Flunking a course, now going crazy.
April 5, 2011 11:25 AM   Subscribe

I failed a class for the first time in my life, and I have no idea what to do.

I am a first generation college student who is a sophomore as far as credits go. I major in mechanical engineering. I have always been a perfectionist, and if I cannot master the material exceptionally, I freeze up. School has always been an important aspect of my life and I love to study. My two and a half years of experience has been a rollercoaster. Some semesters, I end up with a 4.0 (mainly in literature and art classes) and a 2.5 in others (mainly in technical or introduction classes). I would call myself an average (3.4ish) student, but a pretty good self-promoter. I have managed to gain leadership skills, participate in competitions, and network with alumni well. In class, however, I feel like a failure, the dumbest out of the smartest. I have yet to get a grade above a course's average. And my self-esteem has been shot down by a lack of a social life (well, that's getting a little better) and problems with my emotionally abusive mother. I've attended counseling and I am scheduled to get tested for any disabilities (i.e. anxiety). I feel that my counselor and dean overlook my problems because of my performance beyond academics.

And then...I received my official transcript yesterday from an introductory math class and there was a big fat E. I now have a 2.8 GPA. I studied, but half of the time in class, I felt as if I was floating, lost in space. I looked at my series of 3 W's and the fact that I won't be able to attend graduate school. I have already scheduled an appointment with my former professor to discuss my options, such as taking the course over. But what if this pattern continues? I desperately want to change my major, but I'm afraid that I may underperform no matter what. Maybe I should just quite altogether.
posted by anonymous to Education (31 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Don't freak out! Look at this as a learning experience, not a failure. From what you have written here - i.e., the fact that you do well in art & literature classes and not so well in math & science - says to me that changing your major may very well be a good idea, and this grade might be what it takes to get you to seriously consider doing so.

Why did you choose mechanical engineering in the first place? Do you enjoy it more than other areas of study? Look at this as an opportunity to really think about what you want out of your education, rather than assuming it's a sign you're destined to be an across-the-board failure. You write very well and clearly are not stupid. There is no reason to assume you will underperform in an area that better suits the way your mind works.
posted by something something at 11:34 AM on April 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Don't quit. You're in a program that is extremely challenging, and it is a hard blow for anyone, even people who are not perfectionists, to fail for the first time. Graduate school is in no way off the table. I go to one of the most difficult to enter programs in my field, and I personally know three people who had GPAs at or below 3.0 who got in (and I don't know the specifics of many people's GPAs, so you can bet that there are significantly more out there than that) But...you shouldn't be thinking about graduate school right now, you should be thinking about junior year in college.

Start by trying to cut yourself some slack. Take yourself out to a nice meal, something that you would ordinarily rewards yourself with, and remind yourself what you told us: you worked hard and studied in the class. Tomorrow, talk to your advisor, or your guidance counselor, or your therapist at school (or maybe even all three) for advice about how to make sure that floating sensation does not keep you from succeeding next time.

You're going to do just fine.
posted by arnicae at 11:36 AM on April 5, 2011

First thing you need to do is relax. Seriously. :-) You're just fine and plenty smart enough to do well at whatever you put your mind to.

I dropped out of high school, knocked up a stripper, had a string of failed and very bad relationships, got stabbed, filed for bankruptcy, and on and on.

I went back to school at 33, got a degree in Electrical Engineering and got 4 times as many offers as my classmates despite my only having got a 2.8.

I failed my linear algebra class in college. Homework didn't count, the tests were 30/30/40 and I did so-so on the first and then bombed the second. I was devastated. I thought I was done in engineering. I thought all my work and sacrifice was for naught.

A few weeks later, I retook the class during the summer session and got a B. I used that story in job interviews about how I overcame something that was really hard for me to accept. Lemons into lemonade and all that.

My point isn't to one-up you. My point is that your failures only matter to you, and nothing you've brought up is insurmountable or marks you as a bad person. You're a fine human.

