As you think about finishing high school and applying to college, there may be one scary factor lurking in your mind . . . failure.  What if I don’t get into the college of my choice?  What if my grades aren’t good enough?  What if I don’t major in the right thing to find a good job?  What if I can’t do the work that the professors expect of me?

Transitioning from high school to college can be scary and challenging.  In fact, while 70% of Americans will begin study at a four year college, two-thirds of those will never graduate with a degree.  This means that many students who have set goals for attending college and graduating experience failure at the college level, and many of them quit.  They drop out of college instead of persevering in their studies.  So, is failure a cue to quit?  Should you just give up when facing the pressures and challenges that post-secondary study presents?

Well, of course not!  Failure is inevitable, and everyone will experience a setback of some magnitude at some point in his or her life.  It is how we react to failure that separates success stories from dropouts.  In fact, several universities acknowledge the fact that most students will experience failure at some point in their college life or early career.  Harvard University has created The Success-Failure Project, a site where Harvard alumni relate their personal failures so that they and current students can reflect on failure as well as success.  In addition, Stanford University trains academic advisers to help students understand that experiences with failure can cultivate resilience and perspective in students.  So, rather than failure being a cue to quit, failure is actually an opportunity to learn, persist, and hone our life goals.

I have a personal experience with failure as I transitioned to college.  I graduated from Cypress Creek high school in 2007, and wanted to major in music composition.  I had been composing music on my own since the age of 14, and I auditioned on piano at the University of Houston music school.  The audition had three components: a music theory test, a composition interview with a professor, and a performance test on piano.  To prepare for the audition, I practiced for four hours a day.  I did well on the theory test and on the interview.  The school only accepted two new students that year, and unfortunately, my performance was not strong enough to be one of the final two.

This was a major blow, and I could have taken it as my cue to quit.  Instead, I chose to reconsider my options.  I did not want to audition for another music school, so I chose to pursue a different major, engineering.  I applied to the University of Houston’s engineering school, but my grades were not good enough.  Again, I could have seen this as my cue that engineering school was not in my future.  Instead, I sought other paths to my goal.

I considered applying to other colleges, but there were several reasons why The University of Houston was the right choice for me.  It was close–about an hour from my parents’ home.  I just needed to find an alternate method of achieving my goal.  The University of Houston suggested that I attend a community college to take some of the introductory math and science courses and then reapply.  I did this, but still, the grades I earned in those classes were not high enough, and I was rejected again due to GPA.  They suggested that I earn an associate’s degree at the community college and then reapply.  I did this, and again, my grades were not high enough.  At this point, I had been rejected from the University of Houston’s engineering school three times!  I almost saw this as my cue to quit.  I had experienced failure over and over, and it would have been easy to give up my goal of attending engineering school.  However, life gave me another opportunity in an unexpected way.

I was working at a Best Buy store when I began a conversation with a customer who shared that he was an electrical engineer and an alumnus of the University of Houston’s engineering school.  I shared with him my story of the many attempts to get into engineering school.  He must have seen some type of determination and resilience in me because he chose to mentor me, and actually continued to mentor me for the next four years.  He shared information about a pre-engineering program at the University of Houston and guided me through the process of getting into that program.  My story took another turn when an associate dean at the University of Houston told me that if I could pass one introductory course on computers and problem solving with an A or a B, then I would be admitted into the engineering program.  Sounds easy, right?  The course had a failure rate of 70%.  Yet, with my mentor’s help and some focus and determination, I did pass the course with a B+, which was the third highest grade in a class of 200 students.  With more hard work and determination, I graduated from the engineering school in 2014.  Out of those 200 students who started in that computers and problem solving course with me, only 29 of us walked across the stage as graduates of the engineering school.

What kept me going during the course of the engineering program?  My mentor made frequent contact, and encouraged me to think about the ultimate goal of attaining a job as an engineer.  While I didn’t choose the major for the money, he encouraged me to think about a starting salary of $80,000 if I could make it to graduation.  When I graduated in 2014, I already had an offer for employment as a full-time Electrical Engineer in the oil and gas industry in Houston, TX.  My starting salary was $75,000 with full benefits.  He wasn’t far off!

So, how did my story become one of success rather than failure?  I chose not to give up in the face of failure.  While I did, at times, have to reconsider my options and adjust my life plan to take a different route, the goal was important enough to me that I was willing to make adjustments in order to eventually get there.  It wasn’t always an easy path, but failure was not a cue to quit.  Failure was my cue to step back, reevaluate my life plan, and refocus on how I could take steps that would get me closer to my goal in the end.  It was maintaining a focus on that goal, with the help of a mentor, that led to ultimate success.

Those who study innovators and entrepreneurs recognize that major successes often follow major setbacks.  Those who reap big rewards from innovative ideas have something in common—a high tolerance for taking risks and failing.  It is a given that at some point in your transition from high school to college and then to the workforce that you will experience a setback or failure of some kind.  In those moments, don’t see failure as the cue to give up on your life plan and your goals.  Instead, use that setback as a time to reevaluate your vision, your goals, and your plan.  It may be that you have to take a slightly different path, but your story can still end as a tale of success.


Points to Ponder:

  1. How does the story of the author’s own experiences with failure reinforce the central message of this blog post about failure? (ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.2
    Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.).
  1. Look at this blog post and evaluate the evidence that the author gives to support his message about failure. Do you feel that the evidence is sufficient to support the author’s claim that failure is not a “cue to quit”?  Reflect on an experience with failure from your own life that would either support or refute the author’s claim.  Discuss your experience. (ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.8
    Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.)



Beckstead, R. (2015). College dropout statistics.  College Atlas.  Retrieved from:

Bureau of Study Counsel.  (2016).  The Success-Failure Project.  Harvard University.  Retrieved from:

Ombelets, John. (Fall 2014). Big success often built on big failure.  Northeastern Magazine.  Retrieved from:

Petty, A. (2014). Failure, resilience, and good advising. Teaching Talk.  Stanford Teaching Commons. Stanford University.  Retrieved from: