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Catching up when you’re behind

Get back on track

Are you way behind in one or more classes and trying to figure out what to do?  Stop. Don’t do anything else without a plan. When you’re behind, it’s natural to try to utilize every minute you have for completing overdue work. However, you need a realistic plan that helps you minimize negative impacts and maximize your remaining time.

We’ve created a 5 step guide to getting back on track. Please note that we talk a lot about “achieving the necessary grade” for a course rather than “passing the class.” That’s because the grade you need to pass may be different then the grade you need to get into a major or count the class toward the requirements of your major.

1) Schedule a meeting with your academic advisor.

We strongly recommend that you immediately reach out to your academic advisor or the appropriate advising department to schedule an appointment.

You are going to need to make some difficult decisions and your academic advisor is the person who can best help you. Some advisors are booked out a week or more so you’ll want to call right away. Don’t wait to schedule.

Work on steps 2, 3 and 4 below while you’re waiting to meet with your advisor.

2) Take stock and prioritize

You probably won’t be able to get everything done so you’ll need to prioritize where you put your effort.

Take stock

First, make a list of everything you need to complete for each course as well as the grades you need to obtain. You can use our table below to compile this information. A task is anything graded including homework, exams, essays, projects, etc. You can wait to assign priorities to tasks until you’ve read the next section.

Course:_________    Current grade in course:_______    Desired/needed course grade:_______

(Include only tasks for which you can still receive full or partial credit. If you are unsure if you can receive credit, include it here.)
Due date
(Include even if past due)
Percentage of course grade Grade needed on this task to achieve desired course grade Likelihood of achieving the needed grade of this task

(high, med, low)

(Scale 1-5 with 1 being low and 5 being high)


Tips for prioritizing courses

Once you have a sense for everything you need to do, you’ll need to figure out what to prioritize. Start by determining which classes are most important. Here are some questions to help you figure out your priorities.


Note: These questions are intended to be a starting point. They are not a substitute for meeting with your academic advisor. There may be additional factors you need to consider that are not included in the list below. If you have not scheduled a meeting with your academic advisor yet, do so immediately.

At this point in the quarter, can I achieve the grade I need in each specific course?

This question is important because there may be classes that you will not be able to pass.  Instead of putting a lot of time and energy into a class where you cannot succeed, it may be a better use of your energy to focus on classes where you believe you can do what’s necessary to get the needed grade.


Highly unlikely to achieve needed grade: If you failed the two mid-terms of a course, haven’t turned in any of the homework, and you need a 4.0 on the final to achieve the necessary grade, it seems unlikely that you will be able to achieve the necessary grade on the final given your past performance in the class. You can discuss your options for handling a course where success is unlikely with your academic advisor and/or your DRS coordinator (see step 4 below for more information).

Likely to achieve needed grade: If, on the other hand, you are two weeks past the due date for a paper in the class that is worth 25% of your grade and you have a 3.0 in the class currently and your professor has said that they will give partial credit to papers turned in late, it may be possible that you will be able to achieve the necessary grade in this class. Your next step in this scenario is to continue evaluating where this course falls in your priorities (see next question).

Is it required for my major?

All majors have course requirements, and many have GPA requirements. It’s important that you are familiar with the requirements of your major. You may want to prioritize courses required for your major if doing poorly in them jeopardizes your ability to graduate on time, get into a major you desire, stay in your major, or make progress toward a goal post-graduation (such as graduate school).

When is the next time I can retake the course? Will it disrupt my ability to take the next course in a sequence?

Some courses are only offered once a year and you must complete them before you can move on to the next course in a sequence. Failing a course that is infrequently offered may mean that you end up waiting a year before you can take it again and that may disrupt your timeline for graduating. Sometimes this is unavoidable, and you’ll need to figure out how you’re going to work with this delay. However, it’s worth considering this factor when you are figuring out where to direct your energy.

Will it impact my financial aid or scholarship?

You may need to be enrolled in a certain number of credits and/or achieve a certain GPA to maintain your financial aid or scholarship. It’s important to familiarize yourself with these requirements and reach out to your academic advisor as well as your DRS coordinator immediately to discuss your options if there’s a chance you won’t be able to meet requirements this quarter.


Tips for prioritizing assignments

Once you have a sense of what courses are more important, you’ll want to figure out what assignments matter most. Go back to the list of tasks that you created above. You’ll need to weigh the importance of the course, the percentage of the total grade, and the likelihood that you can achieve the needed grade on the task to determine its priority.

3) Explore the impacts of making course adjustments 

If there are classes where you do not think you’ll be able to achieve the needed grade, you may consider making a course adjustment such as dropping a class, taking an incomplete, retaking a course, etc. There are different requirements and criteria for utilizing different options.  Some options can delay graduation.

A decision to make a course adjustment should not be made lightly.  It’s important to understand what drove the problems this quarter so your choice does not worsen them.  For example, if you had difficulty staying on top of your workload, taking an incomplete may set you up to get even further behind next quarter because you’ll have more to do.  Be proactive in planning how you’ll address this problem.


