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I have taught a lot of undergraduate students. I also used to be one. In both contexts I learned something about academic success that you should know and remember. In my opinion, there is WAY less genius in this world than you probably think. Allow me to qualify what I mean. Many students view their A-level peers as naturally gifted and more prone to excelling at intellectual pursuits. To some, very small degree, this might be true, but I sincerely believe that the greatest equalizer in undergraduate studies is the desire to learn from mistakes; to try a formula for writing, reading, etc, get feedback on how you can do better, and revise your strategy. This is how most students progress the quality of their work and get the grades that they desire. In this light, failure is a positive step toward understanding what you ought to do and what you ought to avoid doing. In short, failing, or not getting the grade you want, is not failure.

Let me be clear, I am not advocating that you should fail on purpose. I AM however, advocating that you learn from any failures and do not take them personally. I should also qualify the way that I use the term failure. For the purposes of this post, I am using it to mean cases where you do not get a grade that you would like. You might define “failure” as an F or a B. Ultimately, I want you to know that it is how you interpret your own perceived failure that is of significance.

Your response to failure matters

Contrary to what many believe, academic success is not exclusively determined by “natural smarts”. One of the main differences between great and mediocre students is their response to an intellectual challenge and to adversity. High-achievers, to be sure, sometimes get a grade that they are disappointed with. This is probably true for all students. But, what happens next is the key difference.

Most students take the appraisals of their professors and TAs as gospel. After all, they’re the experts, right? I understand the impulse to accept a poor grade as a measure of your overall capabilities, but it’s not. Getting a D on a paper does not make you a D student. Is not indicative of ineptitude, but it does mean that you have to sharpen and revise your approach. If you accept a poor grade as a genuine reflection of your capabilities and do nothing to better yourself, then this is your choice and not a symbol of your intellect. Again, it is your response to failure that will ultimately define your success in university.

In my experience, the best students will react to a bad grade in a unique way. First, they will very sincerely consider the comments offered by their grader. Second, they will visit their professor/TA for more detailed feedback on how they can improve. Third, they will use the event as a learning experience and promise themselves that they will do better next time. Fourth, and most importantly, they will get up immediately, dust themselves off and not interpret a poor grade as a character trait. In short, they will quickly come to the realization that they need to be better prepared for the next assignment.

Here’s a great example of what I mean. Recently, I spoke to a friend (who is a Ph.D. candidate) about this topic. She reminisced about an experience that she had as an undergraduate. On one paper, she received a very poor grade with harsh comments about her writing style (no need to repeat what was said, but it was quite demoralizing in my opinion). Rather than accepting the grade as a reflection of her abilities, my friend asked for further clarification on where she went wrong and also asked if she could re-write the paper. The professor agreed and asked that the revised paper be submitted within two weeks. From there, my friend took the feedback and turned the paper into an A. As you can see, the initial grade and harsh criticism was a learning opportunity because my friend made the decision to interpret it that way. I strongly encourage you to have the confidence to do the same. Only you can decide to interpret a failure as a positive learning experience.

Getting a poor grade or failing at any academic endeavor does not mean you are inept, dumb, or any other derogatory adjective. If you accept mediocre grades and have a passive attitude about finding the methods to success, understand that it is your choice to accept someone else’s opinion about the limitations of your abilities. My opinion is that ONLY YOU get to decide this. If you fail, choose to let the event empower you!