Learn to embrace that not everything you do is going to be perfect or awesome the first time around and get your ass back on the horse and try again.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:37 AM on April 5, 2011 [60 favorites]

First: Take a deep breath. Failing classes sucks, but it's something that happens. This will matter a whole lot less in a few years.

Second: Go have that conversation with your professor. I guarantee you it won't be the first time he's had this conversation with someone. Universities have ways of handling these situations, and he'll know what they are.

Third: Consider your choice of majors. It sounds like you do better at literature and art classes, but you're an engineering major? Who gets 2.5s in technical classes? Kind of a red flag there. Talk to your professor and academic advisor about how that's going. They may say you're doing fine, you just need to focus a bit more. Or they may say that this is a warning sign.

Fourth: Whatever you do, don't just quit. That's the worst thing that could happen.
posted by valkyryn at 11:37 AM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checked by failure...than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” -- Teddy Roosevelt
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:38 AM on April 5, 2011 [7 favorites]

retake it in summer when you have time to devote to that class only. And as a skill in life learn to let things flow off your back (laugh it off) and treat it as a learning experience.

I had a Calc 2 course once where I knew I was going to get a D half way through the semester, I stuck it out so that when I retook the class that I would understand what was around the corner, and the flow of the coursework.

good luck, and don't freak out about it :)
posted by zombieApoc at 11:40 AM on April 5, 2011

I have a number of friends and relatives who've gone through mechanical engineering, and they all say the same thing. The second year is the weeding out year - the classes get considerably harder, the demands made on the students are an order of magnitude greater. A goodly number of the students drop out, and this is considered perfectly normal.
As others have said, don't beat yourself up about failing the course. Talk to the prof, ask specifically where you went wrong and what you can do to improve, and consider either re-taking the course or doing it in the summer.
posted by LN at 11:40 AM on April 5, 2011

Does your college/university have a learning center with tutors and/or study groups for classes available?

Does the department have tutors?

There's nothing you can do about the failed class at this point, but there's a lot that you can do and likely a lot of resources at your disposal that you absolutely should make use of. Furthermore, this is not unusual of first generation college students. A lot of first generation college students have similar problems to the ones you describe. Your institution may also have an office or a person whose job it is is to provide additional support to first generation college students --- this is no mark on you or you abilities. It is simply that sometimes first generation college students require more support.

Take advantage of it if it is available to you.
posted by zizzle at 11:42 AM on April 5, 2011

Its not the end of the world, nor an axe to grad school.
I failed probably 4 courses due to not being fulling engaged in the course.
You know what I did? I retook every class I failed and got an A in the course. Sure a couple of those classes didn't change my gpa due to uni rules, but I knew that an E was not a reflection of my work but an absence of the work I could do.
I was deans listed evey semester after screwing off and am scheduled to enter grad school starting in July.

You have some work cut out. Talk to professors before you get in to trouble in a class, go to office hours and be fully engaged. This is a minor set back, and with the right attitude and engagement something you will learn from as well as be stronger because of it.
Good luck, you can do it!
posted by handbanana at 11:45 AM on April 5, 2011

You are a sophomore. You're academic career, while not just starting, is still very young.

A story: when I was a sophomore, I was working on a science-related major, because I figured that is what would get me a job one day. I ended up getting a D in Molecular Biology, which made me cry buckets and buckets. Because I do not get Ds. I had not, up until that point, gotten lower than a B in any class.

So after I finished the self-flagellation, I thought about it, and was honest about the fact that I had totally slacked off on that class because...I was reading the novels a friend of mine had on her comp lit course syllabus.

Long story short: I changed majors and, as it happened, did much better in my classes.

Maybe this is a sign you want to study something else, as others have noted above. Even if that isn't the case, you still have two more years to buckle down and bring your grades up. That is what I did - astounded by my newly lowered gpa, I worked my ass off in the new program until I was getting 4.0s in my final semesters. Which, coincidence has it, many admissions officers look at when considering transcripts. A pattern of improvement, especially in major-related courses, seems to be seen as a good thing.

