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an instructor's guide to not tanking your grades

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#1 resonance



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Posted 01 January 2008 - 11:47 AM

I have taught mentally ill college students and have been one myself. Based on those experiences, here is a guide to not tanking your exam / your class / your degree while you're having a meltdown. This is probably most applicable to college students in the United States, but there's generally applicable stuff in here too.

None of this is easy to do when things get rough, but many of these are minor time commitments that can make a huge difference.

1. DECIDE ON YOUR MAJOR GOAL. If you are clear on what you want, it will be easier to decide what to do while things are going south. If your major goal is to get a good education, get a good job, or go to graduate school, your top priority should be using relevant resources (including those related to mental illness). If your major goal is to avoid treating your mental illness (or using accommodations, extensions etc), evaluate what you are willing to sacrifice (grades, time, extracurricular activities, your job, future salary, etc) and plan what you will sacrifice when.

See the bottom of this entry for my opinionated take on this.

2. KNOW YOUR AVAILABLE RESOURCES. If your school has a students with disabilities service, a counseling center, or a health services, and you are not already using them, look them up and find out what they offer.

3. KNOW YOUR COURSE POLICIES. Take time out of your day to go over your syllabuses with a fine-tooth comb. You need to know your teachers' policies about emergencies, grade appeals, accommodations, and extensions/make-ups. Plan to make use of these where they can help you.

4. STAY IN TOUCH. Many teachers will make arrangements for minor life emergencies if (and only if) you contact them before the assignment due date / the exam date. One of the worst things you can do in a course or a job is to simply stop showing up. You do not have to give them all the details. Some things you might consider asking for extensions/accommodations for include: medical emergency; inability to concentrate due to medication side effects; recently diagnosed and have started accommodations process; etc.

If you have a major emergency - for example, being hospitalized for a week without forewarning - teachers are generally more lenient.

If you go to talk to a teacher about an extension/accommodation/etc and they're an asshole about it, it doesn't mean you did something wrong. Some teachers are just assholes. See section on escalation below.

5. PLAN AHEAD. Sometimes talking to your teacher is sufficient. Sometimes they'll want a doctor's note, so make sure to get one. Sometimes they'll want documentation from the disabilities office (especially for ADD, since assholes who do not have ADD sometimes try to abuse the system).

With accommodations, teachers often have a policy of "the first X weeks of the semester" or "X days prior to the exam". The actual policy may be more lenient - for example at my university we're required to give accommodations up to the exam itself. But it is very difficult to accommodate people on the spot if they need resources (like an extra classroom) that are not easily available.

6. KNOW YOUR UNIVERSITY POLICIES. Like drop/withdrawal deadlines and tuition refunds for different dates of drop/withdrawal, and any policies for medical leave. Put deadlines in your calendar. Nobody wants to drop or withdraw from a course or a semester, but should it come down to it, failing grades on your transcript look way worse than a withdrawal. A failing grade communicates "I fucked up and didn't handle it in time" (even, unfortunately, if that's not the case); a withdrawal says "things got really bad and I'll have to have a good excuse as to why, but I recognized what was going on and handled it as well as I could". Don't be too proud to take a needed break to get your shit together.

7. TRACK YOUR GRADES. If you don't know how much trouble you're in, you won't know what steps you need to take next. If the grade calculations are confusing, go to office hours and ask for help. If you can't make office hours, contact your teacher to see if you can set up an appointment.

8. ESCALATE IF NECESSARY - AND DO SO POLITELY. For example, if you ask a graduate student teacher for an extension for medical reasons, and you don't have a doctor's note, and he/she turns you down, you can go to the professor supervising him/her. The professor may back them up; he/she is not necessarily obligated to reverse a decision. Keep in mind that the professor and graduate students are usually in communication over issues that come up, and will tend to support each other, so being polite to all involved will help your case.

If a teacher gives you shit over accommodations, document it and go to whoever manages accommodations at your school.

If a teacher is being an asshole to you in general, and your school has an ombudsman, they may be able to help you, or at least give you advice.


