How to recover from a bad semester in college

You can recover from a bad semester in college by doing three things:

  1. Adjust your academic goals and timelines
  2. Improve your study habits
  3. Supplement your academic performance with impressive extracurriculars

To learn how to do each of these, continue reading.

Is it okay to have a bad semester in college?

A bad semester in college doesn’t need to spell disaster for your college career—or even your school year. If you’ve recently received some lackluster grades, it’s important to take a deep breath and remember that millions of students over the years have been in the same place as you and manage to recover.

Like a cat with nine lives, you have a plethora of opportunities to improve your GPA, retake classes, and get your college career on track. Focusing on the three items listed above will allow you to reset and rebound. College isn’t easy, but it is conquerable, even if things seem bad in the moment.

The Atlantic reports that 10% of students have failed and retaken at least one class. Even if you’ve failed a course for which you’re in a class of, say, 30 students, that means two other students are right there with you. Doesn’t feel so lonely now, does it?

So now that’s what is in the past is in the past, let’s focus on what’s in your control.

The graph below shows the average grade distribution by course level in college classes at Hilbert College. The percentage of students who receive a D or F was lower than other A, B, or C’s—but hardly negligible.

The point is this:

You are not the only person to ever struggle at college. You’re not even the only person in your class who is struggling. If you settle down and a focus on a few key things, you’ll be able to break out of your semester-long slump.

How to adjust your academic goals and timelines after a bad semester:

Now that you’ve put a lackluster semester in the books, things have changed. You might need to retake classes, take extra courses in following semesters, and even reconsider your graduation timeline.

Follow the steps below to take stock of how your plan might need to change:

1: Decide which classes you will need to retake.

Consult your school’s policy on retaking classes. See if there are any limitations or constraints.

Some colleges limit you from retaking a single class more than three times, for example.

If you failed a class for your major, you will almost certainly want to retake it, since many schools require that you have a C or above in your major courses in order to graduate.

Why do students retake classes in college?

You should retake a college class that you failed if:

  • you need to pass it for a graduation requirement for your major.
  • you want to boost your GPA.
    • Before deciding to retake a class, check your school’s “Course Repeat” or “Course Retake” policy to see if they’ll replace your old grade with your new grade, or average the two. (example from Northeastern)
  • passing the class is a prerequisite for another course your are interested in taking.
  • you are going to be taking similar classes in the future, and you want to make sure your knowledge in the field is sharp.

2. Do the math to determine how your timeline shifts.

See if you can retake a failed class in between semesters (as a summer or winter course) or on top your planned course load for next semester.

Determine whether or not you may need to extend your timeline to graduation, and assess how this works with your other life plans—i.e. any jobs you have lined up, moves you have planned, or travel you were hoping embark on after graduation.

There is reason to believe you will become a better a student as you move through your college career. Some studies suggest that the deeper into a student’s college career, the better student they become:

Students with a higher level of cumulative credit hours perform better than students with fewer cumulative credit hours. Therefore, we may infer that a senior student (higher cumulative credit hours) is more focused and serious about academic performance than a freshman student (lower cumulative credit hours).

Journal of International Education Research, 2016

3. Crunch the numbers—How much more will it cost you?

Check with your school’s bursar and financial aid office to see how much, if at all, retaking courses will affect your costs. On average, college students pay $313 per credit hour. If you find that any added costs would be a significant burden, talk to your school’s financial aid offices to see if they have any recommendations.

It’s no surprise that college these days is expensive
—but how much does a single credit hour cost you?

4. Craft a plan that works for YOU.

When adjusting your plan after a failed semester follow these five steps:

  1. Determine which classes you will retake.
  2. Check out your college’s course offerings and calendar to find a time of year to retake them that works best for you.
  3. Identify whether that will change your graduation timeline. Ensure that you are comfortable with your new timeline.
  4. Ensure you can afford any new costs.
  5. Mentally prepare yourself—In other words, get excited!
    1. This is your new plan. If you’re not psyched about it, it will be much harder to execute on it. Get jazzed about all the great things you’re going to accomplish.

How to improve your study habits after a bad semester:

Your recent academic hardships were a learning experience—and I don’t mean that tongue-in-cheekly. If you review your study habits from your recent semester, you’ll likely be able to identify dozens of ways in which you can optimize your study habits.

