Making a Mistake Is NOT the End of Your College Career or Your Life

A frustrated and stressed out student looks up at the high pile of textbooks he has to go through to do his homework.
A frustrated and stressed out student looks up at the high pile of textbooks he has to go through to do his homework.

Especially at this time of year when there was so much pressure to get it done -- classes, exams, papers, packing to go home, shopping, partying. It was easy for some things to get lost in the shuffle. Mistakes were made or mistakes made earlier began to show their consequences. The classes you did not attend, the realization that you forgot to take a course prerequisite, the fact that you waited too late to study for your finals. All now loom (in your mind) as huge mistakes that can undo your entire college career -- indeed your whole life. Now you get your grades and they are not as stellar as you had hoped -- some may even be dismal.

Walk yourself back from the brink and look at the salvage options. When there is a plan B things usually work out. Be sure to have a plan B. Mistakes can be overcome if you know the tricks of the trade.

Always keep in mind that college is for learning and therefore mistakes and learning from them is part of the game. I was always amazed when after I had spent hours correcting student's final papers and adding comments that would help them for the future, the students did not pick up the papers. So they never learned why they got the B instead of the B+ and thus how to get the next B+ or A. Talking to your professor about what you might have done better sets you up for better outcomes in the future. If it is a key professor in your major or one you may encounter in future courses this also creates a great impression and a connection that can serve you well for the long term.

Remember that if you have low grades because you really never understood the subject -- especially in areas like math or foreign languages -- then you will struggle mightily at the next level. You must take advantage of the resources your tuition dollars pay for -- the tutoring center, the writing center, the language labs. What you pay a tutor may be helping pay that student's tuition so you are kind of doing a good thing for someone else too. Typically it is not the students who need these tools most who will be found using them, it will be the B+ student looking for that A. Ego needs to get out of the way here. If you need help get it before more damage is done. Asking is a virtue in college.

If you realize that you are in the wrong major or subject area (often pre-med) then switch. Making that change sooner rather than later protects your GPA and also means that the story told by your transcript will be that you made a change and the good grades you get in the new major are a real reflection of your best capacities. It is a signal of self-awareness instead of stubbornness -- ultimately you show what you are really capable of given the right environment.

Sometimes the mistake is not yours but the professor's. In the midst of grading hundreds of papers and exams and putting together final grades they can make mistakes too. This is why it is important to hold on to all your papers, quizzes and other documents. If your math about how your quizzes, papers, and tests all add up don't match the grade that you got, then you can talk to the professor. There is usually a short window of time (maybe 30 days) when you can contest a grade. If you have the evidence, then you may succeed. What students often forget though is that there is often some percentage of a grade given for class participation and if you were silent all term, or absent (literally or just daydreaming, texting or doodling in class) you may lose significant points. So be sure of your ground before you contest a grade.

Where you can do serious damage that is hard to undo is if you cheat or plagiarize. That speaks to dishonesty. That is a lapse of character that is hard to overcome. It may go into your permanent record and affect both graduate school and job options. It is not worth the risk. Plagiarism is easily discovered these days thanks to technology and programs like Turnitin which allow faculty to spot plagiarizing in seconds.

Everyone makes mistakes and the analogy is often given of baseball where the number of at bats is way higher than the home runs -- so each at bat without a home run constitutes a failure and the home run is the win. You have to have one in order to have the other.

Too many students give up before the game is over. To continue the analogy assume that your teachers, advisers, and tutors are like the batting coach there to help you improve your outcomes.

So in the new semester pick yourself up and make the resolution that you will do things differently. You may manage your time more carefully. You will use faculty office hours. You will haunt the writing center. You will join a study group. You will speak up in class and actually do the reading.

A frequent interview question is "What mistakes have you made and what did you do to recover?" The assumption is that making mistakes is normal. It is. The test of character is how you manage them and what you learn from each.

Whatever you do don't walk away from the challenge. Chin up, face forward and keep going, maybe bruised but wiser, and that is what you want to leave college being -- wiser.

Visit to learn more about Marcia Cantarella and her new book I Can Finish College.