Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 19, 2021

Framing the W on my transcript last semester: not a win, but also not an L

By SOPHIA LOLA | March 12, 2020

FILE PHOTO Lola reflects on her process of withdrawing from a class in the fall.

I did something I thought I would never have to do last semester: I withdrew from a class. And God do I wish I had handled it differently.

I don’t mean I wish I hadn’t withdrawn, odd though that may seem; I mean I wish I hadn’t let the withdrawal screw over how I handled the rest of my semester.

But first, the reason I withdrew. There are several things that could explain it, each one less “understandable” or “excusable” than the one before it: Due to being injured and otherwise occupied by trying to rest and recover, I fell behind in the class and thus wasn’t prepared when it came time to assess my understanding of the course material. Or, it was a subject I didn’t enjoy and in which I was very weak and not improving, so it made more sense to take a W rather than an F or a D. Or, I was cocky and dismissive of the course’s rigor and thought I could get away with skipping lecture and letting weeks of readings pile up, and then just magically catch up. Or, I left one super critical assignment, a 10-page paper and all its research, to the last minute when there was no way I could get it done satisfactorily and on time. 

They’re all true to some degree — maybe one more than the others, but I honestly couldn’t tell you which. Regardless, at 11 a.m. one Wednesday morning in November, I was dragging my butt to the Registrar’s Office in Wyman so I could submit a withdrawal form, rather than dragging it to a Gilman lecture hall so I could submit that 10-page paper.

I left the Registrar’s feeling humbled and defeated, but also somewhat relieved. The class (and my avoidance of its work…) had been stressing me out to the max, which was unhealthy, and this was a way out of it. Logically, I knew that this class specifically wasn’t one I absolutely had to take for my requirements, that my GPA would now stay intact for the semester, that one W on my transcript wouldn’t be a huge red flag for internships or jobs, that my parents would not be angry with me and that I was still on track to graduate on time. Admittedly, in some other cases with a W, some or all of those would not be true, and I probably can’t afford another W. But thankfully in this case, all those major things were secure. So I myself should have felt secure.

But I didn’t. And that’s where I wish I had handled things differently. Though I knew it was sensible and, at a certain point, necessary, withdrawing felt like leaving something incomplete, which then also kind of made me as a person feel incomplete. I hadn’t followed through. I had abandoned something. I had neglected my responsibilities. I hadn’t tried hard enough. I wasn’t smart enough. I was a failure, even if my transcript was going to put it in another, more sugar-coated term.

And that feeling impacted the rest of my semester, on top of other physical and mental health issues I was dealing with. Every other big assignment felt like it was at risk of going the same way. Every moment I had of procrastinating a little or of not fully understanding what was going on in class one day — things that are actually totally normal — seemed like it was going to spiral into me suddenly being miles behind and then failing or having to withdraw again. And so then I would procrastinate and zone out in class even more, because why confront something that triggered so much stress and anxiety, and why bother if I was seemingly inevitably going to fail?

It was generally only with hours left on the clock that the last bit of my rationality kicked in and I was able to start assignments, often with a couple bouts of crying along the way. I knew that even turning in “bad” work would save face more than turning in none, and that turning in none would legitimately result in flunking and academic probation and a whole bunch of other things that would probably be hard to dig myself out of. 

Some stuff got turned in a little late. Some stuff was definitely not the best quality I’ve ever done. But all the stuff was eventually complete, even if it had seemed impossible at first, and I think I actually learned and accomplished something from each of those assignments and classes. 

And I must have been underestimating myself, or my professors could probably tell that something was up with my mental health and were understanding of that — or both — because my grades wound up being better than I expected. 

So I was fine overall. In comparison to the one class I withdrew from, my other four went well. That outnumbers one stumble.

But that’s not the point. This is not about completion rates or hitting some quota of accomplishments. My point is that your sense of self-accomplishment, fulfillment and wholeness should not come from doing and finishing every single thing that you possibly could do and finish (And side note: You are also allowed to have moments of being disorganized, or lazy, or cocky, or not good at something, or having a hard time. It happens).

At a school where credit overrides and doing more than a handful of extracurriculars and feeling obligated to chase every opportunity are part of the norm, it’s easy to feel like you have to do everything and like you also have to stick with everything. But that focus on simply what things you are (or aren’t) doing disregards the significance of why you are (or aren’t) doing them and whether or not they actually benefit you. 

Don’t do things just to do things. Do things that feel like they have meaning or will help get you where you want to be. Let go of the things that don’t benefit you and that don’t have irreparable consequences to letting them go. That’s the reasoning I wish I had listened to after I withdrew, because that was the reasoning that allowed me to do it in the first place. But once I did it, it was then too easy to look at other people and think, “I’m taking fewer credits than them now. They don’t have W’s on their transcript. They can all pass that class. They did it, and I didn’t.”

The simple rebuttal to that though? I’m not other people — I’m me. The things that work for them won’t always work for me, their capabilities won’t always be my capabilities, and vice versa. 

So yes, I’m hoping that all my future classes will be successful and fulfilling and that I won’t be getting another W. And this W definitely doesn’t stand for “win.” But it also doesn’t mean I’ve lost at anything. It just means I let go of something that wasn’t working for me. And that was the best I could do.

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