How to Deal With Failure in College

According to a report by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU), college graduates are 50% less likely to be unemployed than those who only have a high school diploma.

While getting hired is easier for those with a bachelor’s degree, unfortunately, earning one is not easy for all undergraduate students.

Failing college can come in a handful of forms — not getting grades as high as you hoped for or high enough to pass a course, being unsuccessful in your internship opportunity, dropping out of college for whatever reason.

In any case, it doesn’t feel and look good to be unable to attain success in your pursuit of higher education.

Below, I will talk about the steps to take when dealing with failure in college to keep the bad experience from stopping you from dreaming and doing your best next time. But first, let’s tackle this very important matter…

failure in college

4 Reasons Why Some College Students Fail

Different college students fail college because of different reasons. For instance, while some do so because of fear of failure, others fail because of fear of success. There are instances when it can stem from a lack of preparation, which can lead to choosing the wrong school or major. At times, it can be due to a lack of motivation.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common reasons why some students fail to thrive in college:

1. Fear of encountering failure

Failing is normal and, in many instances, even a necessary part of life, which, in such a case, means there’s a reason behind it.

Still, it doesn’t make it any easier to accept or any less uncomfortable and embarrassing.

While no student pursuing a bachelor’s degree, especially one to the tune of $102,828 at a public in-state college or $218,004 at a private non-profit college, would like to fail and therefore do anything and everything necessary to keep that from happening, irrational fear of failing in college can, in fact, increase their chances of failing.


Because some students who are terrified of the thought of failing may not give their studies their best shot in hopes that they will not feel as bad as anticipated when they fail.

And if you think that this unusual mindset is only found among students with very little to no faith in themselves academically, think again. Many overachieving undergraduates feel this way, too!

Read Also: Is Struggling in College Normal?

2. Fear of reaping success

Yes, you read that right — some college students fail because the thought of succeeding scares them.

Although it’s true that attaining academic success is the ultimate goal of doing exceptionally well in college, it’s not the end of it all: after earning one’s bachelor’s degree comes applying for a job, working on a promotion, etc.

Being successful in college, needless to say, opens doors for opportunities, each one can come with its own set of duties and responsibilities and can cause life changes, which can range anywhere from minor to paramount.

More often than not, individuals who doubt having control over their lives are the ones bugged the most by this matter.

And, in many situations, these individuals are half-knowingly dabbling with self-sabotaging just to fend off success.

Stepping foot in a stressful workplace day after day, moving miles away from family and friends, embracing a new culture or a new network of people — these are some of the things that make succeeding academically and, ultimately, professionally, a horrifying thought for some college students.

Healthline, by the way, says fear of success is also referred to as “success anxiety” or even “achievemephobia”.

3. Laziness or lack of motivation

College students are getting lazier and lazier.

Such is based on a study by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which found out that college students studied about 14 hours a week in 2003 in comparison to the 24 hours a week students studied in 1961.

Interestingly, it also learned that the decline in study hours had nothing to do with which college they are attending or which discipline they are majoring in.

Putting the blame on laptops and the internet and other things that could make all sorts of tasks easier to complete isn’t right — most of the decline happened before 1981 struck.

On the other hand, according to a survey conducted by Isfahan University of Medical Sciences, over 90% of students think that a lack of motivation, which can be due to many different things, is the biggest factor in academic failure.

Here are some of the reasons why many students have no motivation and thus fail college:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Drugs
  • Insufficient exercise
  • Poor nutrition
  • Sleep deprivation

But there are instances, too, when college students are unmotivated to study and get high grades because they have other priorities in life that compete for their time and attention and even appear more important than the undergraduate degree they are working on. Some examples of other important concerns include work, business or kids.

Of course, let’s not forget to consider the fact that the classroom or campus itself could be the cause of a lack of motivation, which is another common cause of failure in college that we’re going to talk about next.

4. Lack of preparation

Some students fail college because of not preparing enough. In many instances, it’s simply because they fail to do the necessary work to submit their assignments, present class reports, partake in class discussions or pass examinations.

