A late withdrawal is essentially what it sounds like. It allows you to withdraw from a course (AKA: drop it) after the drop deadline has passed, but before the last day of courses. In other words, it is a last minute escape plan.
In some ways, a late withdrawal is the same as dropping a course. You will not receive a credit. Your course will not be factored into your GPA. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200.
However, a late withdrawal and dropping courses have some major differences. A dropped course vanishes from your record entirely. A late withdrawal from a course will remain on your academic transcript. It will show the course name under the applicable semester(s), and will show “LWD” as your course grade. This may or may not be important to you. You can go talk to registrar about the pros and cons of having a LWD on your record for whatever post-undergraduate goals you may have. My gut feeling is that it won’t be important for anything but the most prestigious of programs.
Also, you are limited to 3.0 FCEs worth of no-hassle late withdrawals. If you want to take more late withdrawals after that, you’ll have to make a petition. Making petitions is an arcane process I do not understand, so that is definitely something you should talk to your registrar about.
Using a late withdrawal is as simple as going to your registrar and asking to do a late withdrawal. You fill out a form and you are done. Your registrar will usually ask to talk about your reasons for wanting to use a late withdrawal and work with you to analyze what went wrong so it doesn’t happen again.
I’m considering using a late withdrawal for one of my courses. The reason I didn’t flat out drop the course earlier is that I enjoyed it and I thought I could continue in the course and do well. At this point, I am skeptical of the “do well” part, so I’m weighing my options on the late withdrawal. The good thing about the late withdrawal is that it allows me to take a risk like this. Whether or not it was smart of me to take that risk is another story.
I’m going to be in this course and trying to do well until basically the end of class, at which time if I really have no hope in that course I’ll go do a late withdrawal. If you have courses where you are in a similar situation, and you would like to use a late withdrawal for it, go talk to your registrar about it. They might help you decide that a late withdrawal is the right course of action, or they may help you realize that you can still do reasonably well in the course if you buckle down now.
Read more about late withdrawals here.