Correcting Bad Grades In College: A Guide

One of the common questions that I am asked by parents and students is “can bad grades be corrected or fixed?” In general, colleges are very resistant to changing final course grades, but there are some circumstances where they actually will. These opportunities are rare, however, and fixing bad grades can be a very confusing subject since all colleges are different in their policies. But, under some circumstances yes, it is possible to in some way eliminate bad grades so that they are removed from the student’s academic record or the negative impact on their grade point average (GPA) prevented. Not all students would be eligible for efforts at grade correction and the circumstances must be right to qualify. It is by accurately understanding these opportunities that students and parents can identify then attempt any grade corrections. Please keep in mind that trying to correct bad grades in college is only a rare chance, often with strict guidelines, and potential pitfalls as well. The best option, of course, is for students to do well in the first place.

I’ve encountered a number of grade correction opportunities in my work and reviewed even more to summarize some common kinds of grade correction avenues for parents and students to explore. I’ve given a general overview of the limited, but in some cases very effective, ways to address bad grades I’ve come across at colleges over many years. Since all colleges are different, parents and students need to investigate what a particular college offers, including it’s final outcome for the student, and this primer is intended to describe some existing possibilities and to help parents and students to ask the good questions about what their school may offer. Some “colleges” may not offer a chance to correct bad grades, and may even be shocked if asked. Others are very well acquainted with the process and have formal systems set up to handle requests. I’ve worked with colleges to help some students successfully use one or more process below to remove the bad grades from the transcript, such as converting them to a “withdrawal” rather than an “F,” so I know it’s possible but not necessarily easy. Each of the options have a built in danger: While they may help the student’s transcript and GPA, they do not identify and solve the reasons that caused the bad grades. College problems tend to repeat themselves, and academic failure can keep recurring so administrative remedies should not happen on their own without efforts to solve the academic issues.

Options for correcting bad grades during active attendance:

Regular Withdrawal From A Class

For students who are actively attending classes during a semester and know they are going to receive a bad grade, being able to prevent that grade from being placed on a transcript in the first place is probably the best and most obvious route of all. It becomes much harder to correct bad grades after the semester ends, so catching them early can be critical to fixing them. There are two regular periods when a student can disengage from a class: During the initial drop/add period at the beginning of the term, and up until the “withdrawal with a W” deadline that the college sets. Typically this latter date is just over half way through a semester, but I was surprised to find out that some colleges actually set the normal withdrawal date as the week before finals. If considering a class withdrawal, students and parents need to specifically check this date which should be located on the school’s academic calendar for that particular year, or they can simply contact the registrar’s office who normally handles course withdrawals. It is far easier to make the accepted withdrawal deadline than to attempt any of the past-deadline options below since colleges can be extremely reluctant, barring extreme circumstances, to allow students to withdrawal from classes past established deadlines.

Past-Deadline Withdrawal

One of the hidden avenues for students to head off bad grades is to request to withdrawal from a class past the established deadline. Most parents and students don’t realize that it is entirely possible to withdraw from a class past the stated withdrawal date and still have a “W” placed on the student’s transcript rather than an “F.” I’ve helped many students with this process so I’ve seen that it can work. However, the college will have a process to go through and will want an very good reason why the student did not withdraw from the class prior to the deadline.

The common process that I’ve seen across colleges for a past-deadline withdrawal is that the student must appeal or “petition” for a withdrawal after the deadline has passed. Essentially, the student is petitioning the Dean of his or her college to allow them to withdraw from the class even though the deadline has passed. Some colleges will want letters of support or recommendation included with the petition, like from the student’s advisor, professor, or other college staff such as a Director from the disability support services office. A pitfall to getting all of the paperwork and signatures before the term ends can be that students may already be feeling overwhelmed by the high work demands at the end of a semester, and having this additional burden of trying to get letters of support or signatures on top of preparing for finals may increase the odds of it not getting done. Also, these required letters or signatures might include the professor who teaches the class the student wishes to drop. Many students are reluctant to talk with a professor whose class they have not attended or are failing, so the student may be put off talking with that professor, making it more likely that the paperwork is never completed.

