpedo your productivity. 

What to do about a failed class in the future

Honesty is the best policy here. If you go on to apply for jobs, transfer to a different school, or seek admissions to a program for a higher degree, the failed class is likely to show on some version of your transcript—even if you retook it and your GPA is solid. Not all jobs will ask for transcripts, but as a rule, most schools will. Don’t shy away from discussing it. In a job interview, this would be a great story to pull out when you’re asked about a time you overcame a hardship or adversity (provided you went on to get a better grade the second time). Failing isn’t necessarily a bad thing and won’t destroy your reputation. Being able to detail exactly how you reoriented and did better afterward will make you look good. 

Crowley says that when she was applying for grad school, she was clear in her admissions essay about the issues she faced in undergrad that led to some of her worse grades. I know another student who was recently accepted into a school’s “second chance” program after detailing in a letter to administrators why he’d failed so many classes in his previous attempt to secure a degree—and how, after a few years away from the classroom, he was in a much better position to do well. 

“Even if you have nothing to write other than, ‘I was a dumb 18-year-old who couldn’t make it to class,’ sometimes just ‘fessing up to that at least shows someone down the line that you’re taking responsibility for it and you’re less likely to do it again,” says Crowley.