We HIGHLY recommend discussing your options with your academic advisor first. You’ll want to be clear about all the consequences, positive and negative, before deciding what to do. 

Just reading about options on the UW website will not provide you with adequate information about all the possible consequences. We’ve seen DRS students significantly delay graduation or even fail to graduate due to not fully understanding the consequences of making course adjustments mid-quarter.

Keep in mind, if you’re dealing with an emergent issue (i.e. sexual assault, death of a loved one, new injury or health condition, etc.), then we recommend reaching out to your DRS coordinator to discuss whether or not emergency accommodations are appropriate.

4) Increase productivity

Strengthen your foundation

Sleep, nutrition, and movement are foundational to academic success. Small improvements in these areas can have surprisingly big impacts. For example, just 30 more minutes of sleep a night makes a difference. You can look at our resources on sleep for ideas about how to make easy, impactful adjustments in this area.

Create an overview schedule

It helps to jot down a few notes about how you plan to complete your work. Don’t spend much time on this part. Use a quarter calendar or monthly calendar to briefly map out what will get done when. You will make adjustments to this plan as you go along so don’t worry about being precise. If you don’t have a quarter or monthly calendar, you can use a piece of scratch paper or white board.

Start by working backward. If an exam is scheduled two weeks from now, you can figure out what days you’ll need to study for it and note those. For big projects and papers, consider using our worksheet on tackling big projects.

As you go through this process, you may find that you are unable to find time for everything. This is where your prioritization list can guide you. You can also schedule an appointment with a success coach to make this schedule if you would benefit from the help or accountability.

Create a short-term plan

After you have an overview of everything that needs to get done, you will want to plan out the details of what you are going to get done in the next 1-3 days. Write down what you will do each day. Remember to take into account breaks, sleep, eating, life responsibilities, etc. Write down what you will do each day. Every night, review your plan for the next day and make adjustments as needed. You may need to re-prioritize your tasks and make adjustments to your overview schedule.

Manage procrastination

The farther behind we get, the harder it can be to get going. Often, a project that is past due grows in our mind until it seems almost impossible to work on it. Chipping away a little bit at a time will help you get some momentum, feel more confident, and get closer to the finish line. You may find our tips for managing procrastination and increasing accountability particularly useful.

Challenge unrealistic thinking

Some hope is necessary for maintaining motivation and moving forward. However, it’s important to make sure that your plans are realistic. Sometimes when we want a certain outcome badly enough, we convince ourselves that we’ll suddenly become efficient working machines capable of studying 5 hour stretches at a time and working 15 hour days. If we set ourselves up for three weeks of this kind of schedule, we’ll fall even further behind. We’re much more likely to make meaningful progress when we’re optimistic but realistic about what can be done and prioritize accordingly. Realistic planning requires us to think through potential problems and to adjust our plans accordingly.

5) Address the issues that caused the problem

This step is absolutely critical, but it’s often skipped. Once the crisis of the quarter is over, you may be tempted to put it behind yourself and just move on. But without addressing the issue that caused the problem this quarter, you’re likely to repeat it again next quarter.

We have seen many students repeat a course they failed in a previous quarter only to fail it again. Simply repeating a course is often not enough to pass it. Yes, you will be more familiar with the content, but you need to address all the reasons why you did not pass it the first time around. Often, this means making changes to the way you manage your time, study, take tests, etc. It may also mean reaching out to your DRS coordinator to figure out if any adjustments need to be made to your accommodations. Many students find that a new accommodation or a new way of using a previously given accommodation can make a big difference in their future success.

Determine what went wrong and learn new skills

Often, there is more than one place where our best laid plans went awry. Here’s a list of common problems as well as links to pages where we offer strategies to address each one. You can also go to our home page for academic skills and choose the ones that apply to you.

Problem: Had trouble getting everything done on time

Try: Strategies for managing all your reading, academic planning, procrastination, creating accountability, and planning ahead for stress and symptom flare-ups.

Problem: Did not go to class

Try: Strategies for leaving on time and creating accountability.

Problem: Did poorly on exam(s)

Try: Strategies for note taking, studying, test taking, and test anxiety.

Problem: Did not seek help

Try: Strategies for explaining your needs without disclosing your diagnosis. Many DRS students share with us that asking for help is hard. Sometimes talking to a therapist about the barriers to seeking help can make it easier to do so.

Problem: Did not understand the course content

Try: Strategies for studying and note taking. We also recommend regularly attending office hours.

Problem: Procrastination

Try: Strategies for managing procrastination, increasing accountability, taking effective breaks, and setting up your workstation.

Adjust your accommodations

It may be helpful to reach out to your DRS coordinator to see if there are any adjustments to your accommodations that can address the problems. Your coordinator can work with you to figure out the factors that contributed to falling behind and discuss options for accommodation when indicated. We tend to find that students experience the greatest benefit from adjusting their accommodations when they do so in combination with learning new skills so your coordinator may also refer you to additional resources.