When I looked over the academic calendar for the Fall 2018 semester, I didn’t even pay attention to the deadline to withdraw from a course. I never imagined that I would have to resort to that, but unfortunately, I was wrong. Trying to understand the gibberish I’d copied from the PowerPoint in my first Intro to Calculus lecture had left me with a massive headache from, but I thought that I would understand it in time. I continued to think so through the next two months, despite a barrage of incomprehensible assignments, ineffective office hours, and failed exams. Finally, when the week of that withdrawal deadline I’d previously ignored rolled around, I talked to my pre-major advisor and my calculus professor. They both told me that withdrawing was my best option, and I turned in the form minutes before the office closed on the day of the deadline.
I was devastated, and if you’ve reached that point with a difficult course this semester, you may be too. No one likes to feel like they weren’t smart or dedicated enough to make it through a class, and everyone worries that a W on their transcript will negatively impact their future, both in college and beyond. And yet, I’m still here — I didn’t die, get kicked out of Penn, or become doomed to fail for the rest of my college career. Here’s why you’ll survive a W:
1. You aren’t going to lose your full-time status or your financial aid.
You should obviously do your homework before you make the decision to withdraw, especially if you’re an athlete or on financial aid — dropping below a certain number of credits can affect your status. Freshmen in the College are limited to four courses their fall semester, and I was under the impression that four courses were the minimum necessary to be considered full-time, which is why I was so confused by the withdrawal option. When I spoke to my advisor, she told me that the minimum is actually three, and the financial aid office assured me that my scholarship would not be affected. Make sure you look at your school’s website and/or call or visit the registration office to make sure that this is the case for you, but the withdrawal option wouldn’t exist if the standard course load were the minimum course load. No school is trying to “trick” students into dropping out. If you’re only withdrawing from one course, your enrollment and your aid will probably be fine.
2. Withdrawing is better than failing.
Withdrawing is better than failing. Withdrawing is better than failing. Repeat that until you believe it. Only you know whether you’re still capable of being successful in the course. If your low grade is a result of you not applying yourself as well as you should, then it might be worth it to stay. However, if you’ve tried everything – office hours, tutoring, Khan Academy, etc. – and you’re still not doing well, the best option is to get out. Failing a course also yields no credits, but unlike withdrawing, it tanks your GPA in the process. Choosing to withdraw from Calculus was the difference between starting my time at Penn with a decent GPA or a terrible one. I probably could have stayed and scraped by with a D, but calculus was taking up so much of my time and mental energy that I didn’t have any left to devote to other classes that I actually had a chance at doing well in. If you’re giving it your all and you’re still struggling, it may be time to cut your losses.
3. You can always retake the course if necessary.
Most general education courses are offered every semester. If the problem was that you didn’t put enough effort into the course, you can try again knowing the amount of work that it will take to be successful. Even if you were underprepared or didn’t understand the material, you can self-teach or take a course in the subject elsewhere over the summer and retake it the following year. I’m most likely not going to take this path because calculus is not necessary for my major, but one of my classmates previously dropped (which is different from withdrawing in that the deadline is earlier and it doesn’t show up on your transcript) the course and continued to attend the lectures to get a better understanding of the material. Consequently, they’re doing much better in it this semester. Especially if you’re early on in your college career, you can always sign up for the course again the following semester or year – but make sure you understand where you went wrong so you don’t end up in the same position again.
4. Resulting missed opportunities are mostly temporary.
I was devastated to find out that in order to participate in formal sorority recruitment, all PNMs (Potential New Members) had to have at least four course credits completed. Although I knew that continuous open bidding in the fall was an option, I had such serious FOMO about not rushing at the same time as my peers that sophomore fall may as well have been the afterlife. On Bid Day, I actually rewrote Justin Bieber’s “That Should Be Me” to be about me missing out on rushing (“that should be me, with glitter on my face/that should be me, finding my place”) as I listened to the cheering crowds outside. Despite my disappointment, I knew that rule existed for a reason – there’s no way I could have handled the time commitment of a sorority after such a rough start. Even if having fewer credits means you have to wait longer to participate in Greek Life, study abroad, or other exciting opportunities, you’ll find that it’s worth the wait to become readjusted after a setback.
5. This is a learning experience.
Withdrawing calculus made me ineligible to apply for a dual degree with the Wharton School, which I had previously planned to do. Almost every Penn student goes through a phase of wanting to transfer to Wharton, and like many of them, I was under the impression that a Wharton degree would make me employable, despite not being good at or interested in finance. If the course you’re withdrawing from was an important part of your degree plan (especially if it’s part of your intended major), it’s easy to feel like your future plans are down the drain. However, especially in your first few semesters, finding your path is often done by trial and error. If a course ended in a W, it may be a sign that it just wasn’t your subject. I will never be able to get a Wharton undergraduate degree, but as my interests and passions have evolved this semester, I know I wouldn’t have wanted one anyway.
Withdrawing a course also teaches you that it’s okay to not be good at something, which is a hard lesson to learn, especially for freshmen at an elite institution like Penn. I was never good at math – in fact, high school algebra was a disaster – but as long as I did most of my work, it was easy to get an A. In college, your grades reflect your understanding of the material. It’s a wake-up call to be sitting in the back of lecture and having no idea what your professor is talking about for months on end before you finally admit defeat. But it does not mean that you’re not smart enough, and it does not mean that you’ve failed. Figure out what went wrong: was it your effort, the professor/TA’s teaching style, the course itself, or some combination of the three? What can you do in the future: prepare to retake the course, take a similar course that agrees more with your strengths, or would it be best for you to walk away from the subject entirely as you’re ready? As long as you see this as the beginning of a journey instead of the end of one, that W on your transcript can mean something completely different: a win.
NOTE: The deadline to withdraw from a course this Spring 2019 semester is Friday, April 5th. Be wise in making your decision, but do not be afraid to withdraw from a course if you feel that that is the necessary step. We at Her Campus @ UPenn are here for you and support you.