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Fail Forward: The College Student’s Bounce Back Guide

Failure in college can be painful, but whether you fail a test or an entire class, it doesn’t have to mean doom for the rest of your educational career. Find out how to bounce back from setbacks and bolster your resilience so you can turn failure into success.

Author: Blake Huggins
Editor: STEPS Staff
A female student at a desk concentrating on the work she’s doing on her laptop while holding a pen in her hand.

What do F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, and former Vice President Dick Cheney have in common? Both failed in college, learned from the experience, and went on to achieve great professional success.

College is challenging, even for the best of students. Failure can happen to anyone—whether you bomb an exam, fail a class, flunk out of your major, or even end up on academic suspension and are forced to leave college. While these experiences are difficult and disappointing, they don’t mean that you will always be a failure or that failure defines you. Within those challenges, you’ll find opportunities to learn, grow, and advance.

Accepting failure and moving on can be tough, so let’s break the silence and the stigma. Failure is just the first stage; recovering from that failure is the next stage, and this guide will help. Learn concrete steps for bouncing back from pitfalls and hear from a successful professional who overcame collegiate failure. Find out how the experience carried them into future success—and how that can happen to you, too.

Steps to Overcome Failure

If you’re failing or at risk of failing, you may feel like the entire world is collapsing. It can be difficult to accept reality and move forward. The best way to respond is by developing a sound plan with concrete, actionable steps. This gives you peace of mind and helps you take control of the situation. Follow these five steps to overcome failure, recalibrate your goals, and get back on track.

1. Damage Control

The first thing to do is assess the situation and perform damage control. You may be able to reduce some effects by taking immediate action. How can you take control of the situation? What should your priorities be? The specifics vary but asking yourself these questions will get you headed in the right direction.

First, consider the immediate repercussions. If the issue is with a single class or assignment, how will it affect you later in the semester or next year? What will the consequences be if you fail out of your major or program? Are you at risk to lose a scholarship? Are there other financial factors at play? What about your personal life; will failing out of your program mean you’ll have to leave a special dorm or find a new roommate? Make a list of all the areas impacted and then prioritize them. While the list may be daunting, breaking the situation into specifics will make it more manageable and give you something tangible to implement.

2. Cool Off

Your emotions may be running high or sinking low, and that’s okay. You might be dealing with the feelings and expectations of others, too (parents, friends, advisors, etc.). Those will certainly impact your response, and it’s important to remember that peoples’ feelings are their own—they will need time and space to process their feelings just like you do.

A vital part of that process is cooling off in the immediate aftermath so you can manage your emotions more effectively. You may feel angry, sad, depressed, embarrassed, or disappointed, but it’s important to remember that your feelings do not control you. Take a step back and force yourself to become logical and rational. When you return to the problem, you will be able to approach it with a more constructive perspective.

3. What Went Wrong

Before you can overcome failure, you must find its cause. Part of failing forward and bouncing back is learning from your mistakes to avoid repeating them in the future. Once you’ve had time to cool off, analyze the situation objectively. Why did you fail? (No blaming, work to get to the heart of it.) Where did things go wrong? What can you do to avoid a similar situation in the future?

Answers to these questions may seem obvious, but it’s worth investigating further to better understand where you went off track. Maybe you didn’t devote enough time to study because of social engagements, work, or family obligations. If so, consider how you can optimize your study habits. Be brutally honest with yourself. Did you skip too many classes? Did you simply not get the content (and not ask for help)? Think through how to apply yourself in a more focused way next time and how to know it’s time to ask for help. Force yourself to carefully assess the situation and identify the cause so you can learn from it.

4. Plan and Execute

After you analyze the situation and assess the fallout, ask yourself: What steps can I take to leverage this difficult experience for success? Start with the most immediate and pressing aspects—such as things related to finances, your continued enrollment, and your academic standing. Feel like you’re not seeing the full picture? If it’s helpful, seek objective input from others so you can develop a plan that reflects your goals.

A solid plan is no good if you never carry it out. After developing a plan, consider how you will implement it without losing drive or focus. Set achievable goals for every step of the way so you can work through the process without feeling overwhelmed.

5. Get Help

Finally, remember that you aren’t alone. Failing can feel demoralizing and alienating but seeking assistance when you need it helps you overcome those feelings. Colleges and universities have a number of resources available to help you. Your academic advisor is one of the first people you should approach. They will be able to offer individualized guidance and may be able to connect you with other resources specific to your situation.

