The Creative Spark—How Not to Fail at School

If you’re struggling at university, rest assured that many students with amazing potential also struggle.  And I know you have amazing potential.  We all do.  But we also all have setbacks that could lead to failure.  A high potential student might have a learning disability, a track record of underperformance, life challenges, or any other setback.  But there are ways around every setback.

I want to dig deeper into one wound in particular students might face: failing at school.  Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi talk about the wound of failing at school in their book The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma. 

They first list three things you absolutely must avoid if you do not want to fail.

“Underachieving; setting low goals to avoid failing at bigger ones” (Ackerman & Puglisi, 2017, 37%).

Underachievers can come in the form of former PhDs.  Life can throw curveballs.  One minute you’re on top.  The next, you’re barely staying afloat.

But the reverse also holds true.  One minute you’re barely staying afloat.  The next, you’re scoring top grades, on your way to grad school.  But a switch from failure to success takes changes.  Time commitment is one change.  Lifestyle is another.

Perhaps your roommates trap you into a party lifestyle.  You could always move to your own place, one equipped with space for your study office, or you could reduce to part time studies at university or part time hours at work.  And once you get in the swing, increase your courses.

“Not applying oneself so failure can be blamed on a lack of preparation” (Ackerman & Puglisi, 2017, 37%).

A guy on the bus said he was smart.  He just didn’t apply himself.  He’d be smarter to apply himself.  I believe we are all smarter than we know, each with amazing potential, given the right conditions.

A lack of preparation almost always meets up with failure.  And the more preparation we do, the better our chances of success.

Sometimes we luck out with the right circumstances for academic success.  Other times, we have to work hard to build those circumstances.  Either way, our potential is unlimited.

“Dropping out of school” (Ackerman & Puglisi, 2017, 37%).

Please, never do this.  Make changes first.  In the undergrad, I almost quit school because of social pressure.  If I had, I would’ve lost my chance at not just a graduate degree, but any degree.  And going back would’ve been so much harder the second time around.  Many graduate students consider quitting, too.    Hang in there.  Make changes.  Ask for concessions.  Double your efforts.  But never quit.


In addition, they suggest you try to avoid changing your focus to an easier field of academics, even if it’s less rewarding” (Ackerman & Puglisi, 2017, 37%).

Due to academic pressure, you might switch fields.  But be careful: your heart can take you far.  If you’ve got passion for a field, you might gain more success if you tread the harder, more rewarding path.  After all, have you seen the license plate on the Porsche that reads 2.64 GPA?  And often A students work for B students for companies owned by C students.

In addition to avoiding certain behaviors, Ackerman and Puglisi provide a number of things you should do:

“Redoube your efforts in hopes of turning things around” (Ackerman & Puglisi, 2017, 37%).

If you find yourself falling behind or getting lower grades, don’t fret.  Spend more time in studies, reduce your course load, get better study habits, whatever puts that fire back in your belly.  Even just reading grammar books and books on writing can earn you higher grades.  But if you drink or do drugs, consider dropping these habits.  They only hurt your grade, not help.

“Seek out tutors or study groups (37%).

Post an ad at your nearest university requesting a tutor.  Ask for a graduate level tutor.  Or pay for tutoring from a local tutoring business.  You can also contact an online agency as tutoring can be done through Skype or other software.

“Ask for more time on assignments or offering to do additional work for extra credit” (Ackerman & Puglisi, 2017, 37%).

If you’ve got a disability, such as ADHD, anxiety, or dyslexia, definitely see if you can swap an exam with a project or term paper.  AU’s Accessibility Services may help advocate on your behalf.

Even without a disability, you could get an extension if you explain your circumstances—to a merciful professor.

“Ask a trusted adult for help if home circumstances are beyond your ability to manage” (Ackerman & Puglisi, 2017, 37%).

Do you spend hours caring for family?  Cooking endless meals?  Scrubbing dishes and floors?  And, oh, the laundry—the endless laundry.

It’s a challenge to shift priorities from a loved one to a textbook, but the payoff will be huge.  If you can delegate or trade-off responsibilities, maybe even carpool, you’ve got an edge.

So, the above sums up how not to fail at school.  And if you’ve got a desire to get straight A’s, just think of the PhD who spent k-12 almost entirely in the special class.


Ackerman, Angela, & Puglisi, Becca.  (2017).  The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma.  [Kindle].  Retrieved from

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