Hannah Berman
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I had a friend in high school who was extremely bright, but couldn’t seem to get good grades. She studied just as hard as I did — probably harder — but whenever our exams were handed back, she would scowl involuntarily and stuff the paper away into her backpack without even glancing through to check what went wrong. As her close friend, I observed her process for a while and realized with time that her reaction to negative feedback was not just a symptom of her academic problem but the problem itself. When our homework was graded, she would contest the teachers’ feedback, assuming that they had graded incorrectly; when she was told that she hadn’t completed a task to its full extent, she would argue that the instructions were not clear. Every time we left a math test and stood in the hall trying to piece together our eventual grades, she was positive that her answers were right, even when the rest of the group disagreed. Her academic weakness was her pride, and it was preventing her from truly excelling in school.

Though you might not even be aware of it, you have academic weaknesses, too — everyone does. You also likely have academic strengths, of which you are probably more aware. Though retrospection on this level might seem tedious to some, it’s actually helpful to acknowledge these strengths and weaknesses, even when they can be difficult to pinpoint. If you know your strengths you can play to them, and if you leave your weaknesses unchecked, like my friend did, they can prevent you from success. So, what are your academic strengths and weaknesses? And how can you use that knowledge to pave the path to academic success?

How to assess your academic weaknesses.

Think of the last time you were surprised by the low grade you received on an assignment or the last time you truly struggled to complete an academic task. Academic weaknesses impede success, so try to figure out the reason why your grade surprised you and assess whether that reason is part of a bigger trend. For example, if you blame your low test score on the fact that you didn’t get enough sleep the night before the exam, think about your overall sleep schedule and how you prioritize your studies. If it was an isolated incident, then it’s probably not an academic weakness; but if you consistently fail to get enough sleep to function properly in the classroom, perhaps your academic weakness is that you don’t care to prioritize your education. 

How to work on your academic weaknesses.

1. Identify them.

Tip: Some hidden academic weaknesses are a little more difficult to recognize in oneself. If you need help discovering what’s holding you back, maybe ask a friend who has observed you in an academic setting before what they think, or compare study habits and see where you and your peers contrast. 

2. Get advice.

Find people who have the quality that you lack, and ask them for help. Their advice might be invaluable in changing your ways — after all, no one is born a good student, so these people had to develop their study skills and attitudes toward schooling, too. Also, consider consulting a parent or a trusted teacher, because they’ll likely have different insights from your peers. 

3. Challenge yourself to become “good enough.”

A good first goal to set for yourself is reaching the minimum proficiency in a skill. For example, if your bedroom is perpetually a pigsty and you lose all the important sheets of paper that have ever been handed to you in the muck, set the goal of buying a single folder and putting all your papers into it, instead of tossing them haphazardly into the bottom of your backpack. Just because you now have one folder does not mean you’re now super organized, but it does mean that you’ll stop losing the really important stuff — and that’s good enough, for now.

4. Forgive yourself for setbacks.

You don’t have to change overnight! Modifying your study style takes time, so don’t despair when you sleep through class again after a week of making it there on time or when you get another bad grade on a test for which you thought you were prepared. Real change will only happen if you have the grit to continue trying to change despite setbacks. It’s important to recall that you are not a bad student — or person — because you have academic weaknesses. We are all working on ourselves the same way you are. You can change, but it will take time, and you need to be forgiving with yourself in the course of that journey.

5. Fall into a routine.

If you’re consistently trying to be good enough, you’ll eventually fall into a routine. Maybe that means actually using your daily planner; maybe that means shutting off your phone for three hours while you work. You might not even feel like you’re actually improving, and you might not see concrete results for a while, but when you’ve fallen into a routine you’re almost done solving the problems that academic weaknesses pose.

6. Develop confidence in your abilities.

When you’ve spent a long time in your routine, this will probably happen automatically. Practice makes perfect, so they say, and the more you practice solving your academic weaknesses, the more likely it is that they will disappear. Confidence is the last step because it comes naturally with time.

What are examples of academic weaknesses?

There’s no end to this list, but here are some of the more popular problems that many people cite in their own behavior. (You’re not alone!)

  • Poor time management/procrastination

  • Negative response to criticism

  • Extreme, inappropriate stress

  • Getting easily frustrated

  • Lacking interest

  • Poor organizational skills

Addressing academic weaknesses in an interview.

When an interviewer asks you about your academic weaknesses, don’t sweat. Instead, use your intimate knowledge of yourself to show how understanding your academic weaknesses has forced you to begin to overcome them. Tell a story! Here are some examples after which you can mold your response:

  •  “I’m not great with time management. A few years ago, it got to a point where I would plan on completing every assignment the night before, no matter how much time it would take me. However, once I realized this was a problem, I started trying new methods to force myself to plan out my work. Now, I use a planner and I haven’t turned in any late assignments in a while!”

This response is a good one because it shows that you’ve recognized this flaw and started working to overcome it. You should never present your flaws as static elements of your personality; rather, emphasize your investment in changing these qualities. 

  •  “I get super anxious about big assignments, to the point that my anxiety stops me from studying effectively. I’ve learned with time that in order to feel confident about a big assignment, I have to start preparing early.”

Similar to the last example, this response exhibits personal growth and self-understanding, which are two qualities employers find attractive.

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