So, definitely take note of the advice above and consider the next two years a challenge that you are up to tackling. I am pretty sure it won't ruin your future grad school career. It certainly didn't ruin mine.
posted by vivid postcard at 11:51 AM on April 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

I was a "bad" student and every time I go over my transcripts I wince at the deplorable grades I received in classes I enjoyed and learned a lot from.

Part of the whole college experience is growing as a person and experiencing failure, success, disappointment which help you develop necessary skills in the face of adversity/obstacles. This challenging time will prepare you for the future so take advantage of it as an opportunity to succeed. This may very well be your advantage among peers in getting into a grad program where they are looking for students that are resilient, determined and persevere. Having it easy doesn't give you the experience you'll need in life.

With that, I advise you to talk to an academic adviser about your goals and assess the options you have. Changing majors is a good idea and any number of University staff/faculty are available to help you figure that out.

Be kind to your self. I beat my self up for my performance in college yet went on to have a great job. This is not the end of your academic career. You'll do fine.. My friend, who works at a large University says you should keep your head up. Lots of students struggle but find their way and do well. Hang in there!
posted by loquat at 11:51 AM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Did you folks finish reading the post? Anonymous "desperately wants to change [his/her] major." I totally agree, and I don't think there's any shame in it. You will not "underperform no matter what." Everyone (well, me anyway) gets the feeling that they're a big fraud and everyone else is much smarter, but I promise you, it is not true. Lots of people change their majors. I did it (from biology to geography) and spent the rest of college taking great classes that I loved, and thanks to some on-campus networking (which you say you're good at!) I now have an interesting job in my field of study, while a lot of people I know who stayed with the "hard" major they hated are currently unemployed. Relax, take a few deep breaths, reassess what you're good at and what you like to do, and then figure out how to do it.
posted by theodolite at 11:51 AM on April 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

The life lesson you just learned is a million times more valuable than whatever it'll cost you to retake the class. It's not going to keep you out of grad school in and of itself if you want to go, it's not a big deal.

One day you're going to look back and realize what a blessing this was. There's nothing like reality to poke holes in anxiety. You failed a class. The sun is still shining, the police are not at your door. Your school has an academic policy, and in that policy you will find the information about re-taking a class. (Generally this policy is that you can replace a specific class's grade once, or maybe twice. If you nose around, you will find students who do this on a regular basis just to replace Cs and Bs, too. It's not a dirty little secret or anything.)

Talk to your professor - who has failed many before you and will fail many after you - and get some guidance. Do NOT argue the grade unless you actually think he mismarked something, and make sure he knows up front that you're not arguing the grade, just asking for some advice. He might suggest a different way of attacking the material, or he might hook you up with a grad student who can tutor you for a little cash (do this, it will help you in many ways).

Part of preparing for the working world is preparing to make mistakes and deal with them like a grown-up. That means handling it, not running away or hiding. This is easy to handle, embrace it as the huge valuable lesson that it is.

Note: I actually found out after graduation that I didn't pass a math class. I stayed in school another year to retake it and also turn my minor into another major, and just in a number of ways the timing and the experience turned out to be really great for me. I am a happy, gainfully-employed, productive member of society despite my shameful difficulties with calculus.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:56 AM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

There's some good, get back on the horse-type advice upthread, so I'll skip adding to that chorus. It's good advice if you have some compelling reason to be a Mechanical Engineering major.
My advice begins with a question: Why are you a Mechanical Engineering major? Really. Why? Do you have a passion for mechanical engineering? It doesn't sound like it here. Indeed, it sounds like mechanical engineering is really taking quite a toll on you.
What it does sound like is that you have an affinity--and a talent--for art and literature classes. You can major in those, too. Why wouldn't you focus your studies on something for which you have a talent and an affinity? I'm not saying there are no good reasons; just that there aren't many.
Re grad school, you'd be surprised. Connections, GRE (or other standardized test) scores, a pattern of growth and improvement following some hard times in your first couple years, and compelling essays/interviews can go a long way toward undoing the Ws and Es on your transcript. Not to mention a community college course or two, post-graduation, if necessary. You don't say what subject you're interested in studying as a grad student. But if mechanical engineering causes you such suffering as an undergrad, I can't imagine why you'd pursue it further. There are a million other things to do in the world, things you haven't even heard of yet. Why shackle yourself to something that's bringing you down?
posted by willpie at 11:59 AM on April 5, 2011