For showing a “good reason” why the student didn’t meet the regular withdrawal date, colleges tend to want fairly substantial reasons, such as the student was somehow incapacitated, hospitalized, or even incarcerated at the time. They may also want formal verification for a reason given, which can come in the form of a letter from a physician or other verifying person. Parent letters usually do not qualify as this formal documentation. Reasons that colleges seem not to accept are ones where the student forgot, just didn’t make it due to other activities, or didn’t know their current grade. Also in “unacceptable” reasons is that the class became more difficult as the semester went on and the student was very busy at the end of the semester. Even with solid documentation of the reason why the student didn’t make the withdrawal date, the college may still want to know directly from the student why they did not make it to withdrawal from the class prior to the deadline or let the college know somehow about the problems. Keeping a record of attempts to withdrawal is an important move, since this may help the student’s petition later (e.g. listing attempts to contact an advisor who never got back to the student). Anticipating a college’s possible objections or questions ahead of time can be extremely helpful in identifying the “good reasons” to provide, and the acceptable reasons might be listed directly at their website. As a rule, it’s far better to try to correct bad grades during the semester through prevention, including a past-date withdrawal, since it get even harder after the semester ends.

Correcting bad grades after the semester ends:

There are a few options to correcting bad grades after the semester ends, but in my opinion, only one that actually is helpful to students who are actively attending college. Even in that instance substantial documentation of a “good reason” will be very important. What I have found from directly working with different colleges is that, as a general rule, efforts to correct bad grades should occur as close as possible in time to the semester in question, so identifying the problem and taking action quickly can be very important. However, we will see that some options for correcting bad grades actually require that time to pass for students. The avenues below are for after a semester with bad grades has ended.

Individual Course Grade Appeals

Most colleges will allow individual course grades to be appealed by a student in an attempt to correct a bad grade, but this kind of process is usually very narrow in the scope of when it may be used and can be very difficult to use successfully. In an individual course grade appeal, there will be a formal process that usually involves the professor, the Dean, and a panel or committee. Schools will allow this process to be used under specific circumstances and there must be “valid reasons” such as:

  • The course grades were calculated in a manner inconsistent with University policy, the syllabus, or revisions to the syllabus.
  • The grade was erroneously calculated by the professor.
  • Grading/performance standards were arbitrarily or unequally applied by the professor (e.g., professor bias).
  • The instructor failed to assign or remove an Incomplete or to initiate a grade change as agreed upon with the student.

Individual course grade appeals heavily focus on professor error, such as a clerical miscalculation or not assigning a grade to a test or exam that was initially marked as incomplete but was later completed by the student. In the instance of “professor bias,” the burden lies on the student to demonstrate that the grade was due to such bias. While there may be other circumstances according to a school’s policies that fit individual course grade appeals, it is up to the student to identify a solid basis for the appeal, such as reasons above. If they do not, the Dean can call a halt to the appeal or the appeal committee can decline to even hear the student’s case. There are many reasons in a student’s view that might be grounds for an appeal, but are generally not accepted by committees for individual course grade appeals, such as:

  • The bad grade received was “unfair” without a solid basis to demonstrate why.
  • The grading was too picky or difficult.
  • Exams were too hard or poorly designed.
  • The course held too much work for a class of its level (e.g., introductory level)
  • The student could not understand the professor during lecture, for language or other reasons.
  • The Teaching Assistant was of little help.

Considering the precise and limited acceptable bases of individual course grade appeals, these are very much a “long shot” for general student efforts to change grades. Many of the acceptable reasons revolve around professor error or bias, but not professor incompetence (e.g., was a bad teacher or gave unfair exams). In specific circumstances, however, it is possible for students to appeal individual course grades so it remains an option to address bad grades in some cases.

Grade “Forgiveness” Or “Amnesty” Programs

One of the “myths” about college I’ve encountered that students seem to carry is about grade “amnesty” or “forgiveness” programs. Students can misunderstand these opportunities, sometimes due to the lack of uniformity across colleges when using the terms “forgiveness” or “amnesty” to refer to programs are as well as their requirements. Colleges tend to use these terms in different ways, so to help parents and students understand the types of college policies and programs that they may find out there, I’ve organized some of the concepts to make them more understandable. This organization and their description is based on not only programs available at colleges that I’m familiar with but others I researched to find specific details. Students and parents need to check their specific school to find out what forgiveness or amnesty opportunities are available for them and how they might impact the student’s transcript, GPA, or both. Each college has different requirements and outcomes for the program, so it’s important to be sure that the outcome will help the student.

