I think we’ve all whined about how hard our classes are; I certainly know that I am guilty of a complaint or fifty. For me, “hard” didn’t truly hit until Organic Chemistry– Chem 352. Our first test had a mean score of 66 percent; and there would be no curve. I scored a tad lower than the class average.

Though I certainly haven’t coasted through school, I’ve never even considered dropping a class deep into the quarter. With the threat of a death blow to my G.P.A., I began researching what horrors would lay in my future if I used a late withdrawal privilege to get out of the course.

The process seems clear enough: you may use a withdrawal privilege between the third and seventh week in the quarter. When you use this privilege, you will incur a “W” on your transcript. Each student is allowed two Ws each year. To me, a W looks nothing like a D or an F— therefore an instant improvement.
However, when I casually mentioned dropping the class to one of my friends, a horrified look crossed over his face: “Are you sure you want to do that? I hear that getting a W looks really bad on your transcript!” Even my wildly intelligent editor responded that writing this story about receiving a W, “May be depressing from the personal angle.”

Great. I imagined admissions officers at grad schools chortling at my application and then tossing it into a rubbish bin. I would then dig it out so I could build a fire near my cardboard box house, where I would live due to my crippling poverty. Though I am an only child, my parents would disown me in favor of adopting a beautiful, smart baby who would grow up to discover the one key to world peace.

Clearly, rumors, misconceptions and urban myths flurry around the truth about how graduate schools view a W on an applicant’s transcript. Rather than following the hopefully misguided advice of my peers, I chose to nab some real help: academic advisors. Apparently, it’s their job to advise people on academic issues— who knew?

I started with the big dogs: the departmental advisors for some of the majors aimed at putting students into very competitive professional programs like law school, med school and physical therapy school.

Pre-law advisor, Dr. Paul Chen, said quickly that a W on the transcript, “is generally not a good thing; however, it is nowhere near as bad as an F.” Law schools are famously competitive, but they do not single out people based solely on G.P.A., or things like a few scattered Ws, according to Chen. He even said that he imagined Ws would be normal if not expected.

However, though it may be tempting to dump a C in favor of a W, Chen assured me that many law school applicants started out, “thinking that they were going to be pre-med,” and they ended up with some Cs in their science and math courses after which these students realized that science is not for them. Law schools are not at all shocked by students who hit stumbling blocks. “They look at the overall record… to see if a student shows improvement over the years, though [improvement] is not better than having very high grades throughout college,” said Chen.

Next on the list is the pre-med program. Tell someone that you’re applying to med school, and I guarantee you; they’ll be impressed. Why? It’s extremely difficult to get into a well-known program. So would a W severely damage an applicant’s chance of getting in? “The problem with withdrawals is that you’re probably dropping out just to get the grade,” warned the pre-med advisor, Dr. Joan Stevenson. “Med schools want to see serious intent... grades, however, are not important as a decent MCAT score and experience in the medical field, and one W is probably okay, but a habit of Ws [the admissions officers] are going to notice.” I’d noticed at this point that due to the slippery nature of how grad schools view Ws, it’s hard for any advisor to give impersonal, concrete guidance about when to take a W.

Next, I was on to pre-physical therapy, where I took especially good notes due to my interest in pursuing a doctorate degree in the field. The ever-helpful pre-physical therapy advisor, Dr. Kathy Knutzen, was more than glad to give many possible angles involved in obtaining a W. “It’s sort of a complicated issue,” said Knutzen. “What you have to realize is that in most cases, a person is at the other end who will be evaluating your credentials. Some people aren’t going to pay attention [to a W] unless there are a lot. Some people look and say okay, what course are they in? How much consideration the W is given is really a function of how competitive the pool is for slots available.” Again, no clear cut answer here.

As the grand finale, I booked an appointment with the associate director of the academic advising center, Yolanda Graham. I was sure that she could give me the absolute admissions officer’s cookie cutter view of a W on a transcript. Graham began by assuaging my fear about Ws almost instantly, telling me that in my personal situation, “you should just relax.” Graham then discussed the process to use your late withdrawal privilege. Instead of just dropping the class from Web4U, students have to go in person to the Registrar’s Office in Old Main 230. Graham assured me that doing this “is not painful;” it’s just a simple presentation of your statement that you want to drop the class.

Graham also mentioned something I hadn’t known previously: if you drop a class in the second week of school, you will automatically earn a shiny new W on your transcript, though these Ws are unlimited. Don’t let the “unlimited” bit get to you, though; this W looks just like a W earned in week seven of the quarter.
As far as the possible stigma that could be attached to having a W on your transcript, “I don’t think that [having a W] is blanketly bad,” Graham stated without hesitation. “When I was a pre-professional advisor for pre-med students, I went to UW and WSU to visit their graduate programs to find out what makes up strong applications. Schools look for patterns, so there’s nothing wrong with a couple of Ws.”

However, Ws should be obtained sparingly and strategically. Graham discussed a few situations when students are especially interested in incurring a W— for example if a student is on academic probation and needs to pull a 2.0, she can’t afford a C- in a class. In pre-professional programs, such as pre-med or pre-physical therapy, Graham noted that if a C- keeps a student from holding onto a competitive G.P.A., a W could be a beneficial option. However a concise guide to who should drop a class and who should stick it through isn’t possible, according to Graham.

Since there is no cut and dry way to advise students about Ws, the best possible approach to making a good choice is to nab an appointment with an advisor. Graham told me that appointments can usually be scheduled within two days of a call to the office— unless it’s a truly busy time like two to three weeks before or during registration. There are also drop-in hours Monday through Thursday, from 11:00 a.m. to 1:45 p.m.

The Academic Advising Center is located in Old Main 380. To get an appointment with a professional advisor call 650-3850 Monday through Friday between 9:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.. You can also send an e-mail to advising@wwu.edu. Appointments can also be made with peer advisors Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.