What Is an Incomplete in College?

Request an Incomplete When the Unexpected Gets in the Way of Your Classes

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There are situations that come up in life that may interfere temporarily with your college life. A family emergency or illness can quickly force you to get behind on your coursework and it is in situations like this that you can ask for an incomplete.

The language at your school may vary -- taking an incomplete, asking for an incomplete, being granted an incomplete, getting an incomplete -- but the situation is generally the same across institutions. The incomplete buys you some extra time to finish your work if unexpected life events come up.

You will need to request an incomplete then finish your work before a deadline, but this is a great option that can keep you from having to withdraw or fail a class.

What is an Incomplete in College?

Although the term "incomplete" may at first have negative connotations, taking an incomplete in college doesn't necessarily have to indicate any kind of mistake or poor choice. In fact, incompletes can be incredibly helpful for students who find themselves in unexpected, difficult, or unavoidable situations.

Taking an incomplete in a college course simply conveys 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.

If you simply decided that you hated the class and didn't turn your final paper in, that's a different situation. In this case, you would most likely receive an "F" in the class, not an incomplete.

When is an Incomplete Acceptable?

Students take incompletes for all kinds of reasons.

  • You may have an unexpected illness.
  • Something might have happened in your personal life (like a family situation) that forced you to step away from your classwork for a short (or long) period of time.
  • There may have been something else that came up that simply prevented you from finishing the class.

In general, if circumstances beyond your control prevented you from completing your coursework, you might be eligible for an incomplete.

  • Did you get a severe illness that required hospitalization or a long recovery period? The registrar and your professor might grant you an incomplete.
  • Did you simply want to take a 3-week trip to France with your family before the semester officially ended? That likely would not qualify you for an incomplete.

The scheduling conflict could have been avoided or rescheduled, whereas the illness needed to take priority over your academics.

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 be in touch with more than just the registrar.

Incompletes are only given to students in unusual situations and this means that you'll likely need to discuss your situation with:

  • Your professor
  • Your academic adviser
  • Possibly an administrator like 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. You will usually be given a certain amount of time to finish the course requirements, at which point you will receive a grade as if you had never stopped and restarted the class.

If you do take one or more incompletes, make sure you're clear on what you need to do to finish the class as well as the deadline for these 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 supports your particular needs and situation.