How to cope with failure at university exam/assignment

Failure at university is always undesired, it can bring you down mentally, ruin your experience, lead to depression, make you think you are not good enough for university.

Best education and learning quotes
Best education and learning quotes

I could honestly continue with the negative aspects of it for the entire post as I am sure you know since you’re reading this.

But why failure at university is so frightening? In my opinion this is because university is the first real meaningful challenge for most people.

Everybody fails at some point, life isn’t easy and it’s not supposed to be. However, when it happens for the first time and at a young age, it can be very hard to overcome.

It was a bit different for me, as I started university at 26 after years of working in the hospitality and customer service industries and I wanted to “escape” from that.

Because I had already failed many times in my life before starting university, my approach to failure was different, and I hope my advice can help you.

For the record, I also failed at university. Naming a few, I missed assignments’ deadlines, got low grades with very negative feedback and failed some exams.

If that wasn’t enough, I also struggled to make friends and fit into the university environment; I had anxiety and suffered from a huge inferiority complex and low self esteem when around other students; but I will talk about those in more detail later in the post.

It is ok to fail at university

Yes, you read that right. Obviously you’d rather not, but what if (and when) it happens? University is not only about academic matters, there is a lot more than that.

It’s a life challenge, it involves time management, dealing with stress, multitasking, living on your own, making friends and so on.

It is meant to be a transition to the “real world”, it prepares you for that by developing academic and non-academic skills.

You cannot let failure take everything away, there is always a positive counterpart, it’s the law of nature. Who am I to say so? Nobody, so I’ll leave you to these “two guys”:

  • “Failure is success in progress.” – Albert Einstein
  • Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently. – Henry Ford

So many times I heard things like: “I failed an exam, I think I’ not good enough for university”; or “I cannot cope with failing an assignment, should I drop out?”; “I feel useless at university, I’m depressed, such a failure”; “I got a low mark on my essay, now what?”.

Every time you have similar thoughts just think of those two quotes above and who said that..

The nature of failure at university

The nature of failure at university goes beyond the actual pass or fail, it’s graded. This automatically leads to another massive problem of it: comparison.

It makes you feel worthless because you know others did not fail; then you think “maybe I’m not good enough for university”.

Once you start thinking that everything crumbles.. You doubt yourself whenever something is coming up, like an assignment or an exam.

Even worse, you start worrying about your future after university, “will I find a job?”. In few words, you lose confidence in your capabilities, in yourself!

I was the same, I was thinking “what am I doing here? Everybody is smarter than me! I’m not good enough for university and I won’t find a job”.

I mean, really? Stop doing that now!

You are hurting your confidence, and that is something you really need at university.. Remember that university is a journey not a competition! So please stop comparing yourself to other students, that’s a must!

As I said earlier, I suffered from a huge inferiority complex and social anxiety at university. Comparing myself to other students was only making it worse, so I stopped!

Sometimes it’s extremely hard to do, even to realise you actually have such “issues”.

It wasn’t easy, but I guess my previous life experience helped me get through my anxiety despite being an introvert person.

I have talked about confidence at university in another article, you might find it useful how to become more confident at university.

Dealing with failure at university, step 1: cool it down

Failing an exam, a module or whatever else is hard to digest. As a first reaction you go trough a mix of emotions such as anger and disappointment at the same time, it’s not fun.

During that time you are weak, your mind is vulnerable, that’s the real problem!

If you start to think you are not good enough for university when you are that vulnerable, you will end up convincing yourself of that.

Trust me, it is going to be much harder to change that conviction then. Basically, all I’m saying is to contain your thoughts during your first reaction to failure, do not let them ruin you.. “cool it down”

My advice is to distract yourself whenever you can. Probably the easiest thing is to keep doing what you used to do normally.

By the way this is also the most common mistake students make when they fail something at university; they stop living completely.

Now imagine failing an exam and then spending days alone in your room after that. Remember what I said above about being vulnerable at first.. well I don’t think I need to add anything to that!

I’m not saying you shouldn’t think about it, it would be impossible, but it’s absolutely possible to contain its impact!

Go to the gym, for a run, meet your friends, call your family, just live! Think and talk about something else and not only about failure!

Firstly, this will make you realise that the world doesn’t stop and you shouldn’t either; and secondly it will also keep your mind busy and prevent it from doing too much “damage”.

Dealing with failure at university, step 2: Self-reflection

Ok, at this point we have looked at the nature of failure at university (stop comparing yourself to other students); and the first reaction to failing at university (cool it down).

Now it’s the time to do some self-reflection on your failure.

As I said earlier, it is completely normal to feel down at the beginning, but for how long it’s your choice! You are the only one in control of that, at some point you will have to get back up.