But then there are times, too, when it can stem from rushing the college selection process back in high school.

Nothing can fend off college career success more than attending classes that are either too large or too small for the student’s learning preferences, being a part of a campus whose culture and social scene do not jive with the attendee’s personality or living in on-campus housing that’s simply too far away from home for the liking of someone who’s prone to homesickness.

Attending a school you chose in a hurry could lead to poor grades and culminate in you getting sick and tired of college — picking the wrong institution is a major reason why a student drops out of college.

Dealing With College Failure in 6 Steps

Dealing with college failure is a step-by-step process.

While different people can fail college for different reasons and impact them differently, too, the coping process remains pretty much the same for everyone.

It’s a must to take the necessary actions whether the goal is to give college another try or opt for an alternative to it.

Here’s the TED talk about dealing with academic failure:

And below are the things you should do to manage college failure in a healthy and, hopefully, productive way:

1. Acknowledge the truth

No amount of running away from failure in college can make it any less of a reality. It will keep on following you around and, when it catches up with you, which is bound to happen sooner or later, can cause even more devastation.

Taking the necessary steps no sooner than when you realize that you are failing your studies can help you identify the causes (in case you are absolutely clueless as to why).

And leverage the various opportunities available to make amends and bounce back without much delay — the sooner you face the music, the quicker you can be done and over with it.

Consulting with professors teaching classes you are flunking and/or the academic adviser allows you to learn and, more importantly, do the right things on how to put things under control, if the problem is salvageable, and keep the damage to a minimum.

Of course, it’s also a good idea to inform your parents about the matter ASAP.

2. Let the feelings come

When someone fails, whether in college or in some other aspect of life, it’s normal to feel a range of emotions.

Disappointment, shame, embarrassment, disbelief, sadness, anger — these, among various other reactions and responses, can result from getting bad grades or, worse, the need to bid your postsecondary education adieu and leave you feeling uncomfortable and thinking that you are a complete and utter failure.

And because the said unpleasant emotions do not make you feel good, your first instinct may be to suppress them or deny their existence and then run away from them, which can work and provide you with much-needed relief.

Unfortunately, it’s just a short-term solution.

The feelings you keep bottled up or at a safe distance, sooner or later, will have to be experienced by you one after the other because repressing them can be extremely stressful, and your mind and body can handle an immense amount of stress only up to a certain extent — time will come when it can actually put your health and well-being in danger.

So, instead of withholding the emotions that failing college makes you feel, allow yourself to feel all of them at the same time.

To prevent being confused and overwhelmed, try to identify each emotion as it comes.

3. Get some time to grieve

Back in 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist who pioneered near-death studies, described the 5 common stages of grief or what’s more popularly known as DABDA:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

It’s true that different people grieve differently, each one responding in a way that is unique to him or her.

Still, DABDA remains one of the best-known descriptions of the psychological and emotional responses that people often go through whenever faced with a life-changing disease or illness or situation, such as failing in one’s undergraduate pursuit.

There is no specific time period for each of DABDA’s stages.

One person may experience the 5 stages quickly, such as in a matter of only several days or a few weeks, while another may take months or even a couple of years to move through the different stages — it all depends on how a person copes.

It’s also important to note that the lines that separate each stage can be blurred, thus keeping you from determining which stage you are currently in.

Also, you may move from stage to stage and then back again to a previous stage before proceeding to the next one. But that’s okay — what’s important is that you allow yourself to go through the process.

4. Have some self-compassion

Let’s say, for example, that the reason why you did not do well in college is that the academics or the professors sucked or the distance from home was keeping you from focusing on your studies.

In the end, it’s how you make the most out of the available opportunities and resources that’s the true mark of a good college student.

So, in other words, unless there had been an extenuating circumstance such as a medical issue, death of a loved one or assault experienced, no one is to blame for failing college but the one who failed in college: you.

But instead of judging or criticizing yourself, be warm and caring and understanding.

