How to Tell Your Parents You're Failing a College Class

Mixed race mother and daughter using laptop together
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Although there are things you can do if you're failing a college class—or even if you've already failed it—breaking the news to your parents is an entirely different problem.

Chances are, your parents are going to want to see your grades from time to time (translation: every semester), especially if they're paying for your tuition. Consequently, bringing home a nice fat "F" probably wasn't on your list of things to do this semester. Given that no one is going to be happy about the situation, the best approach can be a basic one: Be honest, positive, and sincere.

Tell Your Parents the Truth

Be honest about the grade. Whether it's a "D" or "F," you only want to have this conversation once. Saying, "Mom, I'm going to be getting an 'F' in organic chemistry" is much better than, "Mom, I think I'm not doing so well in organic chemistry," followed a few minutes later by, "Well, I've failed most of the exams," followed by, "Yeah, I'm pretty sure I'm getting an 'F' but I'm not totally sure—yet."

At this point in your life, you undoubtedly know that parents deal better with getting bad news that can improve later than getting relatively bad news that gets worse later. So answer some basic questions for your parents (and yourself):

  • What is it? (What specific grade did you earn or expect to earn?)
  • What part of the equation is your fault?

Explain whether you have not been studying enough or spending too much time socializing, for example. Own up to the situation and the responsibility. Honesty may be a bit uncomfortable, but it is the best strategy in situations like this.

Explain How You Plan to Improve

Present the situation as real—but also as a growth and learning opportunity for you. Raise a few questions and provide the answers, including:

  • Do you need to manage your time better?
  • Did you spend too much time just hanging out with people? (And how will you rectify that?)
  • Do you plan to take fewer units?
  • Do you need to be less involved with clubs?
  • Do you need to cut back on your work hours?

Let your parents know what you're going to do differently next semester so that this won't happen again. (And avoid having to have this conversation again.) Say something like:

"Mom, I failed organic chemistry. Looking back, I think it's because I didn't spend enough time in the lab/didn't balance my time well/was too distracted by all the fun things going on on campus, so next semester I'm planning on joining a study group/using a better time-management system/cutting down on my cocurricular involvement."

Additionally, let your parents know what your options are in a positive light. They most likely will want to know:

  • "What does this mean?"
  • Are you on academic probation?
  • Are you able to keep up with your other courses?
  • Do you need to change your major?

Explain how you can move forward. Let your parents know what your academic situation is. Talk to your adviser about what your options are. You might say:

"Mom, I failed organic chemistry, but I talked to my adviser since I knew I was struggling. Our plan is to have me try it one more time next semester when it's offered, but this time I'll join a study group and go to the tutoring center at least once a week."

Of course, this means you need to talk to your adviser before you come home and inform your parents of your academic struggles.

Be Sincere, Avoid Blaming Others, and Listen

Parents can smell dishonesty. So be sincere about what you're saying to them. Did you just goof up and learn a lesson about how important it is to go to class? Then tell them that instead of trying to blame it on a bad professor or lab partner. Also, be sincere about where you're going from here.

If you don't know, that's OK, too—as long as you're exploring your options. Conversely, be sincere when you listen to what they have to say. They aren't likely to be happy about your failed class, but they do have your best interest at heart.