“Give it your best effort and then fuck it.” -- Michael Douglas
posted by firstcity_thirdcoast at 11:59 AM on April 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yes, and definitely change your major if you want to.

I meant my advice to be more general and fully agree that no one should major in anything that is not of interest to them or that they are struggling too hard with.
posted by zizzle at 12:08 PM on April 5, 2011

I failed a course my sophmore year, and got a D on the retake. Clearly it was not my best subject :) I graduated with a 2.8 after changing majors and making Dean's List my senior year, and went on to get an MBA too. Failing one course means little, except maybe you should rethink your choice of major. It doesn't sound like ME is really your thing.
posted by COD at 12:09 PM on April 5, 2011

You won't believe this now, but failing a course is one of the best things that can happen to you in college.

Learning that you can deal with adversity and still succeed is the most important thing you can learn. The people who struggled in college but powered through are the most successful people I know. The people who coasted through undergrad with easy A's are mostly lost in the real world, because nothing is as easy as school was.

Trust me, in 5 years you'll see this as a net positive.
posted by auto-correct at 12:12 PM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have multiple F's on my undergraduate transcripts. I was admitted to a high-ranked law school, where I graduated with honors. Life is good.
posted by red clover at 12:23 PM on April 5, 2011

"I desperately want to change my major, but I'm afraid that I may underperform no matter what."

I second theodolite, there is no shame in changing your major, and you most definitely will not underperform no matter what. I know how it feels, and I remember feeling that it was totally hopeless. I promise you, it's not.

Way back in the day, I was a biology major and I was miserable. I hated the classes, hated the material, and was barely squeaking by grades-wise. Then I flunked organic chemistry. TWICE. I thought it was all over, that I had completely ruined any hope of academic success, and that this was hard proof that I didn't have the brains to cut it in the academic world.

Then in a moment of clarity, I realized that I was actually doing really well in my electives... and more importantly, I actually enjoyed them. I was between my sophomore and junior years at that point, and if I switched my major then I'd still have enough time to pull up my dismal GPA. It did hurt my pride a lot to "give up" on biology, but the relief I felt was immense. I made the switch from a major in biology to a double major in the arts, and by the time I graduated my grades were good enough for law school. I'm a practicing lawyer now, and nobody cares that I failed organic chem (twice!) eight years ago.

You say you hope to attend graduate school? What field of study are you interested in? Which major can you switch to, to put you on the path to that field? Go to the counselor and dean of that department and feel it out. Best of luck to you, I hope you find something you love doing.
posted by keep it under cover at 12:23 PM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

My sibling was a miserable chemical engineering student and then an excellent psychology student-- much to my parents' initial horror-- and is now an excellent professor of neurobiology, Ph.D and all.

Social science: it gets technical too, if you want to be technical about it.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 12:27 PM on April 5, 2011

Obviously you're not going to "underperform no matter what" because there are obviously some circumstances in which you don't underperform (you get A's in some of your classes).

Also, look into what the drop/withdraw requirements for classes are at your school and try to make sure to drop a class if you're doing very poorly in it (I assume that's where those W's came from). There's really no reason to fail a class if you can pull out of it when you realize you're failing.
posted by deanc at 12:28 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Okay, take a deep breath. This is not the end of the world. And it's really really not worth quitting over. I quit when things started getting rocky in school for non-academic reasons, and I've regretted it ever since. Don't be me.