No one is perfect as humans are innately flawed — it’s inevitable that you will commit mistakes from time to time. By embracing this fact, you are acknowledging that things do not often go the way people like.

During a time such as failing college, practice self-compassion.

And the best way to do so is by asking yourself how you would treat a close friend if he or she was in a similar situation.

Doing this also lets you see things from a different perspective, thus allowing you to have a much better understanding of things, which is key to formulating countermeasures and solutions.

Writing a letter to yourself or beginning a journal is also a wonderful way to direct support and encouragement toward yourself. Remember to write about your emotions and the lessons you have gained from the whole experience.

5. Take time to reflect

As mentioned earlier, given that you’re only human, it’s perfectly fine for you to make mistakes every now and then. What’s not fine, however, is failure to obtain lessons from failures in order to keep committing them over and over again.

Once you are through with giving yourself enough time to grieve and some compassion, too, it’s time to look back on the very thing that has caused you disappointment, sadness, embarrassment and a bunch of other uncomfortable emotions: failing college.

The goal is to determine what happened — the instigating cause, how you handled things, the outcome.

It’s during this phase of dealing with failure in college when you should determine what you have gained from it.

Seeing things with the right mindset, of course, is a must if you want for the reflection to be fruitful. Otherwise, you might fail to derive the correct lessons and thus leave you susceptible to making the same wrongs again.

Back in 2006, Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, released a book called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

It talks about the 2 different types of mindsets and the difference they make in outcomes. It also discusses how our conscious and unconscious thoughts as well as how simple wordings can impact our ability to improve.

Let’s take a quick look at the said mindsets:

  • Fixed mindset – Individuals with a fixed mindset see their qualities as fixed traits that cannot be changed. It’s also not uncommon for them to ignore useful negative feedback and see effort as something that’s fruitless. Having a fixed mindset can leave you dodging challenges and giving up quite easily when faced with one.
  • Growth mindset – On the other hand, those with a growth mindset believe that they can improve their skills and various traits with effort and persistence. Needless to say, they see challenges as opportunities for learning and mastery. They also find lessons in experiences as well as inspiration in the success of others.

Having a growth mindset is crucial if you refuse to consider failing college the end of your dreams of becoming a bachelor’s degree holder someday, thus giving you the motivation to give postsecondary education another try.

6. Reconsider your goals and make a plan

Speaking of giving college another try after failing it, there’s a possibility that college is simply not for you.

Of course, it’s no secret that there are many successful college dropouts out there. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Steven Spielberg, Oprah, Ellen DeGeneres, Lady Gaga — the list could go on and on!

Just in case college is not what you really want or what you really need to attain the kind of success you are after, giving it another go is completely pointless.

You can instead devote your time and energy to taking the necessary steps outside of a college campus in order to be successful if wielding an undergraduate degree is inessential.

The following are some alternatives to stepping foot on the campus of a traditional 4-year institution:

  • Attending a community college
  • Going to a trade school
  • Being an apprentice
  • Doing volunteer work
  • Finishing a bootcamp program
  • Completing a massive open online course (MOOC)
  • Getting a job
  • Establishing a business
  • Joining the military

7. Act

If you believe in your heart that having a bachelor’s degree is what you need to have a satisfying professional career and life overall, don’t let a previous failure to succeed in college stop you — pick up and dust off yourself and come up with a solid plan on how you will approach college in a different way and graduate this time around.

Just Before You Try to Cope With the Matter a Hand

Murphy’s Law says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. And because you’re only human and therefore not perfect, it’s bound for you to encounter failures from time to time. And that includes while you are enrolled in college.

A National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center report says that only 62.3% of full-time students at 4-year institutions graduate within 6 years.

It doesn’t come as a surprise since a lot of things could go wrong from the time a degree-seeking student enters college as a freshman to the moment that he or she is conferred with a bachelor’s degree.

Planning on returning to college or taking a different path after failing your undergraduate studies once?

No matter your choice, what’s important is that you take something valuable from the experience and use it to your advantage next time in order to avoid committing the same mistake/s all over again.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.

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