Sometimes, real-life things come up over the course of a semester, and you find yourself unable to finish a class by the end of the semester. That’s what incomplete grades are for! In short, you see an I grade on your transcript after that semester. Then, some time in the future, you complete the class, and the I grade gets replaced with your final grade. This post collects some tips for successfully navigating your incomplete.
Disclaimer 1: This post isn’t an official policy post. The official documentation (and other advising resources) should be the source of truth for any questions related to policy. You can find the official UC Berkeley documentation on incompletes here: College of L&S, College of Engineering.
Disclaimer 2: I’ve never personally taken an incomplete as a student, so I can only offer my perspective as a TA who’s managed incompletes for several semesters.
If I could only give one bit of advice, it would be this.
The nature of incompletes is such that each student is in a unique situation, with their own individual logistical preferences and course-related preferences. For example:
- When do you plan to finish the incomplete?
- Are there any extenuating circumstances that are still ongoing that might affect your ability to finish the incomplete?
- Do you work best synchronously with a future semester of the class, or asynchronously finishing assignments on your own time?
- What parts of the content do you feel comfortable or uncomfortable with?
Unlike a regular offering of the class, where we can plan out a course schedule for all students, there’s no one-size-fits-all schedule for incompletes. We can still guide you through finishing the incomplete, but since we don’t have the ability to read minds, we need to hear updates from you on your progress and your situation in order to best work with you.
For most classes, email is probably the cleanest way to keep in touch with course staff. Most classes will have their own email address (e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org) that gets transferred to the incoming head TAs and instructors every semester. If a course hasn’t gotten in touch with you first, this is a great place to start reaching out to the staff in a new semester. Keeping all communications in the same email address also makes it easier for staff to quickly look up past communications from you and get a better picture of your overall progress so far. This isn’t a hard rule; some TAs or instructors might prefer keeping in touch with you through their personal email, which does have its privacy benefits. The important thing is that you’re in regular contact with staff one way or another.
What are some things you can communicate with staff about?
- Your progress on assignments so far, and your plans for future progress. For example: “I finished Project 3 this week, and now I think I just need to finish Project 4 and take the final exam, which I plan on doing this May.”
- Requests for access to the current semester’s resources. For example: “Can I get access to this semester’s Piazza?”
- Logistical questions about the work you’re completing. For example: “I didn’t make any progress on Project 4 in my original semester. Should I be working on this semester’s project or my original semester’s project? Which autograder should I submit to?”
- Logistical questions about the incomplete. For example: “I don’t think I’ll be able to take the midterm this semester. What are my options? Can I take it in a future semester, or clobber it with my final exam score?”
Why is it helpful for staff to know these things?
- When managing incompletes, I’ve frequently forgotten to record a student’s finished assignments. If you have an email record of finishing the assignment, this makes fixing any mistakes much easier.
- Every semester, if I don’t hear from the student, I have to guess whether each student is planning on taking the exam or not. Confirming that you’re taking the exam makes it easier for us to send you reminders and relevant logistics emails.
Communication is really important, but your privacy is important too. If there are some extenuating circumstances you aren’t comfortable sharing, you’re not obligated to share them with staff. It’s completely okay to vaguely refer to real-life things coming up without specifying, and we can work from there.
An incomplete is great for giving you extra time on assignments. However, an incomplete can also be really dangerous–by pushing deadlines so far into the future, or in some cases, removing all deadlines entirely, it’s easy to fall into long-term procrastination.
Procrastinating for a long time (on the order of multiple semesters or years) on an incomplete is not ideal for a few reasons.
- The longer you wait to finish your incomplete, the more you forget and have to re-learn content from the original semester. I don’t have hard data for this, but I’ve anecdotally noticed a trend that incomplete students finishing much later will sometimes score lower on exams. I wonder if it’s because they’re taking the exam possibly years after watching the lecture and completing some of the assignments.
- No matter how long you procrastinate, there’s always going to be one final deadline, which is your graduation. This is even more important if finishing the class is required for you to graduate–we’ve had students who had to delay their graduation solely because they never got around to resolving an incomplete in our class.
This isn’t to say you absolutely have to finish the incomplete as soon as possible. Life throws a lot of things at you that should take priority over your incomplete, and part of the reason for taking the incomplete is to be able to focus on more important things first before coming back to the class. The key difference between an incomplete being a helpful way to focus on real life and an incomplete being an enable for infinite procrastination is the ability to plan ahead.
On a macro semester-by-semester level, it helps to set a target semester for finishing your incomplete. Depending on the amount of work you have left, an incomplete can almost be like an extra class you’re taking but getting no units for. For example, it can add an extra exam to your finals week. I’ve seen students take a reduced courseload in a particular semester with the intent of finishing their incomplete that semester. I’ve also seen students reserve a summer semester to follow along with the summer offering of the class and finish the incomplete by August. These both seem like good approaches to block out a semester for your incomplete.
On a micro assignment-by-assignment level, it also helps to plan out how you intend to finish the work in the class. For some classes, you can figure this out by following along with a new semester of the class, and using their deadlines. If you and staff are both okay with coming up with a custom schedule that gives you more time on each assignment (reminder: communicate with staff), then you can aim to follow that instead.
Plans are great, but real life might still understandably take precedence. It’s okay to replan if necessary, though be careful not to endlessly kick the incomplete to later, and remember to keep in contact with course staff about your new plans so we can best help you.
Incompletes are a mess of bureaucratic red tape, and navigating them properly can understandably be intimidating. Sometimes you’ll have logistical questions that have nothing to do with the course content:
- How do you extend an incomplete deadline? (Get a form signed by your instructor, and send it to your college.)
- What happens if I don’t finish the incomplete by the deadline? (It lapses to an F.)
- What does it mean to freeze an incomplete, and how do I do that? (Freezing means acknowledging you won’t finish the class and permanently retaining the I on your transcript. You submit a form for this too.)
These are some common questions we’ve gotten over the years. I included the answers in parentheses as reference, but I don’t think any of the answers are immediately obvious unless you look them up. In many cases, we’ve gotten far more obscure questions that even university staff have trouble answering.
If you encounter questions like this, academic advising is usually where we tell everyone to start. They might not know the answer, but they can at least point you in the right direction.
Finishing an incomplete can seem daunting, but we want to help you get through it as smoothly as possible! Hopefully this post gives you a good starting point for approaching your incomplete.
See also: An incompletes guide for TAs.