Most schools also have a student support services or academic success center. These resources are designed to help students in your position, so don’t be afraid to take advantage of them. Your instructors also can be a great resource. Plus, depending on the subject or class you’re struggling with, you may want to consider a private tutor. The expert interviewed below hired a tutor, and this played a crucial role in their ability to overcome failure (see the Q&A).

Keep reading to delve into scenarios you might be facing, including failing a test, a class, your major, or college overall. Learn about contributing factors, key consequences, and next steps you can take to remediate.

Failing a Test

Failing a test or major assignment happens for a variety of reasons. Maybe you felt unmotivated, didn’t study enough, or experienced test anxiety that affected your performance. Perhaps you did study, but ineffective study habits hampered your success. Or perhaps you studied, but when test time came it turned out you’d focused on the wrong areas.

Whatever the reason, failing major assignments certainly isn’t ideal. To make sure it doesn’t happen again, directly address what happened and learn from your mistakes. Only then can you develop solutions to help you get past the failed test.

The consequences will vary depending on the nature of the test. Low-stakes quizzes are much easier to make up for, whereas midterms or final exams may account for a significant portion of your grade. If you failed the test because you didn’t understand the material, now’s the time to jump in and address the problem. Most college courses build content over time, which means if you struggle with earlier units or modules, you need to jump into action so you can catch up and keep up with the information that’s to come. If you don’t address the gaps in your knowledge, you’ll struggle to get caught up and could jeopardize your performance in the class overall.

One of the best ways to bounce back from a failed test and avoid falling further behind is by reaching out to your professor. Some may offer opportunities to retake the test. Others may have policies that allow you to drop your lowest test grade. If these options aren’t available, visit your professor during office hours to discuss the situation. This shows that you’re taking initiative, working to learn from your mistakes, and striving to improve your grade. During the discussion you may have an opportunity to explain any extenuating circumstances that affected your performance on the test. If you find the course content especially difficult, ask your professor to recommend a tutor who can help you prepare for the next exam.

Failing a Class

Although failing a course is a bigger deal than failing a test or major assignment, some of the same factors may be involved. Did you attend class on a regular basis? Did you participate? These factors could be weighted heavily. If you did attend and participate, maybe you put in a lot of hard work but the course content simply got the best of you. Failing a course is not the end of the world, but it does come with consequences. Addressing these up front, ideally when you first discover you may be at risk to fail, is the best thing you can do.

The most immediate and noticeable consequences of failing a class will be academic, financial, or possibly both. Failed courses show up on your transcript and hurt your GPA. This is fixable in the long run, but if you have a scholarship and have to maintain a certain GPA, failing a class could jeopardize your financial aid. If the class is a core course, a requirement for your major, or a requirement for graduation, the stakes are even higher. You may need to retake the course once you feel more prepared to tackle the material.

Those consequences and ripple effects may sound dire, but there are several steps you can take to get back on track. The first, again, is to speak with your professor or TA as soon as you notice a potential problem. This means well before final grades are posted (at that point it may be too late). If you act quickly, your instructors might allow retake opportunities or offer extra credit assignments that can help you get back on track. You could even withdraw from the course if that’s an option. While not ideal, a “W” on your transcript is certainly better than the dreaded “F.”

If a failing grade is definitive, your best approach is to plan now for the next time you take the course by investigating your school’s policy for repeating classes and by securing a good tutor. From the start of the course, take advantage of your professor’s office hours so your instructor sees evidence of your hard work and determination.

Failing a Program or Major

Failing a program or major could mean that the subject isn’t the best fit for you. Finding a major that meets your needs and suits your skills can take time. Changing majors is common; nearly one-third of undergraduate students reassess their options and switch to a different major.

Other potential causes for failing a program or major could include an overloaded schedule or issues related to your personal life. If you’re taking more than the required number of credits in hopes of graduating faster, the trade-off might end up costing you both time and money in the long run, especially if you’re trying to manage other responsibilities and commitments.

What will happen if you’re at risk of failing your major, and what can you do? Failure at this level will certainly impact your GPA. If you’re on scholarship or receiving other forms of financial aid that depend on academic performance, those opportunities will be in danger. Academic struggles may take a toll on your mental health, too.

