The Five Stages of Grief (for Students Coping with Utter Failure)

Author: Becca Fritz


When tragedy strikes, we all struggle to stay afloat. Grief can be an enormous mental and emotional burden, especially on a college student with a schedule full of commitments and classes. However, sometimes these commitments and classes can be the source of the grief itself. Many freshmen studying science and engineering at elite universities find themselves grieving their future goals and dreams due to failing exams at an average of four times in a single semester. In such distressing times, it is important to recognize patterns in mental health and actively practice self-care. The five stages of grief, as developed by psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, are often applied to the experience of losing a loved one; however, many freshman pre-med majors have found its application to their feelings to be incredibly helpful after receiving their General Biology grades. By recognizing these natural and necessary steps to healing, you will be better equipped to handle the emotional turbulence that is sure to follow the next exam you completely bomb.

Denial: The first stage, denial, is marked by shock and numbness to the failure. You may not believe that this could happen to you. If you find yourself wondering, “Maybe I skipped a question bubble in the middle and filled in the rest of the answer sheet wrong...” or “I bet the professor meant to enter my grade as 84, not 48,” you are likely experiencing the first stage of grief.

Anger: Denial is followed by anger, which gives a visceral quality to your feelings of failure after being obliterated by a General Chemistry exam that you started studying for weeks in advance. This may manifest itself as ripping up your poorly taken notes, verbally lashing out at your roommate who just wanted to know what you were doing for dinner tonight, or egging your professor’s house.

Bargaining: Bargaining consists of constantly questioning how you can remedy the loss. Often, college students post-exam failure will attempt to bargain for points back by meeting with professors, claiming to have marked the right answer on the actual exam but not on the answer sheet, citing ambiguities in question wording, or attempting to respectfully convey the strong opinion that the exam was purely unfair garbage that should not be a metric of their understanding of the material. These conversations, while often fruitless, are a natural step in dealing with grief.

Depression: This stage is distinguished by an intense despondency and withdrawal from normally enjoyable activities. In your life, this may look like foregoing dessert at the dining hall, even though they have your favorite flavor of ice cream, or skipping class to stare at the ceiling from your bed and contemplate your bleak future.

Acceptance: The fifth and final stage of grief, acceptance, is about learning to live with the cruel reality of a 35 percent on a Calc 3 exam that had an 82 percent average. In the acceptance stage, we commit to moving on, however that may be done. To accept and move on from your exam grief, you may resolve to study harder for the next exam, drop the class, change your major, or decide to completely give up on your dreams of becoming a mechanical engineer and drop out of college. While all are viable options that may lead you toward acceptance, remember that a college education in the sciences is little more than four years of repeated failure, and maybe you’d better quit while you’re ahead.