My advice for people unsure of whether they should seek treatment/accommodations/extensions/etc:

1. EMPLOYERS WANT SOMEONE WHO PERFORMS WELL, NOT SOMEONE WHO SACRIFICES GOOD PERFORMANCE IN ORDER TO NOT TREAT MEDICAL PROBLEMS. You are preparing for a job or an advanced degree. A good grade says that you are capable of handling any problems that might make you a poorer employee/grad student; a bad grade says that you did not (or were not able to) handle your problems. A withdrawal looks a lot better than an F.

Employers and schools want to hire someone who values performance over pride. They are not interested in whether you pulled off D's because you valued "overcoming your ADD through willpower"; they are interested in hiring people who will do what they need to perform well. (And it's generally a bad idea to tell them about any mental illnesses you have, anyway.)

2. YOU ARE AN INVESTMENT AND YOU ARE EXPECTED TO MAKE USE OF AVAILABLE RESOURCES IN ORDER TO PAY IT OFF. You get help every time a teacher chooses a textbook for you or gives a lecture, and every time an administrator does anything that makes your life easier. You or someone is giving the school money on your behalf, but that money *is not enough* to pay for all the services you receive.

So who's paying for the rest of it? The government (sometimes), grant funders (at research universities), and alumni donations (at all schools). Why? Because you're an investment. They're investing in you because they think you will give them a good return, by learning as much as you can and then going and doing good stuff with it after you graduate.

Counseling and health services, and disability services, if your school has them, are getting funded this way too. They're part of the investment and part of what you pay for, both with money and with your blood, sweat, and tears. You're not accepting free help. You're using available resources intended for you to use when they will be helpful.

If you're refusing or putting off going to counseling services or health services or the students with disabilities office, or refusing to ask for / accept extensions or other accommodations, you're not doing anyone any favors by making yourself a poorer investment for all the people who pay for your available resources, and you're not doing anyone any favors by giving yourself a poorer education.

(Feel free to add suggestions)

#2 null0trooper



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Posted 01 January 2008 - 12:48 PM

5. PLAN AHEAD. Sometimes talking to your teacher is sufficient.

Goes along with goal-setting: for major projects (anything more than 10% of your grade) set your own deadline a week or two early, so that you aren't caught flat-footed at the last minute and overdue. Overnighters have their place in tradition, not in your schedule.

Also, if you know the dates of your midterms, schedule a day or two off (from everything you can avoid) a few days before so that you can actually study, rework homework, etc. You probably do need more time, arranged differently, than everyone else - so take it.

2. KNOW YOUR AVAILABLE RESOURCES. If your school has a students with disabilities service, a counseling center, or a health services, and you are not already using them, look them up and find out what they offer.

That includes the Library, librarians, computer labs, the labs help staff: "Normal" students only use these resources when they absolutely have to, usually around midterms and finals (since they usually aren't used to stress and confusion, they get cranky about it too.) Any other time, you have the world's knowledge at your beck and call. Besides, you can always put in an odd half-hour in the middle of the day looking up stuff for the projects you've been putting off already.

Health services: that can include the med school, law school, etc. The catch is finding the right groups that need someone like you for a guinea pig or test case (learn to politely ask the admin/secretarial staff about stuff like that)

P.S. How to fail faster: Ignore the course policies. Very little torques off your professor or teaching assistant than making up your own office hours for them unless it's a genuine emergency. (And when you do ignore that advice, don't lean on or dump your crap on equipment you aren't authorized to operate yourself.)

Edited by null0trooper, 01 January 2008 - 12:57 PM.

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#3 withing


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Posted 01 January 2008 - 01:07 PM

Wow, what timing! Thanks so much for posting this. I'm about five days away from starting my first day of a four year college (gonna get a BA in Education). A lot of the things you posted will come in handy. I'm going to print it and paste it over my desk.

Although I already have an AS from a community college, I understand that a University is *way* different. And, I get the added pleasure of being old enough to be "mom" to my fellow students - this is a "fresh outta high school" type of university and I'm 41. Add my recent stress with the madness (that would be the psycho ex), top it all off with bi-polar... I think it's going to be an - interesting - experience. :)


You can bet your buns I'm going to take advantage of every resource available, because I don't know if I'm going to be asked to join any study groups. ;) hahaha!

