What to Do If You're Behind in Your College Classes

A Few Simple Steps Can Help Bring You up to Speed

stressed woman studying
Blend Images - Mike Kemp / Getty Images

No matter where you go to college, you'll inevitably face a semester (or two) where the workload moves from feeling overwhelming to actually being overwhelming. All of the reading, writing, lab time, papers, and exams — especially when combined with all you have to do for your other classes — becomes too much. Whether you fall behind because you mismanaged your time or because there's no possible way a reasonable person could manage all you were expected to do, one thing is clear: you're behind. What exactly are your options now?

Assess the Damage

Go through all of your classes — even if you think you're behind in only one or two — and make a quick list of things you've done (example: finished the reading through week 3) as well as things you haven't (example: started the research paper due next week). Remember, this isn't necessarily a list of what you'll need to do next; it's just a way to organize what material and assignments you've done and what you've missed.

Look Down the Road

You don't want to sabotage your own chances at catching up by inadvertently falling further behind. Look at your syllabi for each class for the next 4 to 6 weeks. Which major projects are coming down the pipe? What midterms, exams, or other big assignments do you need to plan for? Are there weeks with bigger reading loads than others, or less?

Get a Master Calendar Going

If you want to do well in college, you'll need a time management system. There's simply no way around that basic fact. And if you're behind in your classes, you'll need some kind of large, master calendar you can use to coordinate your catch-up efforts. So whether it's something online, something you print out, or something like a Google calendar, you'll need to get something started — ASAP.

Prioritize

Make separate lists for all of your classes – even the ones you aren't behind on — about what you'll need to do from here. First, look at all that you need to do to catch up (as suggested above). Second, look at all that you need to do in the next 4 to 6 weeks (also suggested previously). Pick the top 2 to 3 things you absolutely must do for each class. This likely means that all of the work you need to do won't get done, but that's okay: part of being in college is learning how to prioritize when necessary. 

Make an Action Plan

Take that master calendar you made, grab the list of priorities you created, and introduce them to one another. If, for example, you need to first outline chapters 1 to 6 so that you can then write your research paper next week, simply break it down. Which chapter will you do on what day? What is your goal date to complete it? When will you outline your paper, and when will you write it? When will you revise it? Telling yourself that you have to read all of the material before your paper is due is both too nebulous and completely overwhelming. However, telling yourself that you have an action plan and all you need to do is outline chapter 1 today makes it all manageable. When you have a solid plan to get back on track to meet your deadlines, you'll be a lot less stressed.

Stick With It

You're still behind, after all, which means you have a lot of work to do to make sure you pass your classes. It isn't easy to catch up, but you can do it — if you stick with it. It took more than one day for you to fall behind, which means it will take more than one day to catch up. Stick with your plan and adjust as necessary. As long as you keep your goals in view, remain on track with your calendar, and reward yourself along the way, you should be just fine.