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Need an Extension on a Paper? Offer a Compromise Instead

What can you do when everything goes wrong at the last minute?
What can you do when everything goes wrong at the last minute?

I still had two hours until the submission deadline when I got to the Mount Holyoke library to print out my eight-page final paper. I put my belongings, including the USB drive with my paper on it, on a desk near the computer and went to say hi to a friend at the other end of the room. When I returned, the desk still had all my stuff on it, but the USB drive was missing. I searched the entire area and asked the librarian for help. But the USB was gone.

It was nobody’s fault. That USB drive had been a gift that the library gives to all new incoming students, so every single student at Mount Holyoke has the exact same one. Probably someone had picked it up by mistake, thinking it was theirs. But I was left with only two hours until the deadline, and no paper to turn in.

As a college student, you will inevitably run into situations like this. Despite your best efforts, sometimes things go wrong. And then you have to figure out what to do about it.

I’ve seen my friends make two types of mistakes when they get into similar trouble. The first is to not say anything to their professor and just submit a paper well after the due date with no explanation. The second is to wait until the last minute and then email the professor asking for an extension.

And I've seen both of these approaches get punished with a lower grade.

Offer a solution, not an excuse

When my USB drive went missing, I decided not to complain to the professor about my bad luck or ask for an extension at the last minute. Instead I came up with a solution to propose. I explained to the professor what had happened, and told her that I would submit an earlier draft, the only version of the paper I had, which would represent about half the final work I had planned submit. The professor responded by informing me that she was not going to grade the papers until two days after the submission deadline, and she suggested I use those two extra days to reconstruct the paper to the best of my memory. The two days were just enough for me to recreate the paper, and I got an A for it.

If I had not approached the professor right away and offered to take responsibility for the situation by submitting what I had, or if I had asked her to make an exception for me and extend my deadline, I don’t know if she would have been as forgiving. Even though the situation was beyond my control, it was still up to me to show that I would accept the consequences and try to make the best of the situation.

You have to be able to show your professor that you are taking responsibility for the situation, and trying to come up with a solution. Even when you feel like it’s not your fault.

And to be honest, while I couldn’t have prevented my USB drive going missing, I could probably have avoided being in such a tight situation if I had not put off printing my paper until a mere two hours before it was due.

Stop leaving work until the last minute

This is a lesson I have had to learn time and again. So many frustrations could be avoided if we, students, did not try to get our work done at the last minute.

I remember during my first year at Mount Holyoke we got hit by a terrible snowstorm. It was so bad the campus was actually cut off from electricity for two days. Emergency lights were our only source of electricity, and in some places on campus there was no heat or hot water. Dining services couldn’t operate as usual and they were distributing food to students, gathered in a long line, two or three times a day. When the campus got back to normal and classes resumed, I heard a student complaining about how her professor didn’t move the deadline for a paper despite the snowstorm. But if she had worked on that paper in advance, the snowstorm wouldn’t have been such a problem.

It’s not always that extreme. When you leave work until the last minute, even the smallest disruptions can derail you and put you in jeopardy of not getting your work done by the deadline. One time I hoped to see the professor in her office hours the day before the exam period but she cancelled her office hours due to a personal emergency issue. Another time I stayed on campus during spring break and hoped to finish some work in the library, but the library closed for a national holiday that, as an international student, I didn't know about.

While it might be easy to find a solution or a new plan when you still have lots of time, coming up with an alternate solution becomes stressful and nerve-wracking when time is tight. Because no matter what, it's still your responsibility to make it work somehow.

At the end of last semester, for example, I needed certain books from the library to take with me over the summer. Many of them were not available at the Mount Holyoke library directly, so I had to order them from another institution. Two days before I was leaving campus, some of the books hadn’t arrived. Instead of leaving without the books I needed, I talked to my professors and found one who had the books I needed and kindly lent them to me for the summer. Problem solved, but just barely in time.

I’m definitely hoping to have to implement fewer of these last-minute solutions going forward. One of my professors advised his students that whenever they are given a deadline, they set an earlier deadline for themselves and disregarded the actual deadline. I have only recently started to try and live by this advice but I can already see how it will make a difference.