Students: What to Do When You’re Drowning

William Blake, via Wikimedia Commons

William Blake, via Wikimedia Commons

1. Get help

If you’re drowning in your schoolwork, the last thing you should do is pretend it isn’t happening or hide. Talk to your professors. Go to the student counseling center. Talk to the dean of students. Make sure someone knows what is going on. This means you can get help if you need it, and your problem will be documented, so that professors might be able to accommodate you.

2. Don’t make the dumb mistakes

A. Something is better than nothing.

If you just never turn in a graded assignment, you get a zero. One zero may mean failing the course, or very close to it. Even if you turn in incomplete gibberish, it may get some points, which is better than zero!

B. Show up to class.

Showing up is by far the easiest thing you can do with the biggest payoff. (This is true throughout life, by the way.) Sitting in class every day means you’ll hear announcements and reminders, you’ll get hints about assignments, and you’ll get at least a passive exposure to the material. If you can’t handle anything else, you can handle this, and once you’ve done it, you may find that the assignments aren’t as hard to handle as you expected. It should go without saying that while in class you should stay awake and keep your mind on the class, not the laptop or smartphone.

C. Don’t be a jerk.

Don’t lie to your professors, don’t brown-nose, don’t whine, and don’t try to manipulate them. They have seen all these tactics before, and whether they call you on it or not, you will have alienated them. Be nice, be respectful, take responsibility for your own behavior. Those are the ways to win real goodwill.

D. Keep in touch.

Don’t just disappear. If you’re unable to come to class or turn in an assignment, tell your prof about it as soon as possible (before the date in question is infinitely better than after!!). Be honest, and take responsibility for your own inability to follow through on the class. It may be that there’s nothing your prof can do (without being unfair to other students). It may be that your prof can find a way to work around your issue, if you’re willing to do your part (such as an alternate assignment, etc). You won’t know which is true until you ask.

3. Survival Tactics

A. Read the syllabus! Frequently!

This is where all the course policies and schedule are spelled out. At the beginning of a course, make sure you have all the required readings and you know where and how to turn in assignments, and what the due dates are.

B. Skim intelligently.

If you’re overwhelmed by the readings, make an effort to figure out how to skim effectively. This is a skill. Just letting your eyes pass over the pages without taking anything in is not what I’m talking about here. Read this guide [link goes to PDF] to reading a book, and apply it to any reading assignment. Look first for clues about the main ideas (title, abstract, introduction, section headings, conclusion). Think about how the subject of the reading connects to the subject of the course, and the topic for the particular day or week for which this reading was assigned. This will tell you what aspects of the reading you should pay most attention to. Make a list of questions—What is the author trying to say? How does this add to what we’re covering in class? What is most interesting, surprising, or confusing about this reading? Then look through the reading for the answers to these questions. If this is all you manage to do, you’re probably still well ahead of the game.

C. Use a calendar.

Set up an early warning system. Google calendar or any other calendar software will allow you to set up reminder emails or alarms. Go through the syllabus at the beginning of class and put all the due dates in the calendar. Set alarms for the day you should start working on an assignment (1-2 weeks before due date, usually), the day when you should have a draft (a few days before due date), and the last few hours, when you need to proof read, and print or download. You might also look into an online to-do list, like the one built in to the google calendar, or the more complicated one at

D. Take good notes, be organized.

You need some kind of system to make sure you keep all papers related to a given course in one place, where you won’t lose them. Create a system for your notes, too. Take them in a notebook so you can’t lose pages. Use margins to insert subject headings or comments about the relative importance of a given passage of notes (for example, write in the margin, “for exam!”)

E. Take care of yourself.

Shower. Eat. Sleep. Exercise. Block out a reasonable period of each day to relax (preferably after working), and stick to it.

F. Avoid Wikipedia.

If you don’t know the answer to a question, the last thing you should do is google it or look to Wikipedia. Even assuming these sources will give you accurate information (and they don’t always), the information will be organized for different purposes, with different emphases. Always start with the materials that are required for the course. If course books have an index, start there. Look through headings and sub-headings in the required readings. Look at the topics on the schedule in the syllabus to see where each reading falls, to tell you what it relates to. Look through your notes from class.

G. Plagiarism is never the answer.

Plagiarized papers are never good papers, even if the plagiarism isn’t caught. Students never believe me about this, but it’s true. A good paper reflects (thoughtfully!) the questions and problems that the class covered. A plagiarized paper is almost never a direct answer to the assignment posed (since it came from some other context). Even purchased, custom papers are written by people who were not in the class. Even if they are experts in the field in question (they almost never are), they don’t know what the professor is really looking for, because to find that out you need to be in class. And if you plagiarize from another student in the class, the prof will see both your papers, which makes things rather obvious. To plagiarize well is possible but actually harder than simply doing the assignment in the first place.

Also, the penalty for plagiarism ranges from a zero on the assignment to an F for the course to expulsion from the school. Even assuming an inflated expectation of your potential success if the plagiarism isn’t caught, this is not worth that risk. Turning in a crappy paper may get you, say, 30-40 points out of a 100 if you truly don’t know what you’re doing but put in a minimal effort (say, no more effort than it takes to paste random lines out of wikipedia). That’s better than zero.

4. Failure can be an opportunity.

Failing at something gives you lots of information, which you can use to improve your situation. But you need to examine what happened carefully and honestly in order to take something out of it and turn yourself in a better direction. Failure may tell you that a certain subject is not for you. Nobody is good at everything; this is okay. Failure may tell you that your priorities are not lined up well with what you’re actually doing. Re-evaluate those priorities, and try to act according to them. Failure may also mean your goal is fine, but your methods are flawed. Try new methods.

5. Take a break?

This is often heresy in American educational circles, but if you’re not in a place in your life where you can put real effort into your studies, or if you do not see the value of the classes you’re taking (despite actually trying!), it may be time to take a break. Do some honest self-assessment, and come up with a realistic plan for how to come back, in case you need it. Remember that if you have loans, you’ll have to start paying them back (usually 6 months after leaving school). But if you’re not getting anything out of your classes, then you are wasting your time and money. The world will not stop turning if you don’t finish college four years after graduating from high school. It is possible (though harder!) to come back later. You don’t have to leave forever—try starting with a semester. Talk to an advisor at your college about your options.

At my college we often see students failing out on their first time around, and then coming back a few years later, after work or other outside experience. The difference is miraculous – the older students usually have perspective, motivation, maturity, and focus.

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