Thanks for the great advice.

The Past is the textbook of tyrants; the Future the Bible of the Free. Those who are solely governed by the Past stand like Lot's wife, crystallized in the act of looking backward, and forever incapable of looking before. ~Herman Melville, White Jacket
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#4 lachesis



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Posted 01 January 2008 - 02:47 PM

My friend is a prof and said that 50% of students in his classes these days are getting assistance with accommodations. The most common request is for test taking. The students are needing to be separated from the other classmates while doing exams. He thinks exams should not be required seeing that so many people have problems with them.

#5 resonance



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Posted 01 January 2008 - 03:00 PM

Along with paying attention to goal-setting: don't assume that strategies and schedules that work for other students will work for you. For example, I cannot learn from verbal input alone, so I don't go to reviews - I use the time to refresh myself on textual material instead. If you are rapid cycling, you might do different tasks at different points in your cycle depending on what you can handle at the time. The idea is to develop a wide toolbox of strategies, and try to figure out which ones are most appropriate for you, your current material, and your task. Because you can study really hard, and it won't do anything at all unless you were also studying effectively.

If you are doing groupwork, and you are not always able to do things on others' schedules, it can be a good idea to describe that up front, and explain how you plan to compensate. For example, I tell my groupmates that I have a medical disorder affected by circadian rhythms and I can't stay up past my bedtime, even if it's an academic emergency, but that I'm good at planning ahead of time and happy to put in plenty of work during normal hours.

Path - thanks! I hope it's useful. If you have any commentary as you go along I hope you'll consider adding it...

#6 december_brigette



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Posted 01 January 2008 - 11:28 PM


I am an alumnus that tries to give as much $$ back to my college as i can. when i was working, it was a lot more. The reason i give back is because i know previous alumni contributed and gave me the chance of getting a degree. I went to a very small private school - however, price wise it was about the same as a state school.

nonetheless - i contribute because i want people to have the same opportunities as me. and I want to make sure that there are educated people in this world!!

thank you Resonance for recognizing the "investment" people can be to themselves and others by succeeding in school.


Edited by december_brigette, 01 January 2008 - 11:29 PM.

dx: bipolar 1, anxiety, and a little ptsd

current meds:
cymbalta 90mgs
depakote 1500 mg
prazosin 1 mg
seroquel 50 mg

topamax 50mg
xanax 2.50 mg

other meds ive tried: abilify, ambien, effexor xr, lamictal, lexapro, lithium, lunesta, paxil, provigil, tegretol, trazodone, wellbutrin, zoloft.
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#7 sarahmarie


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Posted 02 April 2008 - 07:21 AM

If possible make a friend in the course. At least someone that you can email if you're missing class. I know I've missed several classes in a row due to depression and it's nice to be able to get notes from someone.

I've even had one prof offer to call me before class when I told him that I suffered from severe depression and anxiety.

I've found that schools and profs in general tend to be pretty understanding and helpful if you just tell them the truth about what's going on. That way they know you're putting in effort, you're not just a slacker that wants to miss class or forgets deadlines due to not caring.

Also know your school's policy on incompletes. Sometimes things don't fall apart until after the drop date. But at the same time there is no way you can do anything at the moment. For example, this past fall, about 3 or 4 weeks before finals, I fell apart completely. 10 days in acute care and then a week later went to a residential program. Luckily I was able to take incompletes in my courses instead of getting an F. Most of them, I explained what was going on (sociology and psychology profs are usually most understanding/helpful I think) and when I started this semester I got my assignments from of them. If you have good grades up to the point of falling apart, sometimes they'll cut down the work you have left. I just have to do a few assignments in one course, he's not making me take the final.
My Diagnonsense:
Major Depressive Disorder (Recurrent, In Partial Remission); Anxiety Disorder (NOS); Borderline Personality Disorder

Current Cocktail:
Prozac (60mg), Wellbutrin (300mg), Neurontin (300mg tid), Lamictal (300mg), Trazadone (150mg), Relpax (PRN for migraines), Imitrex (injectable, PRN for migraines), Synthroid (75mcg), antihistamine, Singulair, Nuvaring, allergy shots (weekly)

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#8 technogiggle



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Posted 02 April 2008 - 12:26 PM

if only the internets were around when i dropped out of college the 1st and 2nd time...

