I Failed an Exam

One of the best parts about college is that we all get to start specializing in the classes we take. We pick a major that suits us perfectly and we take classes that are engaging and geared towards our interests. At least, that’s the story we’re fed.

Unfortunately, we also have to take classes that don’t appeal to us at all. English majors are forced to struggle through math classes (because apparently algebra will help you understand Shakespeare) and social science majors are trapped in chem labs. Liberation only come after completing several basic university requirements.

I am one such student, majoring in social relations and policy and double-minoring in Spanish and women’s studies. And yet, fall semester of freshman year, I found myself sitting in an overly warm classroom in Berkey staring wide-eyed at a calculus professor that I could barely understand. The concepts posed an even greater challenge. Poor advising had prompted me to add this course to my schedule, and I began to regret it little over a week into the class. And, yet, I stayed, suffering through each quiz and homework assignment for a class with material that, quite frankly, I was pretty incapable of comprehending.

I barely scraped by with a passing grade on the first exam and left the building in tears. At that point, my only goal was to pass the class so that I would never have to suffer through more math ever again. I went to the math learning center, asked as many people as I could for help, and completed a plethora of practice exams.

And, still, I failed the next exam.

Failure for a girl who had yet to overcome her perfectionism dealt a startling blow. It felt like the sky was falling. I had never completely failed at anything and yet, the graded exam I held in my hands was proof of my failure. I was devastated. I was embarrassed. I didn’t know how I was going to get over it.

But I did.

I took a step back and I thought about all of my classes, and all of my strengths as both a person and a student. I failed that exam, but what else had I done all semester? My other classes were giving me the chance to thrive. I was building friendships with inspiring, funny, empowered college women. I was engaged in my school, active in various extracurriculars. I was independent for the first time in my life.

Did one failed exam negate all that growth?

Sometimes, we have to accept that we are not perfect, or great, or even good at everything. College calculus was a terrible fit for me, and that’s okay. I earned stellar grades in all of my other classes that semester, and had an amazing freshman year. More than that, I still passed calculus.

It’s okay to fail and it’s okay to admit that we’ve failed. A failed exam does not speak to your character or even your intelligence. Each individual person is smart in their own way, with a brain and skills and talents that are more geared toward certain subjects over others. An engineering student is a calculus wizard, but I can guarantee that I could outsmart them when it comes to social theorists any day of the week. Regardless, that doesn’t mean that one of us is smarter than the other. It just means that we excel in different areas, both of which are equally important in the world, even if they are not equally important to each other.

If you fail an exam, shake it off. I promise you, the world will not end. Your family will still love you, your friends will still hang out with you, and you can still be successful in college. One grade does not define you. Grades as a whole do not define you. Only you are capable of defining yourself. Work hard on learning the kind of material that really draws you in, and it’s okay not to master the rest. What matters most is that you’re learning and growing, both as a student, and a human being. The rest, I promise, will follow.