By Aisha Sembhi
It is not uncommon for students who thrive academically to be overachievers from a young age, only to fall at a greater hurdle later in life and learn, in the most brutal way possible, what failure truly is.
This was certainly the case with me – my very first brush with academic failure came on A Level results day in 2018. Whilst my friends were celebrating, I was trying to figure out what had gone so incredibly wrong for me to miss my university entry requirements. I had gotten my very first ‘bad’ grade in Maths.
The day was bittersweet, with emphasis on the former – I had still been accepted into my dream university, but my grades had left an awful taste in my mouth. The academic talent that once defined by whole character had disappeared – going from being ‘the smart one’ to becoming, essentially, no-one, was devastating. I entered my first year at Durham University feeling like a cheat and as though I had stolen my place from someone who deserved it more. I later learnt these overwhelming feelings of inadequacy are often characterised as ‘Imposter Syndrome’, something several students tend to struggle with.
Whilst my friends were celebrating, I was trying to figure out what had gone so incredibly wrong for me to miss my university entry requirements.
The frequent occurrence of this phenomenon is unsurprising given the ways in which students tend to obsessively compare themselves to each other. The years branching our teenage years and adulthood can feel like the most immense competition to succeed; attaching instances of failure to our professional portfolios is almost always unheard of. With the rising use of social media platforms and online networking opportunities, we live in an age of positive curations – our online personas are designed to present ourselves in our very best way. Therefore, academic talent and subsequent success can feel as though they have become measures of self-worth and have the devastating potential to define our identities. For myself, getting anything below top marks felt as though I had sabotaged my future prospects, and therefore failed at life before I had even properly started it.
Failure has become something students detach themselves from, and something we feel increasingly embarrassed about. In reality, our most unsuccessful instances serve as invaluable learning experiences and are perhaps the most advantageous aspect of university life we can carry on into the professional world. Embracing academic ‘failure’ in an environment where most people seem to be thriving, such as that of a top university, is painful, but necessary. If we are to immerse ourselves in high pressure environments, we should certainly expect to face some difficult challenges – to rise to every occasion is simply unrealistic and expecting oneself to do so has astonishingly detrimental consequences.
Embracing academic ‘failure’ in an environment where most people seem to be thriving, such as that of a top university, is painful, but necessary.
As for the my A Level results, I ended up resitting Maths alongside my first year of university, hoping to redeem myself in some way. However, my second results day in 2019 was equally as underwhelming as the first – not because I had ‘failed’, but because I had succeeded. I had finally achieved the A grade I so desperately wanted.
However, in a priceless moment of realisation, I understood that success is not defined by a series of letter grades on a single sheet of paper, but is rather characterised by how we, as individuals, learn to adapt and change our approaches upon experiencing failure. My priorities had certainly shifted – I had originally thought that maintaining my academic record would liberate me from my Imposter Syndrome. In reality, my deliverance, and perhaps the start of my greatest success story, was accepting the fact that my academic record was not, and never will be, a measure of my self-worth.
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