Ask yourself the following questions about your study habits:

  • Do I study somewhere quiet, where I can focus?
  • Am I able study for hours at a time without interruption?
  • Do I study with others, or alone? If with others, do we actually study…or mostly chat?
  • Do I study for long enough?
    • The rule of thumb is that you should spend twice as much time studying as you do in class.
  • Do I study frequently—or do I try to cram it all in the night before the exam?
  • Do I use study tricks, such as flash cards, mnemonic devices, or online quiz apps to help me retain the information?
  • Do I study on an empty stomach?
  • Do I often study drunk or hungover?

Inspect your study habits and identify things you could improve. List them out, and actually stick to them.

Habits are hard to change. Behaviors, on the other hand, are things you can control. Focus on the things you can do day by day, hour by hour, in order to become a more effective studier.

Try engaging in these behaviors in order to eventually develop better study habits:

  • Turn your devices on Do Not Disturb mode at the start of your study session.
  • If you’re somewhere noisy, plug in headphones and listen to ambient music or white noise.
  • Make flash cards.
    • Test yourself on them frequently, in between classes or when drinking your morning coffee.
  • Take notes. Lots of them.
  • Read aloud from your textbooks and notes. Reading aloud helps you retain information up to 20% better.
  • Pack a snack for your lunch. Something that isn’t too distracting to eat.
  • Set a timer for one or two hours. Don’t leave your study room before the timer goes off.
  • If you’re struggling to focus, force yourself to spend just fifteen minutes studying before you’ll allow yourself a break.
    • By the time fifteen minutes is up, you may find you’re already deep in thought and ready to keep going.
  • Block out time on your calendar (and set reminders) to study for each class every 1-2 days—not just when there’s an exam tomorrow.
  • Be exclusive: Invite only the best studiers you know to study with you. You can hit the bars with the rest of your buddies after you’ve hit the books.

How to supplement your academics with impressive extracurriculars after a bad semester:

Your GPA is just one of the things from your college years that hiring managers will look at. Most companies won’t even ask for your GPA, especially once you move past entry level jobs.

So long as your GPA is good enough to earn you your diploma, it’ll be plenty sufficient for most jobs. But if you’re worried that your GPA dropping will hurt your job prospects, you should aim to supplement your academic performance with some impressive activities and accomplishments outside of the classroom.

Hiring managers look for three-dimensional candidates.

Consider the following ways to build out your resume while you work to improve your grades:

  1. Consider joining a club that complements your major.
  2. Join the school newspaper, radio station or TV station.
  3. Build a portfolio of work.
  4. Get an internship.
  5. Get a job, preferably at the kind of workplace like to work at after graduating.
  6. Volunteer your time for charity.
  7. Advocate for a cause you’re passionate about—Organize rallies, start a rendition, plan a fundraiser.
  8. Enter yourself into relevant contests for your major, such as writing or art contests.
  9. Submit your work for academic or creative awards.
  10. Run for Student Government.

So… what do I do if I have a bad college semester?

To review, if you want to know how to recover from a bad semester in college, take a deep breath, and then:

  1. Review what you need to do to get back on track and adjust your academic plan accordingly.
  2. Scrutinize the study habits that got you in trouble last semester and pick a handful of ways to focus on being a better student.
  3. Pursue impressive extracurriculars to complement what you do in your classes.

Will a C in college ruin my GPA?

No, a C will not ruin your GPA. The average school requires 120 credits, or 40 classes, for you to graduate. It is very easy to drown out 1 C in a sea of 39 As and Bs. If you’re able to pull this off, chances are you’ll still be able to graduate with a respectable GPA in the mid-3s.

How about an F? Can I recover from an F in college?

An F will not ruin your college GPA either. You have 40 classes, 40 opportunities to prove yourself. Diligent work in all of your classes will help you graduate even if you got a single F.

There are multiple ways to recover from an F in college. If you’re losing sleep over a recent F on your transcript, see if you can retake the course. Alternatively, if the class isn’t a graduation requirement, consider whether you would be better off focusing that energy on your other courses or extracurriculars.

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