When you have left it too late

Most of my tips are about making sure you don’t leave things too late. So you do have enough time to create the best possible coursework or that you have spent enough time revising. But I know sometimes for whatever reason, this doesn’t happen. So this blog is about when you have really messed up and it looks like it’s all too late. Hopefully most people will stop reading at this point because everything is (more or less) under control. This blog focusses on leaving an assignment too late. I will cover last minute revision in another blog.

I guess some of my colleagues might think I shouldn’t be giving this advice. But I work on trying to share stuff I wish I had known when I was a student and this is definitely in that list!


What if you realise that tomorrow is the submission deadline for your coursework and you haven’t even started it yet? Perhaps you don’t quite know what the assignment is.  Here’s what to do:

  1. You need a cool head. Even with a few hours before the deadline there are things you can do. Most universities these days have pretty strict rules on deadlines so unless you have genuine medical reasons for needing an extension, you won’t get one. Don’t pretend you have had a computer problem – these are never accepted. What you can do is to check what the exact requirements of the assignment are. Also the assessment criteria – what if you hand in 24 hours late? If you are penalised 5% for 24 hours, could you gain more than this by working the extra day? What percentage of the module marks are awarded for the work? How can you gain at least some marks?
  2. Cancel everything. Don’t get into the mindset that it’s too late so you might just as well go out or play sport or go to sleep. Between now and the deadline you are only doing one thing: retrieving as much of the situation as you can.
  3. Plan. Retrieve everything you can find about the module and the requirements of the assignment. Look to see where you can find ways of gaining at least some marks. Are there sections that you can gain marks more easily than others? Have you got choices about what to submit – if so which would play best to your strengths? Set out a clear plan with timings. Don’t spend ages on this but if you are going to stay up most of the night for example, think about when you are going to need to stop. Do the most intellectually demanding stuff when you are fresh. You don’t have to do things in order.
  4. Work to your plan. Stick to your timings and to the focus of your work. Try not to panic – literally taking deep breaths is really helpful. Mindfulness talks about the 5 second breath and there is evidence to show that this reduces heart rate and calms you down. So 5 seconds in and 5 seconds out. Take a moment to do this and it will help. When you reach the end of a time period, move on. This work is unlikely to be perfect so be ruthless about your timing.
  5. Contact your tutor. It may well help to drop your lecturer an email explaining that you have messed up and are going to be handing in incomplete work. Apologise and say it was a mistake and that you are submitting work that you are not happy with but it is the best you can do at the moment. And assure them that this is unusual for you and that you are going to make sure it doesn’t happen in future. The reason for this is that lecturers might well be confused by an incomplete submission and it might be quite hard to follow. My experience is that poor pieces of work take a lot longer to assess as I am always trying to figure out ways in which the student can pass. So you are asking your lecturer to do more work because of your mistake. Most work is assessed anonymously so they might not know which assignment is yours but in my view it is important to show the lecturer some politeness. It won’t get you extra marks but it may mean they are more likely to help if you ask for it later. We like students who are serious about studying!
  6. Keep going. There is a significant part of studying for a degree that requires determination rather than intellect. Tell yourself that you are going to do what you can and that there are marks to be gained. You have a plan, now deliver it.
  7. Learn. You MUST learn from the experience. It is fine to make a mistake – once! If you carry on having this sort of crisis, you won’t be getting the best out of your degree. Work out how to avoid this happening again. When assignments are set, the deadline might seem a long way away but remind yourself of the pain of implementing this emergency plan.

And good luck!


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