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#9 mel1



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Posted 01 September 2008 - 06:22 AM

I just started school to get a degree in acct. So far, I am making all "A's". But I've only been in school for a couple of weeks, with my mood stabilized. I was wondering if I should get accom. just in case. My professors are pretty nice. I love my acct. classes. I wasn't sure if I would like it but I was pretty sure. Now I think it's fun and challenging. Like playing a fun game that you keep trying to get to the next level. I'm working on my 2nd bach. degree. My first took me 6 yrs. I got out of my first college with a 1.4 GPA. If only I had known! Now, I know what problems I may have. How exactly do you go about requesting accom.? Do you ask the professors indiv. or do you go to the dis. office? How much do I need to disclose? I have so many issues, I'd like to not throw them all on somone's desk who is going to think me a freak.
"I cannot do everything, but I can do something."-Helen Keller
My ADHD mantra.

current dx: Bipolar 2, GAD s/ Panic Disorder, dysthymia, MDD, ADHD
current rx: seroqel- 100 mg-50 am and 50 at bedtime; Lamictal-100-am, 200-pm; Klonopin-.5-TID

#10 resonance



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Posted 01 September 2008 - 06:45 AM

To formally request accommodations you need to go through the disabilities office. This requires more paperwork, but can involve less disclosure to the prof, and the prof has to accommodate you if at all possible. The best way to start this process is to call your disabilities office and ask them about their process. It will probably involve something like an initial appointment plus getting a letter from your pdoc, and maybe some testing, but I'm not sure what order that would go in. They may also want to get your academic advisor involved.

You can also ask the prof directly, and then it's up to their discretion, like it would be if you were asking for an extension on a paper. This is low-paperwork but less certain to get you results and can involve more disclosure. You can also do this first and then do accommodations if it doesn't work but that can make your relationship with your prof more confrontational.

Whatever you do, the earlier you can do it, the more certain it is you'll get the accommodations. If you're trying to get accommodations on short notice and plan to go through the disabilities office, you can start that process and also notify your prof that you're working with the disabilities office and are planning to request a private room for the next exam or extra time on quizzes or whatever.

#11 reddog



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Posted 01 September 2008 - 03:27 PM

things went to shit for me this summer. not mentally, but in home life & medically (mil had 2 hospitalizations, we needed to take time to help her post hospital, then i caught what she had & was down for a another week).

what helped me was staying in touch with my prof, even if it was just an email message. thank god for email. i also felt that the fact that she knew me, cuz it was a small class, helped. if you possibly can, make sure the prof knows you as a 'person', not just a warm butt in a seat. i think it makes it easier for them to see you as a person having an emergency instead of a generic student who dropped the ball & is begging for handouts.

we weren't buddy buddy, but she would chat with my classmates before class started, while we were waiting for other students. so, she knew i was married, had a mil, i knew she was married, didn't like being called professor because that's what her mother called her, etc. such a simple thing as being a few minutes early to class and chatting with my professor had such an unexpected benefit.

(fyi, when i told her my situation & that i was going to try to make through the quarter & retake if i had to, she listed out all my optiond and went over them with me, and explained it would be much better to drop the class and retake it, that it would look better academically. if i hadn't talked to her, i wouldn't have done that & i know even if i passed the class, i wouldn't have *learned* the material)

Edited by reddog, 01 September 2008 - 03:28 PM.

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#12 Rraven



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Posted 13 December 2008 - 05:25 PM

I'm a senior in a 4yr school and this past semester i became insanely depressed and stopped going to class. the previous 3 yrs i struggled with slight depression but i went abroad my junior yr and that really cleared my head and i thought it put me on the right track. However it didn't and it got worse in the fall. I stopped going to class around the beginning of october and just stayed in my room all day. i would lie to my friends and family that i was dong fine but i knew i wasn't. I broke the news to my family over thanksgiving and i was able to get a medical leave of absence but i will have a withdraw next to all my classes for the semester, but like resonance said, its better than F's.