Your best option is to stay proactive and address the problem while it’s still manageable. If you’re failing your major or feel you’re at risk of failing, your primary academic advisor should be your first point of contact. Ideally, this person will already be in touch with you, but if they aren’t monitoring your progress you may need to reach out to them. Discuss the necessary steps to switch your major and select a program you’re passionate about, one that supports your goals and matches your abilities.

If scholarships and financial aid are at stake, consider working with a financial advisor to help you sort through the consequences and develop a plan.

Failing Out of College

It goes without saying that flunking out of college outright is the most significant and consequential form of academic failure you can face. If you fall into this category, your challenge will be to maintain perspective and remember that you always have options.

Failure of this magnitude probably means you’re dealing with multiple contributing factors: ongoing situations in your personal life, academic struggles that go beyond study habits and lack of motivation, health issues or medical emergencies, etc. Failing out could also mean that the subject you’ve chosen doesn’t suit you or that the college experience doesn’t offer you the best path for achieving your goals. Regardless of the causes or circumstances, remember that you are not your failure. Addressing the fallout and assessing potential next steps can help you bounce back quickly.

Failing out of college has an immediate impact on your GPA, registration status, and any financial aid tied to academic performance. It may also affect your ability to return to school, or at least your timetable for return if that is something you opt to do. However, academic probation policies vary widely by school and program, so you’ll want to review the specifics and be sure you have the most up-to-date information. Failing out of school is likely to impact other aspects of your life, too, such as work, family, and mental health.

Keeping your perspective is paramount. Take some time away from academics to give you space to reflect. Perhaps the failure means that college isn’t right for you or that you might benefit from additional work or life experience before trying again. Community college is an option and could help you better prepare for the rigors of a four-year program. Alternatively, options like vocational school or professional certification could offer a viable pathway to success.

In some instances, if you feel that especially unique conditions or extenuating circumstances contributed to your failing out, you might be able to appeal the decision. Those situations are typically handled on a case-by-case basis and will be highly dependent on school policy. Your academic advisor is in the best position to provide guidance and will be able to help you navigate the process.

Q&A: We Are Not Our Failures

Lindsey Richard

Visual Arts Educator

Lindsey Richard is a visual arts educator in the Somerville (Massachusetts) Public Schools, where she helps students become thoughtful and creative problem-solvers. She resides in nearby Medford, Massachusetts, with her fiancé, their cat Poppy, and lots of houseplants. She holds a degree in art and is completing a graduate program in arts education at Framingham State University. In her classroom, Lindsey cultivates an inclusive community that engages students as individuals, prepares them for professional success, and connects their learning to real-world themes.

Q: Describe your experience with failure in college

Fall semester of my freshman year, I was advised to take an exploratory math course intended for advanced students. I hadn’t declared a major yet and struggled with math throughout school. I enrolled, and I really struggled with the content. I also lacked the confidence to seek help and to speak up about concepts I didn’t understand. I was a small fish in a big, scary math pond, and I ended up failing the course.

Q: What concrete steps did you take to remediate the situation? What was the outcome, and how did you bounce back?

The only way to expunge the big, giant “F” from my transcripts was to face my fears, re-enroll, and try again. When I registered the second time, I made sure to line up a regular tutor who took me step-by-step through each concept. I took the initiative and spent hours outside of class working to grasp what was necessary to succeed. I narrowly passed, but that was all I needed. I ended up finishing my degree and became a high school art teacher. I even went back to school to pursue graduate study years later—not in math, though!

Q: How has this experience contributed to your professional success? How do you view it all now?

Failing that math class in college taught me that we are not our failures. Those experiences are just hurdles along the way to ultimate success and opportunities for personal and intellectual growth. As a teacher, I often use my own story to connect with students. It helps break down barriers and build trust, especially with those who may also struggle with academics. In hindsight, I realize that my lack of confidence at the time played a big role in my experience with failure; building confidence in yourself takes time, and failing ultimately helps us do that—it may not feel like it at the moment, but it does.

Q: What tips would you offer students who are struggling with failure? If you could go back in time and give your younger self some advice, what would it be?

As an educator, I would encourage my younger self to speak up and ask for extra help rather than sitting back quiet and confused as the content got more challenging. Trust that the aim of your teachers and professors is to help you. Go easy on yourself, and you will be just fine. Be your own advocate and don’t be afraid to seek out help when you need it. This will carry you through the failure and into a successful career that you love!