In general, I’ve found three general kinds of academic “forgiveness” or “amnesty” programs that I would describe as:

  • Course Re-Take Grade Forgiveness Programs
  • Limited Correction Grade Forgiveness Programs
  • Past Student Re-Admission Grade Amnesty Programs

Class “Re-Take” Grade Forgiveness Programs

One of the most common kinds of grade “forgiveness” options is when a college allows students to re-take a class in order to improve the initial grade they received for that course. While called forgiveness programs by some colleges, this as more of a grade “substitution” option rather than forgiveness since the student needs to retake the class. This option is so standard across colleges that students and parents just assume that the class can be repeated if necessary without any further investigation. While there are similarities for “re-take” kinds of forgiveness, they are not uniform and can have some important variations, so parents and students need to check before using them to be certain they are a good route. Knowing the outcome, such as how the repeated class or former class will appear on the student’s transcript and how a re-taken class would affect their GPA calculation will be critical. Parents and students tend to assume that the bad grade will be completely removed from the student’s transcript, but this may not be the case. Some colleges will amend the bad grade or class with a kind of notation, while others will keep both grades on the record. Some colleges will use the higher of the two grades in the GPA calculation, while others may not. Before committing to re-taking a class, students and parents should check carefully in to the implications and requirements of this option.

Some of these common themes and variations across colleges for re-take forgiveness policies are:

  • Re-take forgiveness may only be allowed for certain grades (e.g., low grades) such as C-, D, or F. Students may not be allowed to re-take a class to try and raise a C to a B or an A.
  • Not all courses may be eligible for re-take forgiveness. Some colleges will not permit “individualized” classes such as independent study or even some art classes to be repeated, while others specify that only classes required for a major can be repeated and general education classes may not.
  • Some colleges will replace a grade only if the second attempt grade is higher than the first one, but others will use the second grade no matter what. In other words, in an effort to raise their GPA, a student may actually lower it with a repeat of the course.
  • For some colleges, the old class grade may still appear on the transcript even after it was repeated in addition to the new grade. Other colleges may use some kind of notation or even the word “repeated” in place of or next to the old or new grade.
  • While many colleges do not require a student to apply, petition, or appeal for a second chance to take a class, others may. Most colleges do require the student to file a petition if they hit a specified limit of times re-taking a class, which is usually three. If the student wants to take a class for a fourth time, they should expect to have to petition the college to do so.
  • While a changed grade may count for the college, most of them caution that the grade revision “may not count for other institutions or financial aid.” In other words, there may be implications for financial aid, scholarships, transferring to other colleges, or even graduate school since they may feel differently about the changed grades.

Limited Correction Grade Forgiveness Programs

One of the things I’ve found out about “forgiveness” or “amnesty” programs that offer to address multiple bad grades is that colleges make a clear demarcation between past and present students. Some programs are open only to currently enrolled students, while others say that eligible students are ones who have not attended their college for some time. Most multiple-course grade forgiveness programs seem to target past students, but some colleges do offer a limited kind of program for current students. These “limited correction” type programs may say that they will allow grade forgiveness for three classes, for one semester, or for some other specified duration or amount. Each school specifies the requirements to be eligible for their program, so parents and students should check with their school for the program’s policies. Like the re-take version of forgiveness, limited correction programs may say that only it applies to certain classes. I have not found limited correction programs to be very common, and a particular school’s website or contacting their registrar should answer whether a school offers this kind of grade correction program. Some colleges offer this program within their student “retention” departments, which is another resource that might provide information on them. Since it is a viable option for correcting bad grades, it might be work checking in to for a particular school to see if they offer something similar.