I thought it was just depression but apparently its BP-- who knew?? I was just prescribed Lamictal, it was between that and wellbutrin, and i'm currently on the 5th day of taking it. my family keeps asking me like everyday if its doing anything and that's annoying, but i think they've got it in their heads that it'll take a few weeks/months for it to really do anything.

I'm a little nervous about next semester cuz i know i'm not going to graduate ontime but i'm trying to take enough classes over the summer to graduate without having to come back for another semester. I'm fortunately financially secure...or was at least before very recently, but i still don't get any financial aid so theres a lotta pressure on me to not fuk this semester up cuz my parents won't pay any more. I need to get into a routine of getting up, eating (ive also lost quite a bit of weight which is not good cuz i'm a skinny dude to begin with, i got down to 114 at one pt), going to class, doing my work and doing well academically...but i also want to have a social life. I'm a 22 yr old male, i need a social life lol. Do you have any suggestions on how i can balance my "new" life?

I'm just starting to come to grips with whats been going on, i was diagnosed last wednesday, today is saturday, so its still pretty new. Any suggestions would be much appreciated, thanks!
RX: Lamictal...just started so i'm still on the 25mgers

#13 tryp


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Posted 13 December 2008 - 05:28 PM

I'm just starting to come to grips with whats been going on, i was diagnosed last wednesday, today is saturday, so its still pretty new. Any suggestions would be much appreciated, thanks!

Welcome to CB :) I don't know if I have anything much to offer (still struggling myself) just wanted to say you'll probably get more responses if you post this as its own thread in Introductions or the Bipolar board or the Students board - since this thread is pretty old, some people might not see/fully read your response and get to the part where you ask for suggestions.

Wish I had something more helpful to say :)

ETA: Well, I guess I can say something partially helpful - when I first started having MI issues, my social life (not exactly extensive to begin with) went to hell in a handbasket. But I think sometimes you sort of have to choose your priorities. You just got diagnosed with a mental illness, you're playing with meds, trying to get yourself together, trying to handle your classes - you've probably got enough on your plate as it is. Your academics seem to be a top priority for you, so I'd sort of focus on trying to get that under control before trying to do anything else. That's mostly what I've done, except for a couple close friends necessary to help maintain some semblance of sanity ;)

Edited by tryp, 13 December 2008 - 05:34 PM.

Dx: Complex PTSD
Tx: Lamictal (250) + prazosin (7.5) + "therapy"

#14 blackbird


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Posted 13 December 2008 - 11:13 PM

Totally get involved with the disabilities office. I didn't when I was an undergraduate and postgraduate. I didn't see myself as disabled, but my life would have been a lot easier if I had done. Also make sure you get seen by the student counselling body. I had 5 years of wonderful psychotherapy as an undergrad with a marvellous therapist in employment of the college

blackbird x

DX: Schizoaffective (bipolar type - ultra rapid cycling with major paranoid refractory psychosis), Borderline Personality Disorder, OCD, Anorexia Nervosa, Alcohol Dependence (in recovery 26/12/09)

RX: 50mg Risperdal Consta Injection x once per fortnight (equivalent to 6mg a day), 600mg Lithium, 60mgs Prozac, 5mgs Diazepam x 3 a day, 7.5mg Zopiclone

"For years one has to put up with the feeling that people do not care, really care, about one; then one day with growing alarm, one realises that it is God who does not care: and merely that he does not care, he does not care one way or the other"

Lawrence Durrell, "The Alexandria Quartet"

Driven to distraction by the utter lack of tenderness in this world

#15 Rraven



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Posted 14 December 2008 - 03:32 AM

thanks for the suggestions! though blackbird, my schools counseling center sucks pretty hardcore. i went there sophomore year for what i thought was depression, i had to fight to get an appointment, and when i finally did, they gave me to a woman who was 7-8 months pregnant. I saw her 3xs then she went on maternity leave and she didn't set me up with another therapist. i called them back and they said id have to wait til AFTER CHRISTMAS (it was right after thanksgiving). so i have absolutely no faith in them anymore, but my therapist here has a contact near my school so i'll go to see that person regularly.

