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

A few simple steps can help you catch up

A very stressed student studying for class
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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. Examining your options can be the first step in easing your mind and helping you to catch up.

Assess the Damage

Go through all of your classes—even if you think you're behind in only one or two—and make a list of things you've accomplished, such as, "finished the reading through week three," as well as things you haven't, for example, "started the research paper due next week." 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 completed and what you still need to finish.

Look Down the Road

Don't sabotage your chances of catching up by inadvertently falling further behind. Look at the syllabus for each class for the next four to six weeks, and ask yourself a few questions:

  • Which major projects are coming up soon?
  • What midterms, exams, or other big assignments do you need to plan for?
  • Are there weeks with heavier reading loads than others?

Create a Master Calendar

If you want to do well in college, start using a time-management system. If you're behind in your classes, you'll need a large master calendar to help you coordinate your catch-up efforts. Whether you decide to use a free online calendar or print out a calendar template, start immediately before your fall further behind.

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. Second, look at all that you need to do in the next four to six weeks (as you noted previously). Pick the top two to three things you must do for each class. You won't be able to complete all of the required work right away, but that's OK: Start by tackling the most pressing assignments first. Part of being in college is learning how to prioritize when necessary. 

Make an Action Plan

Using the master calendar you created, list the assignments you need to complete and pair them when possible. For example, if you need to first outline chapters one to six so that you can then write your research paper next week, simply break it down by answering these questions.

  • 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 too nebulous and overwhelming. However, telling yourself that you have an action plan and all you need to do is outline chapter one today makes the task manageable. When you have a solid plan to get back on track to meet your deadlines, your stress level will decrease markedly.

Stick With It

Even after you've taken these steps, you'll still be behind, which means you have a lot of work to do to 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. Be diligent about following your plan and adjust as necessary. As long as you keep your goals in view, remain on track with your calendar, and reward yourself with an occasional break or social outing along the way, you will catch up.