by Zoë Morrison
It’s midterm season. You have a paper due at 8pm on Thursday, but before that you’ve got to get through an exam, attend a meeting you can’t reschedule, and email some vaguely insightful comments on the readings to your TFs before both of your sections— wait a second, is that section presentation you signed up for this week?!
In “Oh S#@!” moments like these, don’t spend your time combing through eBay for a Time-Turner, tempting though that may be. Instead, give yourself a break and ask for an extension on that paper! Follow our handy tips after the jump, and you’ll be one step closer to sanity (and to a better, more thoughtful paper).
Have No Fear
There is nothing to be ashamed of when asking for an extension. Remember that your TFs are hard working students too; they’ve been in your shoes and know what it’s like to be bogged down with work. The worst that can happen is that your TF says no to your request, so it’s worth a try to lighten your load. Whatever your situation, asking for an extension is always better than plagiarism. An extension is not a cop out; your TF will appreciate your honesty and understand that you want to do a better job on your paper than the current deadline allows. Taking an academic shortcut such as recycling an old paper is never a viable solution to a tight deadline and will result in sanctions from the Ad Board—usually a year-long required withdrawal from the College.
Consult the Syllabus
Before composing any email, check your syllabus and/or section handouts to see if they mention a policy on extensions. Most syllabi outline a late policy and will specify whether or not you need to get an extension OK’d by your professor in addition to your TF. Read course handouts thoroughly so that if you have any questions about the assignment, you can address them straight away in your request. This shouldn’t take longer than a couple minutes, and will save you from wasting valuable time later on. Then, follow whatever guidelines are laid out and contact the appropriate people—you’ll get points for following protocol.
Know Thy TF
You’ll want to tailor your request to your TF’s personality. Some TFs are casual while some are quite formal, some will be extremely flexible and others might need some buttering up. However, even if your TF is informal, always be respectful and if in doubt, err on the side of formality, especially if you are communicating directly with a professor! In any case, ask your classmates or check section handouts to remind yourself of your TF’s attitude towards extensions and of his or her e-mail checking habits, and write with your audience in mind—it might not be worth it to ask for an extension the night before if your TF has a “24 hour” rule regarding emails.
Power in Numbers: The Communal Request
Ideally, you will have noticed the impracticality of your due date a week or two in advance, in which case you will likely be able to gather the troops and ask for a course-wide extension along with some of your classmates by voicing your concern to your respective TFs or directly to your professor. In fact, it’s generally a good idea to sit down towards the beginning of the semester and go through all your syllabi, adding due dates to your calendar so that you can see in advance which weeks look particularly gruesome.
The Two-Day Rule
Unfortunately, the need for an extension is rarely discovered so far in advance. Email your TF as soon as you realize you need extra time, but at the very latest send your email two days before the deadline. This will show that you haven’t waited until the very last minute to start thinking about the assignment. This is not to say that asking for an extension the night before is entirely futile, but you will have a better chance if your TF is under the impression that you’ve given the paper more than a day’s consideration.
Honesty (and Quality) is the Best Policy
When it comes to the meat and potatoes of your request, be honest about your reasons for needing an extension. Don’t claim that you’ve suddenly fallen sick if you haven’t—you will likely be required to produce a doctor’s note, and that could lead to trouble. If you did get sick or have a family emergency, by all means say so, but do not cry wolf if it’s not true, and be prepared to back up your claims. On that note, don’t go into too much detail about your personal issues either—your TF doesn’t want to hear about your indigestion. And complete honesty is probably not the best policy if you want an extension in order to go to that awesome themed party on Thursday night. In such a case, I’d have to recommend sacrificing the party for the paper.
Do tell your TF if a lot of work snuck up on you or if you’re suffering from writer’s block, and do emphasize your desire to put a good faith effort into your assignment. After all, the main reason you want an extension is to get a better grade on your paper than you would if you wrote it too quickly or turned it in late. Emphasize your desire for quality—that you want your paper to properly reflect all the interesting things you’ve been learning in class—and your TF will appreciate your good intentions.
Make sure to agree upon a new deadline, and to respect it. If your TF seems the generous type, leaving it up to him or her to set a new deadline could be fruitful. If, however, you think you can reasonably get it done by a certain date, go ahead and suggest it in your original email—your TF will see that you are thinking rationally about it. If you really need as much time as you can get and are feeling bold, try the “door in the face” technique, one of psychologist Robert Cialdini’s famous methods of persuasion: ask for a longer extension than you actually expect to get, and then negotiate it down. Chances are that your TF will be willing to grant you an extension that is sizable enough to meet your needs, but that he or she perceives as much smaller and more reasonable compared to your initial request (use this technique only if you’re on good terms with your TF). Once you’re clear on the new deadline, use your newly granted time as best you can, and hand in the paper on time.
 If these tips somehow fail to produce an extension, check out our article on the Nuclear Option for tips on writing a paper under a time-crunch.
 If writer’s block is your problem, sign up for a conference or come to drop-in hours at the Writing Center and we’ll do our best to help you get the ideas flowing again.
 Cialdini, Robert. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1984.
Zoë Morrison ‘11 tutors at the Writing Center and concentrates in Psychology.