Coping With Academic Failure

Coping With Academic Failure

Student advice on next steps if your college or uni course goes beyond very tricky into the realms of earth shattering total academic OH NO.

So… academic failure.

I’m not talking about getting a bad mark in some inconsequential essay, or being bummed out because you “could’ve gotten an A”. I’m talking about earth-shattering, soul-destroying academic failure. The kind that gets you kicked out of uni. The kind that means you lose out on your initial dreams. The kind where you live your whole life with your academic prowess as your only boast, and suddenly what are you? In your eyes you’re a non-person, and the only boasters around here are the biscuits, not you.

Some backstory, I think. I’ve had a lot of shots at success. When I was eighteen, I went away to uni to study English. Big mistake! I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life but after one week my over-riding thought was “anything but this, PLEASE.” So I dropped out, whiled away a year and applied to study Foundations of Engineering at Brunel University. THIS! I was in love. Engineering was my true calling, making the world a better place THROUGH SCIENCE. Hell, yes.

I failed? Sadly, I did. My exam results were not the ticket to the stars that I’d imagined. Did I give up? No! Should I have given up? In my case… yes! I tried once more and got a place in a college studying Electronic Engineering and, surprise surprise, my coursework was so crappy that I failed once again.

Here comes the wisdom; when I look back on that last year in particular, struggling with all my might against the oncoming tide, being driven to hysterical sobbing almost every night, battling insomnia and crippling self-hatred, I think “that just couldn’t continue.” Yeah, if I’d made the grades I would have been delighted, but the cold hard truth is that I really, really sucked at maths. I would have suffered trying to keep up with people who found the course easy as pie (or pi!! Yeah? No?). It would have continued to drain my confidence, mental competency and sense of self. It was scary, losing myself to feelings of inadequacy for such a long period.

The greatest decision I made was the one to stop trying. It sounds like a surrender, like I shot off with my tail between my legs à la the cowardly lion. In reality, it was more like that perfect moment in Evil Dead 2 where the zombie-mutant-whatever is all like, “I’ll swallow your soul! I’ll swallow your soul” and Ash, cool as a cucumber, levels his sawn-off shotgun, retorts “Swallow this” and BOOM!!! The monster explodes in a flurry of visceral display and, yeah, for some reason, fireworks.


Shocked by my audacity, I looked around to see if the world had ended. Was I suddenly an unemployed ne’er-do-well with no prospects, no retail experience and no hopes?

No. I was fine. I was still there.

I put my special sulking-housecoat in the washing machine and moved on, quick as a flash. When someone leaves the prison door ajar, you leg it sharpish.

So now I’ve somehow salvaged one last shot (thanks for making it really really impossibly difficult, student loans company! ‘Coz I love being on hold for hours), and I went with what I know; arts and humanities again (Classical Civilizations with a side of English Lit). I’m hoping that one day this will grant me an ‘in’ with that weird guy from Ancient Aliens. Have I wasted three years, just to end up where I started? I don’t think so. I’ve learned a lot about myself, the things I need from life and the limits I can push myself to.

There are things I wish I had known, though. I saw a counsellor when I was at my most alarmingly sporadic, and she was useless. Seriously. I mean, take a girl staring into the void, paralyzed by self-doubt, and ask her endless rhetorical questions that encourage introspective reflection. That sh*t just doesn’t cut the mustard. I didn’t need a diagnosis. I didn’t need to know I had an anxiety disorder. No sh*t, Sherlock! What I needed to know, what I needed to tell myself, was this:

Tips and advice on how to cope with academic failure

Calm down. Seriously. Just stop panicking, take a step back and survey the situation.

Be prepared to make the hard decision. Don’t just power on if it’s destroying you.

Have other dreams. Don’t live only for academia. When I was cast adrift from the higher education I had nothing to fill the hours, because I didn’t have any hobbies or even interests! Scary, huh? Now I’ve rediscovered my passion for roller skating, music, languages. You’ve got to make a colourful and varied world for yourself or you’ll go crazy when it hits the fan. A support structure can be your favourite CD or a box of felt-tips.

Take solace in other people. Throughout the madness my boyfriend kept reassuring me “don’t worry, it’ll be fine”. It made me furious. Easy for him to say, I thought. But he meant it. And hey, it was fine 🙂

Think sideways. If you want to give academia another go, the course you’re on may not be for you, but another might be. If you’re suffering from extreme loss of confidence, factor in where your strengths are when choosing another course.

Get your priorities straight: Success can’t compete with happiness.

To conclude, some hopefully surprisingly helpful platitudes! You just gotta keep on keepin’ on, y’know? Sometimes things just don’t pan out and it sucks, but don’t be discouraged. I mean, think how many apocalypses you’ve survived. You’re doing just fine.

Best of luck, my dear. We’re all worth it.