That said, the fact that you don't always score well in your major-related classes might be a sign that you should look into something else. Many many college students change majors over the course of their college education; there is absolutely no shame in doing so. Take heart that you've done well in your literature and arts classes - those abilities are not going to go away just because they've become relevant to your degree. Definitely go talk to your academic adviser; this kind of thing is precisely the reason that you have one!

Honestly, I'm more concerned that you say you're afraid you're going to under-perform even if you switch majors. It might be to your benefit to talk to someone impartial about why you feel that way. Don't give up on yourself because of a single failure, when your other grades show that you're clearly capable of succeeding. I crashed pretty hard myself in college (my last semester was 4 Fs in the classes that I gave up on and an A in the film studies elective that I actually enjoyed), and I wish now that I had known I could get help before I gave up altogether.

Whether that help is in the form of your academic adviser or a counselor at the health center (or both), do talk to someone. The university is very much invested in your graduation, and they typically have lots of programs in place to help students just like you.
posted by ashirys at 12:40 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

You know, I DID quit my major, based on not being able to do the math for the classes required. Based on a professor's lack of support. I regret it a lot. Give some thought to finding classes over the summer at a lower tier school --something that will help you firm up on the basics, so that you can come back with a better capacity to understand the concepts that are passing you by now.
posted by Ys at 12:44 PM on April 5, 2011

A few things:

1. Speak to everyone you can: professors in your current courses, professors from your prospective major, academic advisors, counselors, and people you trust for advice. This is the MOST IMPORTANT THING.

2. At our university, retaking a course erases the original grade if the course is part of your major (I think). Do a bit of research now and save yourself some big headaches and/or regrets.

3. Switching your major is sort of a red herring here. Are you performing poorly in technical courses because you genuinely dislike engineering, or because you aren't working hard? If it's the former, switch your major to something you enjoy. If it's the latter, switching majors won't help.

Good luck.
posted by yaymukund at 12:47 PM on April 5, 2011

I end up with a 4.0 (mainly in literature and art classes) and a 2.5 in others (mainly in technical or introduction classes)... I received my official transcript yesterday from an introductory math class and there was a big fat E.

You sure mechanical engineering is for you? If you're doing poorly in intro math and techincal classes then maybe you should be in a liberal arts major.
posted by spaltavian at 12:51 PM on April 5, 2011

Learning how to fail in life & go on - resilience - is one of the most valuable skills you can acquire in life. It will serve you well in your relationships, in business, and in every other aspect of your life to come. You're going to figure this out, and perhaps it will help you understand that your perfectionism isn't serving you well anymore and you need a different approach to succeed as you go forward. Best of luck.
posted by judith at 1:11 PM on April 5, 2011

And my self-esteem has been shot down by a lack of a social life (well, that's getting a little better) and problems with my emotionally abusive mother.

Do you live with her? Move to the dorms. This solves both problems, as the dorms offer a ready-made social life away from Mom. Plus, you'll have people on hand with whom you can study.

I flunked out of my first semester of college due to anxiety and an emotionally abusive mother. So you're doing much better than I was! I took some time off, worked shitty jobs, and saved up enough to move Far Away. Best thing I've ever done. I didn't get super-awesome grades (more like 3.5), but no one cares except grad school admissions departments. The second best thing I've ever done is to deal with my anxiety through therapy. In my case, it required medication, but there are other things to try first.
posted by desjardins at 1:12 PM on April 5, 2011

I did everything wrong you can do, barring breaking laws, in my undergraduate career. Took incompletes, withdrew, slacked off, had a terrible GPA. I was a "perfectionist", also. I figured if I was going to get a C or a B- in something I should see what I could do to get the A, which usually would require more work than I had time for, so I took the incomplete or I withdrew. Not a good plan! Leads to a very low overall GPA when your incompletes turn to fails.

