Getting Back On Track After A Rocky Start In College

By Robert Cummings


We occasionally see students who do well in high school, go off to college, and then struggle academically and drop out during or immediately following their freshman year. Generally speaking, these are capable students who for a variety of reasons didn’t adjust well to their newfound freedom in college; often they didn’t learn quickly enough how to allocate time to long-term reading or writing assignments.  In some cases, this has led to missed deadlines on papers, inadequate exam preparation, skipped classes, poor grades, and eventually to voluntary withdrawal or even dismissal. This is just one example of an issue that can contribute to a student’s decision to withdraw from college. There can be other reasons, such as illness or injury, distance from home, or the ‘fit’ of the college environment that can also lead to a student’s lackluster performance and subsequent need to get back on track.

For students who performed poorly but tell us they are now ready to return to college and complete their degrees, we offer the following advice: re-establish a successful track record; convince colleges that you have changed and can now handle college work successfully.   Additionally, this type of setback provides a student with a valuable opportunity to reflect on what they want from college and their role in setting goals and working to achieve them.

How can you convince colleges you have changed? Colleges respect work done at other colleges so the best evidence is consistent academic success at another college. For example, a student might enroll for a semester or two at a local, open-enrollment community college, almost all of whom accept all students as long as they have a high school diploma or GED, and then apply to transfer to a four year college.  Or they might take courses on a part-time, non-matriculated basis at a four-year college’s “continuing education’ division (which might involve taking evening classes with older students who have already started their careers).

How long a track record will be needed? It depends on the student’s academic history and the requirements of each college but generally the longer the better. Whenever possible, students should try to meet with the admissions officers at colleges they are interested in attending, explain their situation and ask what they need to do to have a decent chance of acceptance. Preparation for these meetings is advisable.

Once the student has created the necessary track record and is ready to apply, it is important that they include in their application an explanation of their initial difficulties in college and what they have done to overcome them.  If they have more than a year of college credit, it is also important that the student be able to state what they want to major in and why.

Students who struggled initially in college will find that colleges are often very willing to forgive prior poor performance IF the student can demonstrate that they have learned how they can succeed in their college. There is a way forward; you can get back on track.