Knowing when to Fold ‘Em: What a Withdrawal Really Means on Your Transcript

by JENNIFER HA

Augustana’s liberal arts curriculum has allowed (and, at times, forced) me to take courses in a variety of disciplines. As a crotchety, old fifth year, I have a transcript and a grade point average of which I am extremely proud—a result of taking a wide range of courses I found interesting and fulfilling. Not all of my academic ventures have been successful, however.

In my first year, I enrolled in AUPED 112: Structural Anatomy because I was told that it was a science credit many arts students took to fulfil their breadth. I had done well in high school biology classes and believed that as long as I diligently made flash cards, I would do okay.

I was wrong. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to make effective study materials to keep up with the class. The early morning lectures would end before I felt like I absorbed any information, and I was too intimidated and overwhelmed to ask for help. To make matters worse, I had naively thought I would be able to make it to my lab every Thursday at 7:50 in the morning. I slept through a lab one morning, putting me that much further behind.

By the time the midterm rolled around, I was hopelessly behind and I knew it—as it turns out, if you don’t know the bones in anatomy, you also won’t know the muscles to which they attach. By the graces of the multiple choice gods, I managed to get a 54% on that midterm— by far the lowest mark I’ve ever received. That day, I went to my academic advisor and withdrew from the class.

A lot of things went through my mind after I made the decision to withdraw. If I’m being honest, the very first was, “I’m so glad I never have to wake up for 7:50 again.” But the worries of being a failure and affecting my transcript came closely afterwards. How was I going to graduate on time? How would this affect my prospects? Am I going to regret this?

Fast forward a few years—Founder’s Hall went from a creaky, dark building to a bright, beautiful space. The grey concrete cave that used to just be called “the basement of the forum” turned into the striking, welcoming Wahkohtowin Lodge. Some of my favourite professors left, as did sticky buns at the café. But new professors arrived, full of interesting perspectives and the café began carrying croissants and also recently restocked sticky buns. And at the end of it all, I never once regretted withdrawing from anatomy.

Withdrawing is an option many students are hesitant to consider. It feels like giving up, quitting, or failing. Those on a track to graduate in a certain time period recognizes withdrawals are a barrier to that plan. Sometimes, a class you want to withdraw from is a class that you need for your degree or your major. Others worry how a “W” would affect their transcript to employers or graduate programs.

Academic Advisors Maureen Horbay and Kyla Sawden identify the following as reasons somebody would consider withdrawing: protecting their GPA, missing or being behind in a class, and reducing stress.  

“The reason you would consider withdrawing,” Associate Dean Academic Dr. Karsten Mundel advises, “is because it does not affect your GPA.” At the end of the day, the grade point average is what it can boil down to. Dr. Sandra Rein, Associate Dean Research, emphasizes that professional and graduate programs look for high GPAs more seriously than they would look at a withdrawal or two.

The academic advisors agree, explaining that a “W” does not have the same detrimental effects as an “F” grade on your transcript. They note that employers are also likely more interested in the fact that you have a degree than specific outcomes in courses. “A withdrawal indicates you signed up for a class and then something happened,” they explain. “It shows you are able to evaluate a situation, make a choice based on new information or circumstances, and follow the procedure to make adjustments. This is a useful skill to bring to your career and the rest of your life as a whole.”

Dr. Rein says that as someone who looks at transcripts, she finds that they often tell a story. “I find when I read transcripts, it usually tells me a story of someone’s passions and interests. Their grades tend to reflect that.”  Dr. Mundel agrees: “What a [withdrawal] does is it tells a story—they were having a hard time with a course, they withdrew, they saved their GPA.”

Both Associate Deans encourage students to expand on their story, if they have one. “Even really “questionable” transcripts that have several withdrawals on them can tell a compelling story,” says Dr. Mundel, “and you should include that [story] in your cover letters.” Whether it was changing your mind on what your passions are, mental health issues you needed time to work on, or realizing you had more on your plate than you can handle, if withdrawing from a course was the right decision for you at the time, people are willing and eager to hear about it and how it shaped you as a person.

Ultimately, Dr. Mundel advises students who are considering it to take advantage of the option of withdrawing as it does not negatively affect your transcript and can actually save your grade point average. Overall, the academic advisors, Dr. Mundel, and Dr. Rein all agree: a W is far better than an F.

But before you decide to withdraw from a course, Dr. Mundel and the academic advisors both strongly encourage you to have a conversation with your instructor. While it may not be the easiest conversation to have, “your professors always have a good sense of where you stand,” Dr. Mundel explains.

While some students falsely believe that despite their current standing in the class, as long as they do well in the final, they may be able to make it through the class. While this is sometimes true, students can often find themselves too far behind to get the necessary grades on their own. In other cases, students can be convinced that they’re failing and need to withdraw when they’re actually on the track to finish the course successfully. Talking to your instructor can give you an accurate sense of where you are at in the course, shed light on what you can and should be doing, and provide you with the necessary support you might need to succeed.

You do not need a professor’s permission to withdraw from a course, but it is advisable that you consult them in the process. If you decide that a withdrawal is the right decision after all, you need to withdraw formally by picking up a form from the Learning, Advising, and Beyond office. You need to complete, sign, and return it to an academic advisor by the deadline outlined in the academic schedule. For this term, the deadline is November 30th. There are no refunds for withdrawals past the 50% refund date, which has passed. Dr. Mundel also asks students to remember that you can only take a course twice, barring appeals. And as withdrawing from a course means you do not get credit for It, you would need to explore options such as summer courses, online courses, or an additional course in your next semester (permitted by academic advisors if you meet the grade requirements).

While I have no regrets about withdrawing from anatomy, I do think that had I approached my professor sooner and asked for the help I needed to be better prepared for the study methods required in AUPED112, I could have saved myself a lot of stress. But withdrawing ultimately saved my mental health, preserved my grade point average, and allowed me to get my science credits in the sunny beaches of Cuba, learning about coastal management. Everything ended up working out and I learned that withdrawals are not the end of the world.

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