So I dropped out. For a very long time. Was chatting with my Dad about college one day when I whined "but I'd be 35 by the time I finished!" and my Dad pointed out I'd be 35 anyway, and wouldn't it be better to be 35 with a degree? Dad was wise, so I went back to a new school, and suddenly I was focused and able to complete my coursework with very little stress. In fact, I was amazed at how easy it all was, and was embarrassed by how poorly I'd done before.

Part of it was simple maturity, but part of it was that I changed my major to something I was suited for. I graduated summa cum laude (which is a HUGE joke, but that's what happens when you transfer, your mistakes get left behind!) and went to grad school on a fellowship the next year. My grad school saw my entire transcript (from both schools) but were interested in the recent work and not my earlier mistakes.

I guess what I'm trying to say is life takes you in a lot of directions. If I could go back in time I'd drop my perfectionist bullshit and finish school in whatever degree in four years (instead of sixteen), not worrying about grades along the way. Make your family proud. Get a degree. You don't need to be an engineer. And you'll do fine.
posted by clone boulevard at 6:21 PM on April 5, 2011

Lesson #1:

I have always been a perfectionist, and if I cannot master the material exceptionally, I freeze up.

Address this. Talk with your counselor about ways to counteract perfectionism, or come back to AskMe and make it the topic of your next question. Or look at all the previous answers. You may need to temporarily reorganize your priorities so that your first aim is to avoid freezing up, and your second aim is to answer the test questions. If you miss a question but not because of freezing up, then you can count it as a success (at least partially).

Lesson #2:

I received my official transcript yesterday from an introductory math class and there was a big fat E. . . . I studied, but half of the time in class, I felt as if I was floating, lost in space.

You knew, or should have known, that there were problems in that class long before you got your transcript. I am not saying this to beat on you, and I hope you're not beating yourself up about it—it happens to a lot of people in college! But the lesson to take away is that when you're having trouble in a class, you need to act early. Face the problem head on: go to the professor and let them know you're struggling. Ask for study tips, or ask to clarify the pieces you don't understand. Ask to work through a few homework problems together so the professor can figure out where, exactly, your grasp of the material is slipping. Or hire a tutor from among the more advanced students in the major. Or withdraw from the class.

Lesson #3:

Some semesters, I end up with a 4.0 (mainly in literature and art classes) and a 2.5 in others (mainly in technical or introduction classes). I would call myself an average (3.4ish) student, but a pretty good self-promoter. I have managed to gain leadership skills, participate in competitions, and network with alumni well.

There's something to be said for struggling with a challenge until you conquer it, but there's also a lot to be said for playing to your strengths. It sounds like the engineering major is making you miserable. A humanities major may not have quite such a clear-cut career path ahead, but a humanities degree with a solid in-major GPA plus great leadership and networking skills will probably add up to make you more employable than an engineer who's barely hacking it.

But what if this pattern continues? I desperately want to change my major, but I'm afraid that I may underperform no matter what.

Your past experience indicates that you do not "underperform" in humanities classes. I suppose that could change, if your anxiety is tied to your major—in other words, if you switch to a literature major, you might start "freezing up" on literature assignments—but nothing in your question suggests that this will be the case. You seem to enjoy the humanities courses more, and that gives you extra motivation to fight the freeze-ups. And remember that the style of evaluation is different in humanities courses: you write more papers where you get to take the assignment home and take your time on it; there are fewer exams where you have to sit in a room and come up with the answers RIGHT NOW. So a humanities major might work better for you if you suffer from test anxiety. There's also more room for a range of interpretations in humanities arguments; usually it's not like in math where if you don't master the material in chapter 2 of the textbook, you have no hope of getting through the rest of the semester.
posted by Orinda at 6:33 PM on April 5, 2011

I am in the middle of exams and don't have time to write a long post, but I've been through the academic part of this to the point that people started worrying that I was depressed. Saw a doc, they said I wasn't, but was and referred me to the campus therapist. Didn't really help, but I found some coping strategies on my own. If you want to talk feel free to contact my via any of the means on my mefi page.
posted by Canageek at 8:42 AM on April 6, 2011

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