Some common themes that I’ve found for limited correction grade forgiveness programs are:

  • The student may need to file an appeal, application, or petition for forgiveness, so it is a process that must be undertaken which can take time.
  • Only certain classes might be eligible for the grade forgiveness program. For example, some colleges may say that required courses for a major, not general electives, are only be eligible.
  • The grades corrected may only be limited to “F” and are converted to an abbreviation that means “amnesty” but still appear on the transcript. Grades of “D” may not be affected, but this can vary by program and school.
  • At some colleges forgiveness or amnesty may only remove the numerical point value of the bad grades from the calculation of their GPA and the bad grades will continue to appear of the transcript. In other words, even if approved for the grade forgiveness program, the bad grades could still be there and the forgiveness essentially only affects the student’s GPA. Checking in to the outcome of the forgiveness program should be done carefully to see how much actual benefit it holds for the student before applying.
  • There may be many specific conditions for the forgiveness program for students to be eligible. For example, one college I encountered stipulated that the student must have changed majors and earned 24-30 credits with a good GPA to be eligible. Other colleges require that one calendar year must to pass before the student can request amnesty or forgiveness for classes during a specific semester.
  • Almost all of the programs I encountered stated that the amnesty or forgiveness process can be used only once and is not reversible.
  • As with the other kinds of grade amnesty or forgiveness, all the schools cautioned that the grade revision may not count for other institutions, scholarships, or financial aid.

Past Student Re-Admission Amnesty Programs

Programs for past students can be very different from the limited correction and re-take forgiveness options that I mentioned above. Many colleges are trying to attract past students back to the classroom, so “academic amnesty” programs (sometimes called “second chance” programs) have been progressively gaining more popularity in recent years. Most of these types of “amnesty” programs seem to apply only to past students, and there can be many stipulations and even steep eligibility requirements for them. Past student re-admission amnesty programs intend to help former students be re-admitted after a prolonged period away from the college. All colleges who offer them say that students are eligible for this kind of program only after a certain period of time has passed, which can be one or two years, five years, or in one instance I encountered an incredible 10 years before they are allowed to return. Once they do, they often must actively attend classes and earn a certain number of credits with a minimum GPA even before they are even allowed to apply for past grade amnesty. Because these programs can vary across colleges, students and parents need to check the requirements for specific programs carefully.

Like with the other types of grade forgiveness opportunities, the details are important to understanding these kinds of re-admission amnesty programs, but some common themes across colleges are:

  • The amnesty or second chance program may only target bad grades, such as C-, D, or F.
  • Most colleges stipulate to be eligible for this kind of amnesty students may not have attended classes at their college (or sometimes at any college) for a specific period of time, such as one year to five years. Current students who are actively attending classes are not eligible for this kind of grade forgiveness program.
  • Some colleges may specify that their program is only for students who had an “unsuccessful start” in college, so their amnesty program may only apply to the first two semesters of college.
  • All of the programs I encountered specified that the student must attend classes and earn credits at their school with a minimum GPA prior to being allowed to apply for amnesty. These credit requirements may range from earning 12 credits at a 2.5 GPA up to 45 credits (nearly 2 years at full time) at a 2.75 GPA. At that time, the student must apply or petition for past grade amnesty since it is not automatic.
  • Depending on the college, the low grades in question may still appear on the student’s transcript but are excluded from their new GPA calculation. In other words, the amnesty would only improve the student’s GPA and the bad grades could still appear on the transcript.
  • Academic amnesty may only be applied for once and cannot be rescinded.
  • All of the past student re-admission amnesty programs include the standard caution that other colleges, scholarships, or federal financial aid may not honor the GPA changes granted by amnesty. If a student decides to transfer another college or tries to attend graduate school, admission committees may still see the original grades and not honor any granted amnesty.

Special circumstance corrections after the semester ends:

Nearly every four-year college that I’ve worked with or encountered has some process to consider “special circumstances” for the correction of bad grades after a semester ends. However, this kind of correction can be difficult to obtain, entail a complex process, and is not guaranteed. Nor does it allow for the actual changing of a bad grade to better grade. It only permits a student to withdrawal from classes beyond the established deadline after a semester ends, and in some cases far beyond it. In this option, the student is withdrawn from classes so a “W” appears on the transcript instead of an “F” and the negative impact on their GPA is removed as well. This is a process called a Retroactive Withdrawal from classes, and many colleges will permit students to formally withdraw from classes after the semester ends under special circumstances. The specific outcome, as with the other options I mentioned, must be investigated with a specific college before it is used to make sure it benefits the student.