Relax, take a deep breath, and start thinking where you got it wrong.

You can either keep thinking you are not good enough for university; and so hurt your student mental health and ruin your university experience; or get back up and make sure it does not happen again.

Learn from it, failure is another step of university life. But how to learn from failure at university?

The best way to find out is to question yourself first; self-reflection is part of an academic journey and it can be very helpful to improve.

It is also a skill that will come in handy in life and not only at university, develop it.

Self reflection on failing an assignment

If you failed an assignment I would also assume you also got some feedback on it. Start from there, in which areas did you get low marks?

Was it the structure of your assignment? The content? Lack of critical thinking? Referencing? Whatever, focus on those low performing areas to start.

I struggled (quite a lot) with academic writing, this other article I wrote might help 3 essential guides I used to improve academic writing. Remember that it doesn’t matter how good it sounds to you, academic writing follows its own principles!

Importantly, if you think the feedback you received are too vague, maybe standardised for all students (I hated when that happened, I mean seriously?) ask for more details, request a meeting, be proactive.

It’s for your own benefit, don’t be scared to ask whoever you need to!

If it takes lots of emails, send them; if you don’t hear back in an appropriate amount of time, show up at your lecturer’s office (during open hours) and politely ask for some time or schedule a meeting.

Personal tutor, academic writing service, student support, basically anyone that can help you understand those feedback or get some proper ones.

Once you get it, go straight to the point. How can I improve my grades for the next assignment?

Self-reflection on failing an exam

Failing an exam can obviously have bigger consequences than failing an assignment. In that case, I would expect that you have prepared (or tried to) for it but something went wrong.

Improving your academic writing as said above can already have a huge positive impact on your exams too. However, a self-reflection for failing an exam needs to go “a bit deeper”.

You need to identify the underlining causes of it, so I would start from how you prepared for that exam. If you had exam anxiety building up while revising you need to do something about it!

Hopefully my article on gaining confidence at university can help you with mental health too; but also please look after your general wellbeing, eat healthier, exercise (even just walk a bit more or do some stretching), drink a lot of water, get some quality sleep and so on!

What about your study/revision method? Sometimes you are sure you are prepared for an exam, then as soon as you sit down your mind goes blank.

You are there trying to remember your revision but you cannot, it happened to me. While this is also a sign of exam anxiety, you should as well question your study method.

For example, I found that visual learning was the best study method to remember my studies/revision for longer, thus to prepare for exam.

I have talked about my study methods in another article, you might find it useful! my best study methods for effective learning and exam revision.

Dealing with failure at university, step 3: speak out

This is the final step, the end of the journey for failure at university. Many students find it extremely difficult to talk about failing.

This is not only because they feel they are not good enough for university, that they are “less smart” than other students, there is something else..

There is the fear of disappointing others, your family, your friends, those around you. You are scared they won’t see you as they used to, that they would think you are not intelligent.

You can even get passed your inferiority complex with other students, but not the fear of letting down your loved ones, those who supported you.

It’s not easy to talk about failure with that fear in mind. So you end up hiding it from them to avoid that. Let me tell you that you are only trying to escape reality, and you cannot escape from that!

Now think about the previous steps, it will make sense to speak out about your failure now..

I understand that talking about failure alone is wrong, but you are not doing that! You acknowledge that you failed an exam or assignment or whatever, but that’s not the end of it.

You can also say something else now, don’t you?

Think about it, you “cooled it down” to avoid making decisions when emotionally unstable; a clear sign of maturity here.

You did some self-reflection to identify where you got it wrong; another positive sign here, you are learning from your mistakes. You are working on your anxiety (if any), or improving your study methods.

It’s not only about failure anymore, it’s about reacting to it! So don’t be afraid to speak about it, because once you are able to do it freely, you defeated failure at university!

How to cope with failure at university, conclusions

In this article I wanted to give my view on failing at university. As I said at the beginning, everybody fails at some point in life, and I wasn’t any different if not for the fact that university was not my first real life challenge.

It is for most students though, when failure can really ruin your experience. Some people are naturally good at university, but that does not mean you are not!

We are all different, everybody has unique strengths and weaknesses. You just got to find yours!

I talked about learning from others at university in another article, again you might find it useful how to be a successful student at university.

Although I put some focus on me being a mature students, those points apply to everyone really.

Ultimately, I wanted to thank you for reading this. I really hope you find my 3 steps on how to cope with failure at university useful.

On a side note, please mind that everything you read on my blog is based on my personal experience and opinion, so treat it as “extra information” only.

Remember, university is a journey and not a competition. You are good enough! Best of luck on your studies.

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