what can the disability office offer me? and do they or me tell my profs about whats going on? and how do they or me determine what kind of "special" treatment i need/deserve? i know you guys probably don't have all the answers, but i just thought id ask anyway lol.
RX: Lamictal...just started so i'm still on the 25mgers

#16 tryp


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Posted 14 December 2008 - 04:18 AM

thanks for the suggestions! though blackbird, my schools counseling center sucks pretty hardcore. i went there sophomore year for what i thought was depression, i had to fight to get an appointment, and when i finally did, they gave me to a woman who was 7-8 months pregnant. I saw her 3xs then she went on maternity leave and she didn't set me up with another therapist. i called them back and they said id have to wait til AFTER CHRISTMAS (it was right after thanksgiving). so i have absolutely no faith in them anymore, but my therapist here has a contact near my school so i'll go to see that person regularly.

what can the disability office offer me? and do they or me tell my profs about whats going on? and how do they or me determine what kind of "special" treatment i need/deserve? i know you guys probably don't have all the answers, but i just thought id ask anyway lol.

School counseling offices tend to be really busy - you have to fight to be seen here, but if you show them that you're really sick, they'll come through for you. Sounds like maybe there they just fail. I'm glad you got a referral near your school, though.
I don't really use my OSD here, but I know that they can help you with getting accommodations, like if you need extended time to write exams and stuff.

Dx: Complex PTSD
Tx: Lamictal (250) + prazosin (7.5) + "therapy"

#17 RebelSong



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Posted 02 June 2011 - 08:03 PM

I really, really, really wish I had been here in January and saw this... Thank you so much for this. If I have another meltdown, I will definitely come here. I'm working on getting everything back to normal for the next semester.

Diagnosis: Depression, Bipolar NOS, Insomnia, possible ADHD
Drugs: Cymbalta, Lithium, Trazodone
Didn't Work: Zoloft, Ambien, Seroquel, Seroquel XR, Abilify. Taken off Trileptal (which worked!) due to taking birth control.
Other: Type 1 (Juvenile) Diabetes

#18 Hedea



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Posted 17 October 2011 - 11:58 PM

I wish I had seen this 4 years ago. My grades would have been significantly better, my numerous meltdowns much better handled... although I did manage to get my BA...in psych, amusingly enough. Whenever I go on to graduate school, though..I'm printing a copy out and taping it on my wall so I can't lose it.
I may be crazy, but I'm not stupid.
(I am also not a health care professional in any way. Anything I say is NOT medical advice. Do your homework and visit somebody who actually knows about this crap before you do anything.)

they tell me: bipolar II, social anxiety disorder, adhd, fibromyalgia, migraines
they give me: 375mg venlafaxine xr, 30mg buspirone, 400mg tegretol, 400mg lamotrigine, 30mg adderall (+non-crazies)
and just in case...klonopin, sumatriptan, naproxem sodium, ondansetron, hydroxyzine, tramadol

#19 Thomas



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Posted 18 October 2011 - 08:29 AM

I started my first semester getting all A's, but then my fiance left me and I went into a terrible depression and didn't even go to any classes. I didn't think to withraw, so I had lots of F's. Remember, a withdrawal is much better than a failure. My transcript followed me around for 16 years before I got into another state college and made wonderful grades.

Dx:BP1, OCD, Diabetetes Type 2, Hypertension, Gastroparesis & kidney stones
Rx: Abilify 20 mg., Klonopin 6.0 mg., Restoril 30 mg. Cymbalta 120 mg. , Lamictal 400 mg., Cogentin 1.5 mg. Crestor 10 mg. hydrochlorothiazide 25 mg., Hyzaar 100/25 mg., domperidone 20 mg. and Levemir Insulin 40 units, Actos 45 mg.,Proprananol ER 80 mg., Hydrocodone/APAP 40 mg./4000 mg., tizanidine 1 mg., Fiorocet 3 mg.

#20 Will



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Posted 18 October 2011 - 12:10 PM

Thanks, resonance, for the post and to others for replies. I'd just like to say that if you must take a sabbatical due to illness, make sure you are ready to go back and don't rush back in before you're completely ready, after making sure of your school's policies in this regard.

BP 1

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