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Why You're Going to Fail a Uni Subject... And That's Okay

Why You're Going to Fail a Uni Subject... And That's Okay

By Nicolette Petra

Failing at university can be a tough pill to swallow. It’s a taboo few of us want to consider could actually happen to us, let alone admit to if it has happened, especially more than once. It’s like having a dirty secret, and not the fun kind. So, please remain calm when I tell you, it’s very likely, if not certain that you will fail an exam if not a unit at some point in your university career.

I know – the thought of seeing an ‘F’ eternally stamped on your academic transcript is triggering. It’s especially nerve-wracking when you’ve worked insanely hard to attend your choice of a prestigious university and undertake your choice of degree. If you’re one of the lucky ones and chosen right, you probably also love the degree/s you’re studying. So to potentially fail after all of that effort is disheartening, to say the least.

Yet, failing a university unit more common than you think, or at least, that’s what I found after I started raising this off-limits topic in conversation.

After failing a final exam and therefore a unit, I was crushed. What made it worse, was that I had actually enjoyed the subject, at least to begin with anyway. Where I had started out enthusiastically attending lectures and being keen to get through readings in week one, I was crumbling under the pressure during the mid-semester break. Come the moment I walked out of the exam, I knew I would fail.

I was met with the default response from friends: ‘No, I’m sure you did great.’ But I’ve never been the melodramatic sort of student who proclaims, ‘I think I failed!’ after every test and then *miraculously* gets a distinction. This was not a cry for attention. This was harsh reality.

Cut to a few weeks later when results were released, and surprise, surprise, I had failed.

At first, I didn’t tell a soul. I hadn’t heard of anyone else failing the unit, and more to the point, I had never heard of anyone failing a university unit period. As far as I was concerned, I was an anomaly. I was convinced I had done something very wrong or made a very bad decision at some point in the semester to end up in such a predicament. Worse still, it was a compulsory unit, so I would have to resit it. Cue the overwhelming feeling of pre-emptive humiliation.

After the initial beating-myself-up phase blew over and I accepted my fate, I slowly began telling my close friends that I had failed. It was then that I realised just how common failing at university was.

One friend had failed not one but three units over the course of her uni life. Another had discontinue-failed several of her courses. A third had failed a unit in her first year and retaken it only to pass with flying colours. The most notable story, however, came from a friend who told me that in her first-ever law tutorial her tutor said, ‘I guarantee all of you will fail an exam in university.’

Translation: failure is inevitable.

I wish I had been met with the same words upon entering university. It would have been a nice safety net for my pride. Instead, I had to learn it on my own. 

Once I accepted and owned my failure, the more people I told, and the more I heard similar stories. What I found was that people seemed so relieved that they could finally unbridle themselves of this metaphorical albatross they’d been carrying around their necks. 

The truth is, life often gets in the way of university. You might take on too many responsibilities and mismanage your time without realising it until it’s too late. You could start dating someone new. You may hate the unit or degree you’re studying and ask yourself every day why on earth you’re doing it. There could be shakeups at work or at home. Breakups, breakdowns, and longwinded study breaks can get the best of us. In the end, something’s gotta give, and sometimes that something is uni.

So if you’re feeling the pressure this mid-sem break, the good news is that there’s still plenty of time to turn things around, and if you don’t manage to, you’re not alone. What’s more, it’s totally okay if you do fail. In fact, I’d argue it’s a good thing. Now, I know better than anyone that it can be frustrating, self-doubt inducing and expensive, but it’s also an opportunity to learn from your mistakes and do better.

Where I had failed to balance my readings with work and extra-curricular endeavours, I learnt to prioritise better. Where I had valued a squeaky-clean academic record, I learnt not to be so hard on myself and to see the value in the experiences and friendships university granted me. Where I cried most days during summer school because I was terrified of failing the same unit a second time, I learnt (with a gruelling amount of effort) that I could succeed. Where I once cared deeply about upholding my studious reputation among family and friends, I learnt that failing one unit didn’t undermine it or determine who I was – my failure only had power if I let it. Most importantly, I learnt that being candid about my own shortcomings, doubts, and failings, gave others a space to do the same.

No one (especially no one our age) has it as ‘together’ as you think, and if they say they do, I’d bet my HECS debt they’re fronting. What I can promise you is that if you fail an assessment this mid-sem, an exam at the end of sem, or completely bomb a unit, it does not define you, it is not the end of the world, and I advocate you embrace it in whatever form it presents itself.

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