How to Deal With Failure in College, And Come Out Stronger


Everyone who has ever been to college will nostalgically tell you that it is a wonderful place where you will convert dreams into reality. They tell you it is a place of transformation and possibilities, a place of open doors and knocking opportunities. As a college freshman, finishing my second semester, I will tell you that college is first and foremost a place of disillusionment. On the upside, though, the disillusionment gives way to a remarkable clarity of mind.

Milton Berle, an American comedian and actor, was famous for saying, "if opportunity doesn't knock, build a door." At first, I was quite mesmerized by this quote — with the naïve imagination of a student on the verge of embarking on a journey into the unknown world called life. But I soon came to realize that building a door is not simply a solution to lack of opportunity. It is an exhausting, time-consuming reality that requires emotional energy and realistic standards, a consequence of broken doors and unheard knocks. But as disheartening as that notion may seem, once the stage of disillusionment occurs, fresh novelty replaces the disappointment.

The mission statements of all colleges are relatively similar to one another: they provide a setting in which students can thrive in whatever discipline they choose. "Education at Harvard should liberate students to explore, to create, to challenge, and to lead," claims Harry R. Lewis, Dean of Harvard College. In 1868, Cornell University co-founder Ezra Cornell explained he "found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study." Similarly, Columbia University "expects all areas of the university to advance knowledge and learning at the highest level and to convey the products of its efforts to the world." How desperately provocative for the minds of intelligent students!

Clearly, these mission statements attract young people with innocent confidence and major aspirations. And once you are in the system, you are exposed to failure and to rejection, be it the unexpectedly low grade in a course, or the silence in response to an internship application. Suddenly, you understand that second chances are not always available. High school is over; there are no do-overs. The professor will not change that grade just because your attendance is impeccable. The hiring manager will not call you over for a chat to become acquainted with your charming personality.

But that empty feeling of loneliness or beaten self-esteem does not stay so cold and empty forever. Because your college years are also a time when you suddenly discover buried aspects of your personality, character traits hidden inside you, strengths you did not know you possessed. You meet professors who take your breath away with their passion and knowledge. You create friendships based on shared intellectual interests. Given that you are not in a setting that forces you to interact with people in a classroom, the relationships you build are purposeful and solid.

And suddenly, you are a child all over again. Dreams begin to crawl into your thoughts, and new ambitions are shaped by your experiences. You catch yourself envisaging a career. And you allow yourself to want more … more than you have ever had, more than you have ever dreamt of having. And THOSE dreams, those visions born from disillusionment and honest introspection, are terrifying, but liberating. THOSE dreams … those are worth the grueling process of building a door.