Tired of Failing at College or University? Examine Your Aptitude

Is hard work on its own sufficient for college success? The short answer is no. As a College Advisor I often speak to students about the ingredients for academic success. Why do I have that discussion on a daily basis? The reason is simple, because I meet with thousands of students who have dismal grades.

Top ingredients for academic success.

My top ingredient for academic success is interest. Following closely behind interest is one very important ingredient that is often overlooked -  aptitude. 


What in the world is aptitude?

Aptitude is a student's cognitive ability to comprehend and apply subject material. It is the 'get it' factor. In other words, how well a student understands the material will impact their score on exams. If you have strong aptitude, you are likely to do well.

The unbelievers.

For those who disagree and believe academic success is all about hard work and drive, explain that to the thousands of students I've met who have done all they could to succeed and yet failed calculus, or an engineering course, or organic chemistry multiple times. Does it take multiple failures to figure out you lack aptitude? No, but many students wait until it it is too late - they are either quick to blame other people for their poor grades or they are under so much pressure to succeed that admitting defeat and changing programs is not an option.

Yes, there are bad instructors. Yes, some exams are written poorly. And yes, some institutions may not provide enough support for struggling students. But these alone do not explain consistent academic struggles. 

Who cares about aptitude anyway?

Something else that may surprise you. Colleges and universities measure your aptitude at three stages in your academic career.

1. Admission - Colleges and universities require a minimum aptitude for admission to their institution. In other words, there are minimum academic requirements, standards, or grades that you must present to get into a college or university.

2. Good Academic Standing or Continuation Requirements - Colleges and universities require students to maintain a minimum aptitude while pursuing their studies. In other words, if you don't meet the grade requirements you will quickly find yourself on academic warning or probation.

3. Graduation - Each college or university requires you to meet a minimum academic grade (as a result of your aptitude) in order to graduate.

Action Steps: Top 4 things to consider if you lack aptitude.

1. Consider dropping the course(s) that are negatively impacting your academic record.

2. Consider changing your degree (science to liberal arts), or academic route (degree studies to community college studies).

3. Examine your personal life. Are you struggling with personal issues? It could be that you don't lack aptitude but rather are suffering from a hurt, habit, or hang-up that you have never addressed. If so, book an appointment with a personal counsellor.

4. Seek out academic advice from an Academic Advisor. A good advisor will not sugar coat your problem. He/she will ask the right questions and review your academic record to determine the cause of your academic struggles. 

Your Success

There's nothing wrong with you if you lack aptitude. Everyone has gifts, skills, and talents and many of those may have nothing to do with your academic abilities. If you want to know where you are likely to excel, I suggest talking to someone who knows you well.

Although career assessments and aptitude tests can be helpful, so can the support, encouragement, and kindness of someone close to you. Often, the people closest to you know you better than you know yourself and certainly much better than a computer program. 

Finally, if you lack a support network then consult with a trusted academic advisor.




To drop or not to drop university/college courses.

Fear - a powerful emotion that paralyzes students from making rationale and objective decisions about their education. I want to offer three solid reasons why 'dropping' (a course) is not something to be fearful of! Had I been given this advice when I was first year student, I would have saved myself from three D's on my permanent academic record. Now they are with me forever.

Consider this: you are in a first year course where the mid-term is worth 50% of your grade and the final exam is worth 50% of your grade. On the mid-term, you barely pass by getting 25 of the possible 50 points. That means you'll need a perfect grade (all 50 points) on your final exam just to get a B or 75% grade in the end. How realistic is that when you have missed a number of classes, are behind in the readings, and have lost track of most of what was said in class?

Given the scenario above, what are you thinking when you contemplate 'sticking it out'? In my 8,000 sessions with students, here's what they have told me:

  1. Dropping is like quitting and I'm not a quitter.
  2. I need this course for my program.
  3. If I don't complete this course it will screw up my schedule next year.
  4. It's only my first year. It really doesn't matter.
  5. My parents would be furious if they knew I dropped it.
  6. If I withdraw, a 'W' will appear on my permanent record (my transcript).
It all boils down to a fear of failure.

Here is the reality: A low grade in one course will not likely ruin you academically. The question is, how many other low grades are you racking up this year?

In my former career as a university Academic Advisor, I almost always encouraged students to drop in this scenario. Here are three reasons why.


1. Lay a solid foundation for your future.

It's hard to do well in subsequent courses when you haven't laid a solid foundation in first and second year courses. Who cares you ask? Well, think of it like building a house. If your foundation is weak, the rest of your house will be too. Trust me when I say that solid skills early on will bring success later.

2. Think long term. Your future career is at stake.

Are you looking for an even more compelling reason than laying a solid foundation? How about maintaining a solid academic record? If I had a dime for every student who said they wanted to go on to professional studies (like law or medicine) or some other profession that required outstanding grades throughout their studies, I'd be rich. Again, a low grade is not the end of your academic career, but your goal should be making the best decisions you can now for your future.

3. Get the facts first. Then make a decision.

Some institutions assign a ‘W’ for withdrawal when students drop courses. Many students believe this is a punitive notation and will adversely affect their permanent record. This is not true since the withdrawal does not explain why the student dropped the course. You may have dropped it for any number of compelling reasons including: illness, personal struggles, or financial difficulties. In fact, you may have exercised great wisdom in dropping the course realizing that you were way in over your head.

The point is that you have a choice between recording a potentially low grade on your permanent academic record and a ‘W’, assuming your institution even assigns one. There are consequences for low grades but no consequences for withdrawals. Consider this the next time you are faced with the decision to drop or not to drop.

Finally, it is important to understand that dropping is not quitting. In fact, knowing when to fold 'em (like the Kenny Rogers song) is a sign of maturity and wisdom.

Bryan Tinlin, President
Tinlin Academic Advising and Consulting