Yea, it hurts
I’m fairly confident that we’ve all been there at some point during our lives.
You check your exam grades on Blackboard (the virtual learning environment that Imperial uses) or finally got your graded coursework back from your lecturer, and it’s right there – a grade that is way below your standard of excellence.
You reflect on the time you’ve spent working or preparing for this. It was clear – you’ve poured in your heart and soul. An immediate sadness follows suit, and your mind gets clouded with a similar train of thoughts – wait, how? How did all of this go so wrong? Am I unworthy of something better? Maybe I am just stupid without even realising it this whole time? I am useless. I am a failure!
I might have been a little over-dramatic with my statement above, or maybe not. But one thing I do know very well is that I would be lying if I were to tell you that I have received stellar grades all the time without fail at Imperial, for I too, have had my fair share of experience flunking my own coursework. Meanwhile, I’ve also received messages from friends and even a few students on my UniBuddy account seeking my thoughts on how we could better manage the disappointment that comes along.
Hence, in this article, let me walk you through how I personally try to deal with this, and perhaps you might find some merits in my approach. Though do take note – some of my advice could be a vice, so feel free to take what is useful and discard the rest. There’s no rulebook here.
What can you do?
1. Avoid anchoring your identity solely to your grades
They say that you should never put all of your eggs into one basket when you are making an investment. Instead, you are strongly advised to diversify your portfolio so that you minimise the risk of potentially losing all of your money if one of your investments didn’t turn out well.
In essence, this concept is also applicable when it comes to managing your self-esteem and identity.
To a certain extent, I would argue that the majority of us get emotionally devastated over a poor academic performance because we tied up too much – or even all – of our identity in our exam or coursework grades.
Therefore, one of the key things I try to remind myself is to always diversify my source of self-esteem. Invest the things you care about into a number of different areas – whether it is friendships, sports, volunteering, a cool side project or business you might have, family, etc. – so that if one of them gets messed up, your sense of identity isn’t taken away completely.
2. Find out what went wrong
Upon recovering from the bad news – in my case, usually after a good night’s sleep (and maybe some ice cream, though not recommended at all times) – the next thing I would do is to schedule an appointment with the lecturer/marker to understand where exactly I went wrong.
Oftentimes, I was actually surprised when many of the lecturers told me that I was one of the only students who schedule an appointment with them to understand how I could improve my work.
So, this brings me to say – your lecturers are really there to help you. In fact, they appreciate an enthusiastic learner who is willing to take the initiative and ask questions out of curiosity. On top of that, there is really no reason for you to fear your markers, and that’s because they are all just normal human beings who are more than willing to take the time to guide you with your learning journey.
The simple reason for this is because it is imperative for you to not see your coursework or exam grades as the “be-all and end-all” of your capabilities. Understand that learning and improving is an ongoing and lifelong process, and all of these constructive habits will culminate into helping you become a better scientist, a better presenter, a better writer… or even a better person as a whole.
3. Gather up your strength, chin up, and work to become a better version of yourself
Once I have noted down whatever my areas of improvement are, the easiest way for me to describe the next step would be to look forward, trust that you are capable of continuous improvement, and just keep going.
I cannot always accurately predict what sort of grades I’ll get in my next coursework or exam. The same thing might happen to you too. But what we all can do moving forward is to focus on what we can control.
In my case, I can control how much time I put into studying, working out at the gym, going out with my friends, etc. I can also control whether I have a growth or fixed mindset whenever I come across an entirely new topic during my lectures, and I can also take control of how I choose to interpret criticism whenever one gets thrown in my direction.
In short, if you can identify the things that you can do to steer yourself towards your desired outcome, focus on getting them done and then let the others go. In the meantime, regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs, there is a specific Christian prayer that I personally feel has some profound wisdom in it; it is best known as the Serenity Prayer (skip the first word of the prayer if you are not Christian or religious):
God, grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.