What Does it Meant to Take an "Incomplete" in College?

What to do when unexpected events interrupt your class schedule

Male student sitting on floor in library reading a book

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No one's life is perfect. Even if you're the most conscientious student, situations can come up that may temporarily interfere with your college life. Something like a family emergency or a personal illness or injury can quickly put you behind on your coursework. It's in situations just such as this that may need to request an incomplete. Don't worry. It's something that happens at institutions of higher learning everywhere, and most have a policy in place to deal with student emergencies.

What Does Getting an Incomplete Really Mean?

The language at your school may vary, but whether it's called "taking an incomplete," "asking for an incomplete," "being granted an incomplete," or simply "getting an incomplete," basically, what an incomplete does is buy you some extra time to finish your course work should an unexpected life event come up.

Taking an incomplete in a college course is exactly just what it sounds like:

  • Your participation in the class is incomplete.
  • You were unable to finish the required coursework by the time the semester or quarter concluded.

Even if your request for an incomplete is granted and you are given an extension on your deadlines, you will be required to finish your work prior to whatever new deadline you've been given in order to pass the course and get credit. That said, an incomplete is a useful option to pursue because it can keep you from having to withdraw from or fail a class.

However, if you simply decided that you hated a class and didn't turn your final paper in, that's a different situation entirely. Since you had no intention of finishing the required course work, you'd most likely get an "F" for the class and receive no course credit.

When is an Incomplete Acceptable?

Although you might think that the term "incomplete" has negative connotations, taking an incomplete in college doesn't necessarily indicate any kind of mistake or poor judgment on the part of a student. In fact, incompletes can be incredibly helpful for those who find themselves in unexpected, difficult, or unavoidable situations.

Students take incompletes for all kinds of reasons. In general, if circumstances beyond your control prevent you from completing your coursework, you may be eligible to apply for an incomplete, however, some things simply don't qualify. For example, if you came down with a severe illness or were in an accident that required hospitalization or a long recovery period, the registrar and your professor would likely grant you an incomplete.

On the other hand, if you simply wanted to take a three-week trip to France with your family before the semester officially ended, that likely would not qualify you for an incomplete. As much as you may have wanted to travel with your family, it would not be strictly necessary for you to join them. (In medicine, the analogy would be getting a cosmetic surgery versus getting an appendectomy. As much as a nose job might improve your appearance, it's strictly elective. The appendectomy, however, is usually a life-saving procedure.)

How to Ask for an Incomplete

Similar to a withdrawal, the registrar's office needs to grant you an official incomplete. You will, however, need to coordinate your request with several parties. Since incompletes are granted only in unusual circumstances, you'll likely need to discuss your situation with your professor (or professors), your academic adviser, and possibly an administrator such as the dean of students.

You Can Complete the Course Work

In contrast to a withdrawal (or a failing grade), incompletes can be changed on your transcript once the required course work had been completed. You will usually be given a certain amount of time to finish the course requirements, at which point you will receive a grade just as if you'd never stopped and restarted the class.

Should you need to take more than one incomplete during a semester, make sure you're clear on what you need to do to finish each class as well as the deadline requirements. An incomplete can help you deal with an unexpected situation, but the ultimate goal is to allow you to finish your coursework in a way that best supports your academic goals.