Making Peace with “Mistakes” in College

College is a time often full of “mistakes.” At least, that is what the media portrays and how many of us think about some of the things we did during those years. But, what if we framed that conversation differently? What if some things are mistakes but, many more are a reflection of the developmental tasks that take place during the college years? For those in college or for those supporting these students, here are some considerations for making peace with the “mistakes” encountered during the college years.

Understanding “Mistakes” During the College Years

Trial & Error: There are simply some things you can’t know until you know. As someone who changed majors seven times, I could view that as a mistake, something that took unnecessary time away from graduation, spent money and time studying for things I did not “need” to know, etc. However, when it comes to majors, relationships, joining (and unjoining) organizations, and even friendships, there are only so many things you have been exposed to when you come to college. Sometimes, it is only when you get to know new things you can decide if they are “for” you or not.

Developmental Necessity: Developing a personal identity in terms of interests, drive, focus, priorities, etc. is a developmental task that takes place during the adolescent and young adult years. These years are when someone moves to accept what they were taught as their own, depart towards something different, or create their unique combination of both. While elements of this exploration may feel like mistakes, it is also part of you figuring out who you want to be as an adult separate from your family of origin.

Needs Fulfillment: So many things that end up feeling like “mistakes” in college are when we make choices that feel like a departure from who we are or want to be. When this happens, the most important things to ask yourself are, “Do I understand why I did that? What need was that filling? What emotional need was I trying to fill?” Rarely do we continue to make choices that don’t match our values unless there is an unmet need. Try to figure out what that is.

Wrong Place, Wrong Time: College life is different in terms of independence, freedom of movement, changing social connections, late hours, and experimentation by many people around you. Some students simply find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time and get caught up in something related to law enforcement, something they have to report to a professor, scholarship board, etc. While you may have to deal with some unanticipated consequences, try not to be too hard on yourself if you were not personally making mistakes.

True Mistakes: Sometimes, we make mistakes that are truly just that. Mistakes. We will do that in college and we will do that at other points in our lives. If you truly did do something you should not have done, made a choice that you regret, or violated your values or the law, it is going to feel crummy. But, just like when you were a kid, remember that mistakes are to be learned from. They always have a lesson and an opportunity to do better next time. Remember that you are human, forgive, and try to move forward.

The college journey, with its trial and error, developmental tasks, various needs, and increased independence is likely to result in a few journeys in the “wrong” direction. And, a few of these might be mistakes, true mistakes. No matter which one it is, learn from the experience and be patient. After all, it is college. The goal is to learn.

Post published September 26, 2023 by Anne Rulo, Author, Speaker, Therapist. FB/IG/Twitter @annemrulo

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