As a professor and academic advisor, I often get questions from students wondering whether they should drop a class. The answer? It depends on the situation--and what the student means by “drop.” The truth is that it’s pretty common for students to drop or withdraw from classes, and difficulties brought on by COVID have increased the rate at which students are stepping back from their courses.
While sometimes dropping or withdrawing from a class can be the best option, there are usually serious consequences associated with doing so. If you’re considering dropping or withdrawing from a class, talk to your advisor first and make sure that you fully understand the effect that your decision may have on your GPA, graduation date, and financial aid.
What does dropping a class mean?
Basically, there are three ways students can discontinue a course they’ve enrolled in. The first is by dropping the class. Dropping a class is something that usually must be done within the first week or so of the semester; most schools have an add/drop period during which students can drop a class without the drop being noted on their transcript.
If you miss the drop deadline but find that you want to discontinue a class later, you likely have the option to withdraw. Most institutions offer a few different types of withdrawals, so it’s important to understand what each means. A regular withdrawal (often designated as a “W” on a transcript) occurs before a specific withdrawal deadline that’s usually within the last third of the term.
These withdrawals generally don’t count towards your GPA, but your school may limit the number of times you can withdraw from a class. (Frankly, that’s a good thing--”W”s don’t look great on a transcript, especially if you’re thinking of applying to graduate school.) At many schools, there are other withdrawal types too, like a WF or a WX. A WF is often given when someone is failing the course and decides to withdraw after the official withdrawal date, while a WX is offered when a student can provide a compelling reason why they need to withdraw due to circumstances outside their control. (A WX may be preferable to a W because it tends not to count towards the official number of withdrawal credits an institution allows.) If you want to discontinue a class and have questions about the type of withdrawal you’re eligible for, make an appointment to talk to your advisor.
How to know when to drop a class?
It can be difficult to know whether you should drop or withdraw from a class, but here are a few questions to consider as you make your decision:
- Is it mathematically impossible for you to pass the class? If so, you may be better off withdrawing and spending your time ensuring that you pass your other courses with the highest grades possible.
- Is the course a prerequisite for other courses you need? If so, you may significantly delay your time to graduation if you drop or withdraw from the class, since you may not be able to register for the courses you had planned to take the following semester. If you do need to drop or withdraw from a prerequisite, ask if you can be granted permission to enroll in your prerequisite course along with your other courses the following semester--sometimes institutions will allow it.
- Is the course required for your major? If so, talk with your advisor to find out when it will be offered again. If a class is required for your major, dropping or withdrawing from the class may have a major impact on your ability to graduate on time if the class isn’t offered every semester.
- Have you taken advantage of all the academic and institutional support available to you? If there’s still a chance you can pass the course but you haven’t utilized services like tutoring or any accommodations you’re entitled to, talk with your advisor about how you can ensure you’re setting yourself up for success during the remainder of the semester. You may not want to throw the towel in just yet!
What to consider before dropping a class
As we’ve discussed, dropping or withdrawing from a class can have a significant impact on your educational goals. Before you make the decision to discontinue a course, schedule an appointment with your advisor and use this checklist to ensure that you understand the implications of doing so:
- What effect will a drop/withdrawal have on my overall GPA and on my major GPA?
- How will dropping or withdrawing from this class affect my time to graduation?
- Is the course a prerequisite?
- How often is this course offered?
- Will dropping or withdrawing from this class affect any financial aid I have, and if so, how
- What are my options for discontinuing (e.g., W, WX, I, etc.) this course? Will these options affect my prospects for jobs or graduate school, and if so, how?
- Can I take this course somewhere else or through an online credit provider to help me stay on track?
Retaking a dropped class
If you need to discontinue a course, you can usually retake it (though there are usually limits on how many times you can repeat a class). While you might be able to simply retake the course at your own institution the next semester, it’s not necessarily your only option. Talk to your advisor about whether taking the class outside of your regular schedule through a local community college or through an online credit provider like StraighterLine can help you stay on track to graduate on time. In addition to saving you time, transferring in a class from somewhere else can also save you money. While this isn’t always an option for specialized upper-level courses within a major, it can be a good solution if you need to retake a lower-level general education course.
Though dropping or withdrawing from a course is never part of anyone’s original education plan, it’s a very common occurrence, and it might be the best decision for you. Just remember that discontinuing a course doesn’t have to stop you from making progress toward your degree--work with your professors, advisor, and family to make a plan for the future, and you’ll be back on track in no time.
Anissa Sorokin, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English and Writing Program Administrator at Stevenson University near Baltimore, Maryland. Anissa’s interdisciplinary background and extensive experience teaching research, writing, and study skills help her demystify college expectations for students online and in her classroom.
Looking for study tips to help you successfully complete an online course? Check out this great article: Tips for Effective Online Learning