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As you wait for college decisions to roll in, success has never felt closer. Soon, all your hard work will have paid off, and you won’t have to worry about applications ever again (or at least not for another four more years, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).

However, the possibility of failure feels more real than ever too. Some of you may still feel the lingering frustration of that early decision deferral or outright rejection. For others, the anticipation is making anxiety levels skyrocket.

I completely understand — I experienced the same thing exactly three years ago. Back then, the concept of failure when it came to academics was pretty foreign to me, but since then, college has completely changed my perspective on failure. Below are three instances that helped me to put “failure” in a different, more growth-oriented context, rather than a negative reflection of myself.

Dropping classes in college

When I first came to college, the concept of dropping classes was completely foreign, and if I was being honest, seemed a bit ridiculous to me. A commonly employed strategy by my peers was to select excess classes for the following semester, with the intention of dropping at least one after seeing what all the classes are like. However, that was not the case for me.

Once I put together a schedule for the following semester, it was cemented in my head; to drop a class felt like giving up. It takes me a while to make decisions, but once I finally choose something, I commit to the decision, and I couldn’t imagine not seeing a class through until the end.

The first time I was confronted with the possibility of needing to drop a class during my sophomore year, I balked. Was I really so weak, so unaccomplished, that I couldn’t handle all the classes that I had signed up for? Everyone else seemed to be taking six classes while leading three clubs and conducting research and working two jobs; why couldn’t I even handle five classes?

I continued for a few more weeks in all five of my classes, trying to keep up as best as I could. However, I finally realized that I had neither the time nor the interest to stay in that last class, and against all my past convictions, I went ahead and dropped the class.

It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, but also like I had somehow been marked, and now everyone knew I had “failed” in my ability to balance my classwork. However, after talking to friends and upperclassmen, I quickly realized that not only was dropping classes extremely common, it was also better to do it early on rather than wait until halfway through the semester.

Dropping a class within the first few weeks of school saved myself a lot of trouble and wasted time, and it was a useful exercise in recognizing just how much I could handle while also taking care of myself.

Moreover, dropping classes too late could have led to Withdrawals on my transcript, or lower grades in other classes because I spread myself too thin and allowed that extra class to take away valuable time from my other classes. I finally convinced myself to not let the thought of “dropping” make me feel like a failure; oftentimes it’s actually the best option out there, and more likely than not, the class being dropping was one I didn’t need to take anyway.

Looking back, I feel almost silly for worrying so much about something that seems so trivial now. And that goes for many of my past worries too: what if I couldn’t score above a 2300 on my SAT and had to, god forbid, retake it? Or what if I didn’t get into any of my top choice schools and had to “settle” for one of my safety schools? I find it hard to believe now how much I stressed over these questions, which only goes to show that as awful as something may seem in the immediate moment, a little time will do wonders.

Applying…and then reapplying for clubs

When I was in high school, most clubs were inclusive and open to everyone, whether it be a musical group or a service club. College turned out to be a different story. Practically every club that’s even remotely career-oriented requires an application, and often multiple rounds of interviews.

Of course, like any other determined freshman, I went to a slew of information sessions about these pre-professional groups and submitted applications to all of them. I was invited back for an interview for one of these groups, but ultimately ended up being rejected. After receiving my rejection email, I wondered if I should reapply, then tossed that idea out of my mind.

To reapply and re-interview meant facing the people who rejected me again, and these weren’t just professors that vaguely knew me or administrative officials on the other side of a computer screen. These people were my peers: they were my classmates, my dormmates, the people I passed by every day on the street.

It was hard to imagine making myself vulnerable yet again to my peers, because the rejection feels more personal when it’s from someone you consider to be a peer. I couldn’t help but wonder if my rejection was based on trivial things such as my social standing or looks rather than my qualifications.

I ultimately decided not to reapply, but since then, I’ve come to regret that decision. I learned through a friend that she wasn’t even invited back for an interview until the third time she applied to the pre-medical group that she is a part of now; many others also had to reapply, sometimes more than once, before being offered a spot in the group.

I admired their audacity and boldness, and it taught me that I needed to stop worrying so much about what others thought of my supposed “failures” and shortcomings, and to never stop trying until I succeeded.

Built-in Failure

There’s no shame in failure, and no class taught me that better than the auto tutorial biochemistry course I took this past semester. An auto tutorial class is essentially a self-taught class, with deadlines for each chapter and corresponding unit quizzes to make sure you’re covering all the important points.

What was unique about this class was that we were given four quiz retakes completely free of penalties. I didn’t think much of it at first, as I figured I’d be prepared enough for each unit that I wouldn’t need the retakes. However, as it turns out, when a course that has been running successfully for years has these built-in retakes, it probably meant that most students needed them. I was no exception.

The first time I failed a unit quiz, I felt so ashamed I could barely look my TA in the eye.
When the TA saw my initial expression of disappointment, she reassured me that not only was this nothing to worry about, but that she had also used all four of her quiz retakes and had done well enough in the class to eventually become a TA.

After that, I did fail another quiz or two, but I no longer felt ashamed, and it was such a freeing feeling. There’s a difference between learning from your mistakes and feeling ashamed; just because you “failed” doesn’t mean you’re not worthy. If anything, the fact that you can so proudly and confidently go back, with your head held high, and work at your faults and try again is the complete opposite of being a failure.

I’d always heard that success isn’t getting things on the first try, but it wasn’t until my biochemistry class that I fully experienced that true success means having the audacity and resilience to keep working at something until you master it, no matter how many times you fall behind or “fail”.

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June Xia

June is a junior at Cornell University studying biology. She attended public high school in the Philly suburbs, where she ate lots of water ice and hoagies. June enjoys watching TV, playing candy crush, and reading the New York Times. Writing poetry and knitting kept her sane during admissions season, plus a lot of chocolate and hugs; she made it out alive, and is all the more introspective and aware thanks to the experience.