4 things you need to do when you find yourself in academic trouble
A few months ago, a brand new semester was beginning and you were getting ready to crush it. Now you’re just crushed.
Maybe that paper you pulled an all-nighter to finish didn’t get the mark you were counting on. Or your prof just told you that you’ve violated the university’s academic integrity policy. Or you got that dreaded letter—the one that says you’re on academic probation or, worse, required to withdraw.
Reading that letter, having that talk or receiving that email was a shock. Or maybe it wasn’t. Either way, it probably stings. This isn’t something you planned for, and it’s not the way your education was supposed to go.
So what do you do next?
1. Don’t panic
“Getting the first notification that something is really wrong can be devastating,” says Cathryn Heslep, student ombudsperson. “The first thing you need to do is catch your breath.”
If you can’t, then reach out for help.
“This isn’t the time to keep the struggle inside and tell yourself you can handle it,” says Duncan Wojitaszek, SAMU’s director of advocacy and political affairs. “Talking about what’s happening is almost always going to lead to a better outcome.”
So if you need help figuring out how to move beyond the panic, visit Wellness and Psychological Services, the student ombudsperson or SAMU’s Advocacy Office. Each can help you get perspective and figure out a plan for how to move on to step two.
2. Talk to your prof
This probably isn’t what you wanted to hear, but both Cathryn and Duncan agree that their first piece of advice is almost always to go talk to your prof.
“Sometimes it comes down to a misunderstanding or a mistake, so your prof is definitely the first place to start in almost every case,” says Duncan. “If you’re challenging a mark or how a test was run, it can be stressful and feel a bit awkward, but even university policy says it outright—informally talking to your prof is always the first and best step.”
That conversation may feel impossible at first, so take a bit of time to come up with a plan before you fire off a hasty email.
“It’s really best to have the conversation in person. Find out when the prof’s office hours are, set up an appointment—and make sure you keep it—so you can sit down and talk about your concerns,” says Cathryn. “Think about what you want to say ahead of time, don’t be afraid, and try not to be defensive or accusatory. Your profs are human and they want you to succeed.”
3. Consider your options
If the “talking to you prof” ship has already sailed—take a look at the many services the university provides.
“While your situation may be serious and can seem bleak, it’s probably not as dire as you think,” says Cathryn. “Use the resources and be honest and upfront with the people you talk to when you get there. This isn’t the time to sugar-coat your situation.”
If your next step does involve a formal appeal process or a hearing, SAMU’s Advocacy Office and the student ombudsperson can help you prepare for that too.
“It can be intimidating to go through the appeal process or a hearing, but it’s important to remember that while the people involved are thinking of the institution, they are also thinking about you,” says Duncan. “You need to be prepared and ready to articulate what you think is fair.”
4. Find the opportunity
“I remember being a first-year student and getting the letter telling me I was on academic probation,” says Cathryn. “I honestly had no idea it was coming, but I was one of those students who had too much fun and took on too many things in that first semester. It certainly didn’t feel like it at the time, but when I look back now, I realize that it was very much an opportunity. I hunkered down and ended up graduating close to honours. It can happen.”
Duncan says that finding a path out of almost any academic situation is possible. “It may mean working harder than you have been or putting strategies in place—especially at the beginning of the term before you find yourself falling behind—but you can find academic success.”
Even if you find yourself on academic probation or facing an unplanned year off after being required to withdraw, Duncan and Cathryn both say that doesn’t mean your academic career is over.
“Take time to really think about what you want to do and consider what compromised your academic performance,” says Cathryn. “If you have to take a year off, find a way to take a course, earn some money, refocus and prepare to be successful the next time around.”
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This story is part of Changing Minds: Creating a healthy campus – an initiative that makes mental health a priority. The program connects training opportunities, support services, resources and stories from real people across the MacEwan University community.