Withdrawing From a College Course

What it means to withdraw, reasons for withdrawing, and how to decide if withdrawing is the right choice

It’s no secret: college is stressful. You’ve got essays stacking up, exams around the corner, extracurricular commitments eating away at your study time, and of course, somewhere in between all that, you’d like to have a social life. We get it; it’s enough to make your head spin. 

If you’re feeling overworked, overcommitted, or as if you’re in over your head with your current coursework, you might find yourself asking the dreaded question every college student has faced at one point or another: should I withdraw from a course? 

Withdrawing from a course can be a scary concept. The “W” it marks on your transcript can leave a pit of dread in the stomachs of even the most reasonable of college students. But never fear; we’re here to help. 

In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about withdrawing from a course, and we’ll help you to figure out when taking the “W” is better than sticking with a course. 

What does it mean to withdraw from a class?

Most universities provide students with a “drop-add period” during which students can sign up for classes, drop out of classes, or switch classes with no repercussions on their transcripts or student records. The length of this period varies between institutions, but it typically lasts between one week and one month, with three weeks being about average. During this period, you can get a sense for how engaging a course or professor will be, how difficult the workload appears, and whether you can balance your semester’s course load successfully. However, oftentimes, one doesn’t know whether they can successfully handle their work until the first batch of exams rolls around, and that’s typically well after the drop-add free-for-all has ended.

So, what do you do when you think you want to drop a class, but the option no longer exists?  You can take another route: withdraw from the class.

What happens when you withdraw from a class?

Withdrawing from class means exiting the course with a “W” on your transcript. This “W” does not factor into your GPA, but it can be readily seen by anyone reviewing your transcript in the future. Depending on the college, students can withdraw from classes up to a certain point in the semester (usually mid-to-late semester, but a deadline does exist.) 

How to withdraw from a class

Before choosing to withdraw from a class, speak with your academic advisor about your reasoning. Below, we’ve compiled a checklist of possible reasons to withdraw from a course, and we’ve included our thoughts on when these reasons stack up to a compelling withdrawal decision. However, every student’s course load and commitments are different, so don’t be afraid to seek the advice of mentors whose job it is to see you succeed. 

It’s important to note that simply not showing up for a class does not count as a withdrawal (that would likely end up with a “F” on your transcript, which is inarguably far worse than a “W.”) To withdraw, you need to file a withdrawal with your academic registrar, which can likely be done from the comfort of your laptop screen. 

If you’ve found yourself in the position of questioning whether withdrawing from a course is right for you, take a look at our rationale below:

Reasons to withdraw from a class

There are plenty of good reasons to withdraw from a college class. 

You’re overcommitted. 

Perhaps you’ve been overambitious this semester and chose to take five, instead of the usual four, courses. After the first cycle of midterms and essays rolled through, you didn’t perform as well as you’d like in some of your courses. You feel that if you only had four classes on your plate, you could focus on delivering stronger performance and maintain a stronger GPA. 

This is typically the best-case scenario from withdrawing. Your transcript will show that you took on more courses than necessary from the start, and that you adjusted accordingly. In this case, the “W” marked beside the fifth course could very well stand for “wisdom.” 

Too many extracurriculars. Perhaps your course load is pretty standard, but you don’t have time to commit to studying for your courses because you’re overbooked outside the classroom. It’s common for ambitious students to invest in extracurricular activities, and depending on the activity, it might be perfectly fine to withdraw from a course to focus your energy elsewhere.

In this scenario, we advise you to take a hard look at your extracurriculars. Before choosing to withdraw from a course, could you instead take a semesterCaltech-Beckman-Auditorium’s break from an extracurricular activity? Think about what will make you the most compelling applicant to jobs or grad programs after college – if your extracurricular involvement is more meaningful than this one bothersome course, it could be okay to withdraw. 

The course wasn’t what you expected.

Maybe you took a “fun” elective only to learn that it wasn’t fun at all. Turns out, it’s the hardest, most demanding course on your roster. 

If an elective is detracting from your in-major required coursework, you shouldn’t feel bad about withdrawing from it. Anyone reviewing your transcript will be able to tell that the “W” corresponds to a course outside your wheelhouse. They’ll assume “Interpretive Dance” just wasn’t for you!  

A required course is being offered again. Perhaps you don’t jive with a certain professor, or maybe the time-slot is causing you to miss too many class sessions. 

So long as you take the course again and do well in it, anyone reviewing your transcript will see that a “W” this term resulted in a “A” next term, and they’ll be hard-pressed to hold that withdrawal against you. 

Is withdrawing from a class bad?

As you can see from the rationale above, withdrawing from a course often isn’t nearly as scary as it might seem. More times than not, there are great reasons for withdrawing from a course. That said, here are some further considerations to help you decide if withdrawing from a class is a bad move:

Year in college

If you’re a freshman, the stakes are lower. Employers and graduate schools look at your trajectory throughout your college career. A mess-up freshman year won’t count as harshly as one in your senior fall, for example. 

Number of withdrawals

Two withdrawals in all four years? No big deal. A withdrawal every term? Consider sticking it out. You don’t want to look like the kind of person who consistently can’t deliver on what they set out to do. 

Elective course or in your major? 

If it’s an elective, don’t stress as much about withdrawing. If it’s a required course for your major, you’ll need to get through it before graduation anyway, so unless there’s a solid reason you think you could do better re-taking the course next term, it might behoove you to finish it now. 

GPA impact

This is a big one: How badly would your GPA be affected by sticking out the course? If you think you can finish with a B and you need the course, should you really withdraw? If you know you’ll get an F and that it will tank your GPA, better to take the W and try again next term. 

Final Thoughts

In short, every decision to withdraw from a class is unique to the course load, commitments, and rationale of the student. The main takeaway should be: if you absolutely HAVE to drop a class, don’t stress out. Instead, make sure that the STORY your transcript and extracurricular activities you’re telling throughout your college career is own of growth and self-improvement. Learn from the slew of factors that caused you to need to withdraw from this course, and do you best to correct for them in the future! 


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