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Asking for an Incomplete

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Sometimes you’re nearing the end of a course, but an unexpected situation makes it hard for you to finish on time. Is taking an Incomplete the right answer? Read on for our advice and considerations.

Perhaps you’ve finished everything but that last paper, but you get sick and won’t be able to submit it on time. Or maybe a family emergency means you have to leave town right on the day of your final exam. In situations like these, it’s sometimes possible to take an Incomplete in the course—if the instructor is willing to grant you one.

For the university's official policy statement on Incompletes, consult the Stanford Bulletin pages linked below. On this page your Academic Advisors explain how Incompletes work, and some important things to keep in mind before asking for one.

Stanford Bulletin: Study Lists
Stanford Bulletin: General University Grading Systems

How It Works

You don't so much take an Incomplete as ask for one. The procedure is pretty straightforward: you need to discuss the possibility with your instructor by the last day of class (in general the earlier the better). If your instructor is willing, then the two of you will work out a plan to complete your remaining work in the course.

When you ask for an Incomplete, we recommend that you explain your situation to your instructor and then suggest a feasible, manageable timeline for finishing the rest of your work. Keep in mind that your instructors may have their own logistical considerations and their own departmental rules to follow. For example, just because you would like to take the final exam one week later doesn't mean that the instructor will be able to accommodate you. We strongly suggest that you and your instructor sign an Incomplete agreement form (linked below), to make it clear to both you and the instructor what work remains and your deadline for finishing it.

Instead of submitting a grade for you, at the end of the current quarter the instructor will submit an Incomplete notation on your record. At this point, all you have to do is turn in your remaining work, or take the exam that you missed. Do NOT enroll in the course for a second time-- this is not the proper way to finish an Incomplete. Just finish your remaining work. If you can do this by the agreed-upon deadline, the instructor will then change the Incomplete on your record into a grade.

Agreement for Completion of Remaining Work to Resolve an Incomplete Grade

Things to Think About

Check in with your Academic Advisor before asking for an Incomplete. Your Academic Advisor can help you think through your situation, consider whether an Incomplete is the best course of action, and inform you of any potential repercussions to your academic progress. If you feel intimidated by asking for an Incomplete, your Academic Advisor can coach you on how to write a courteous email request to your professor.

Incompletes aren't an appropriate choice if you're missing a lot of work. Remember that Incompletes are meant to be granted only in situations where a substantial part of the course work has already been completed. And even if your instructor were willing to grant you an Incomplete when you have a lot of work left, remember that you will have to complete that work by a deadline, and that it will be hanging over your head even as you enter into the next quarter and begin a new set of classes and assignments. You may instead want to consider simply finishing the course as normal and getting whatever grade you receive, but perhaps retaking it fresh in a future quarter when you are better equipped to succeed. (See: Repeating a Course)

Incompletes aren't an appropriate choice early in the quarter. As above, Incompletes are intended to help students get over a final unexpected hurdle to complete a class for which they have done the majority of the coursework. Generally, it is not possible to request an Incomplete prior to the withdrawal deadline at the end of Week Eight. If you are facing significant challenges prior to the end of Week Eight, withdrawing from the course might be the more appropriate decision. (See: Should I Withdraw from This Course?)

Don't let unfinished Incompletes pile up. If you accumulate too many Incompletes, the extra workload can drag you down and cause you to fall behind in your current classes. This situation can easily snowball and make your current quarter unmanageable if you're not careful.

Sign up for fewer units to keep your workload manageable. If you are working on your Incomplete during the academic year, remember that Incompletes are like invisible extra units added onto your course load. So doing a 15 unit quarter alongside your Incomplete might very well feel like a 20 unit quarter in terms of work!

Reach out to your instructor if you're having trouble. If you run into problems finishing your Incomplete, your instructor may be able to offer you support, extra resources, or other accommodations. Even if you cannot finish your Incomplete, in certain cases your instructor may still be willing to grant you a grade in the course based on the prior work you completed in the class. We recommend keeping the doors of communication open and seeing what's possible.

Rules and Guidelines

  • One year is the maximum time that the university allows for a student to complete an Incomplete. For example, an Incomplete taken in Autumn Quarter this year must be completed by the end of Autumn Quarter next year.
  • HOWEVER, your instructor has the right to choose an earlier deadline for your Incomplete if they wish (for example, one week after initial grades are due, one month, one quarter, etc.).
  • For Incompletes involving missed exams, instructors will commonly ask the student to take the final exam the next time the course is offered (for example, in the following quarter).
  • Until the course is complete there will be an “I” notation recorded in the space usually reserved for a grade. “I” notations are not factored into your GPA calculation, though once they are replaced by a final grade that grade will be included in your GPA.
  • You do not earn the units for an Incomplete course until the class is completed successfully. This also means that if you do not meet your minimum academic progress requirements because of the Incomplete, you may become a candidate for academic notice (or a more elevated status if you are already on notice).
  • If the Incomplete is not resolved before the deadline, the Incomplete will revert to either an NP or an NC grade (depending on which grading basis you chose when you originally enrolled in the course).

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