All post-secondary institutions are different when it comes to the concept and process of a Retroactive Withdrawal. Some colleges have very developed systems to handle this process, and may even have designated contact persons, written policies, or even a full committee dedicated to this process. Other schools like community colleges, technical schools, or other less developed systems may never have heard of this process. For the colleges that do have established policies and procedures for a Retroactive Withdrawal, there are some common themes, all revolving around the student being somehow affected by circumstances beyond their control. This might have included the death of a parent during the semester or many other valid reasons. But by far college policies and procedures seem to revolve around the presence of a medical condition that the student had during their attendance. The student does not necessarily need to have been diagnosed or treated for it during that time, it merely needed to affect them while they attended classes and be recognized later as having affected them. The post-semester withdrawal process is then, most often, a Retroactive Medical Withdrawal, which I will discuss since it is most common. To underscore this medical condition view, some colleges actually limit the eligibility for a Retroactive Withdrawal to only “health, emotional, or psychological problems,” so in essence it is a Retroactive Medical Withdrawal. Regardless of the circumstances, a college will want “official documentation” that shows the student was gravely affected, debilitated, or incapacitated and it affected their academic work. Again, a Retroactive Withdrawal isn’t limited to medical conditions, but that’s probably the most understandable and probably the most frequent reason colleges are given for this kind of withdrawal request.

Retroactive Medical Withdrawal

I’ve had particular and extensive experience helping students to document the medical conditions that affected their academics. At one point in my career I was reviewing more than 1,200 requests each year that documented the medical need students had for academic supports, and each included complex psychological, neuropsychological, psychoeducational, or psychiatric evaluations that I had to read, understand, and give feedback on regarding the requests made. These evaluations were part of an overall formal request that could be denied, and I would have to correct any problems in the request and counter any objections that led to it being denied. What I learned was that having a medical condition was not an automatic guarantee of getting what the student deserved, and documentation of the condition, the request made, and other factors all had to align to result in an approval. Making a request for a retroactive medical withdrawal for college is exactly the same concept. While the student may have documentation that shows they had a medical condition during their attendance, there may be more than just submitting report from a doctor. Some colleges can be very easy to deal with for this kind of grade correction effort, but others may have very high standards and will carefully review the documentation to look for problems.

I’ve been part of many Retroactive Medical Withdrawal requests for college students. The nature of this process is that the student must formally request to withdrawal from classes after the semester ends and the college will either approve it, deny it, or even refuse to consider the request. So having a firm justification for the request and solid documentation of the issues will be paramount to this kind of withdrawal being approved. Well-developed colleges often have explicit policies that spell out under what circumstances they will consider a Retroactive Medical Withdrawal. While this process can be time consuming and complicated, the upside is that it can be a very effective way to convert a full semester of failing grades to a “W.” Of course, there are possible downsides as well, which I discuss below.

Some considerations for a retroactive medical withdrawal are:

  • A student may request a retroactive medical withdrawal after a given semester ends while they are currently enrolled in the college or not. Past students or those with a gap in attendance can request a retroactive medical withdrawal months or even years beyond the end of a given semester.
  • The request being made is essentially to allow the student to withdraw from classes with a “W” far past the established deadline for a given semester often because of an undiagnosed medical condition that affected their grades.
  • A retroactive medical withdrawal is a request to withdrawal from classes during a previous semester, it is not a request to withdrawal from the college or program. The student can remain at their college and attend classes.
  • A retroactive medical withdrawal is different from a medical leave of absence, which is a different process (although they can co-occur at times). If a student does ask multiple times for a retroactive medical withdrawal while currently attending classes, a college may stipulate that a student should take medical leave before resuming their studies. A medical leave of absence does not automatically request a retroactive medical withdrawal, it is a separate process.
  • In order to be considered for a retroactive medical withdrawal from classes, a college will want official documentation showing that the student had a condition that affected them significantly during that time. This documentation must come from a health care provider and every college has it’s threshold for determine what is “sufficient documentation.” While colleges can vary on their requirements, typically this documentation will come from a physician, psychologist, psychiatrist, or other doctoral-level care giver. Colleges are permitted to review the documentation and decide at their sole discretion who will be granted a retroactive medical withdrawal.
  • Some colleges will have an entire formal process for a retroactive medical withdrawal that includes forms, letters to be sent, documentation to be gathered, and even plans to be developed. It can be a time consuming and lengthy process. Other colleges have a more simple process, while some have no process at all.
  • At more well-developed or larger colleges the decision to approve or deny the withdrawal request is typically made by a committee, but at some smaller colleges the decision may be up to a single individual. I’ve worked with colleges where the committee was broad-based and actually included students as members, while at other colleges a Dean or other person was the sole decision-maker.
  • The same cautions from colleges stated above for financial aid apply here, but not necessarily the ones for other colleges since a “W” normally will appear on the transcript and not the bad grades. The process is an actual “withdrawal with a W” from classes, but parents and students should check with their college for the details. In all of the retroactive medical withdrawals I’ve worked with a “W” did appear on the transcript not a “WF” (withdrawal failing) as a result of this process. But to be certain, checking with a particular school about the outcome of the process is critical before committing to it.

From my direct experience with this process, there are some additional insights about what colleges might expect or ask for that may not be listed in their formal policies:

  • Schools seem to respond best to any kind of retroactive withdrawal request when action is taken during that semester or as close to its end as possible. Getting the problems “on the record” before the term ends seems to be the preference of many colleges, or in the least contacting them sooner rather than than later seems to bring a more positive response.
  • The college may still want to know why the student didn’t contact the college about the problems. For parents, keeping a record of efforts to contact the school on behalf of the student can get things “on record” about a problem before the term ends. These contacts could be to college personnel such as professors, advisor, counseling center, student health center etc.
  • The student is formally submitting the request (not parents) and they may provide additional information to the withdrawal committee, such as letters of support from others who may have seen their struggles during that term or could otherwise offer things to support the request.
  • The retroactive withdrawal process is usually approved as a complete or “blanket” withdrawal from all classes during that term, rather than a more specific “selective” withdrawal from certain classes. In other words, a committee is unlikely to approve withdrawing from the classes with “F’s” and keeping the classes with “A’s.” Usually it’s an all-or-nothing withdrawal, so it could eliminate any good grades earned during that semester. Some colleges will approve class-selective withdrawals, but others have it written in to their policies that they do not even consider such requests. Documenting the differential effects of the student’s medical condition on the classes they took is critical for any class-specific withdrawal request, but even if this was demonstrated, some colleges still will not approve class-specific retroactive withdrawal requests.
  • Regardless of the medical documentation, the college or committee will want to know from the student what happened during that semester. This is typically done in a letter of explanation submitted with the retractive withdrawal request and colleges usually say it must be in the student’s own words.
  • At some colleges the documentation for the retroactive withdrawal request may be reviewed for medical necessity and believability by one or more of the college’s staff psychologists or other professionals. They may closely examine, from a professional perspective, the kind of evaluation, diagnoses, tests used, treatment recommendations, and all other aspects to see if they would agree with or “believe” that the retroactive medical withdrawal is a legitimate request due to a medical condition or just a blatant effort to simply get rid of bad grades. Having a “doctor’s note” is generally not considered sufficient documentation for this kind of withdrawal and “strength of documentation” is a key issue for this kind of request.
  • Parents and students typically are not permitted to speak directly to the withdrawal committee members. In fact, to prevent them from being influenced by parents and students outside of their committee duties, member identities are often kept secret by colleges and not disclosed at any point during the retroactive withdrawal process.
  • If a student intends to continue attending classes, the college or committee may want to know the student’s “plan” to succeed and to prevent the problems from recurring. This is a completely valid concern, since I’ve seen college problems repeat themselves at the same school or even at different colleges. The committee or school may set stipulations for the student to continue or resume their studies, such as having to meet with their advisor weekly or even being seen at the school’s counseling center. Having a strong plan and meeting any requirements they set will increase the likelihood that the student succeeds in their retroactive withdrawal request and does well in their future classes.