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Education Blog

Mindset and Success

Wendy Williams reached out to Maggie Wray, an academic life coach, and asked her about mindset when it comes to academic grades, study skills and college admissions. Maggie has been very successful in working with students to help them through difficult issues like rejection, failing, poor study skills and more.

2 Questions to Ask Yourself When Things Go Wrong…

Imagine that you just got some bad news.

You got a 65% on your last math test.

Or, worse, a rejection letter from one of the top schools on your college list.

How would you respond?

It’s normal to feel a bit disappointed, or “down”, when things don’t go the way you’d hoped.

But how upset you feel, and how long it takes you to bounce back, depends a lot on your answers to two key questions: 1) Why did this happen? 2) What can I do about it?

1) WHY did this happen? When something goes wrong, it’s natural to ask yourself why it happened.

The problem is that there’s usually not a single “correct” answer to this question. In most situations, there are many different factors that could have contributed to the outcome, and no way of knowing for sure which ones had the biggest effect.

The choices we make about how to explain negative events in our lives can have a major impact on our confidence and resilience.

Our explanations for events can vary in 3 basic ways… Permanence: Is this issue permanent, or temporary? How changeable is it? Pervasiveness: How general and widespread is the problem? How many different areas of my life does it affect? Personalization: To what extent is this due to personal failings I’m responsible for, as opposed to external events that are beyond my control?

In general, pessimists tend to think of negative events as permanent, pervasive, and personal: Permanent: “I’m never going to get this right!” Pervasive: “I’m not a very good student…” Personal: “It’s all my fault…”

Optimists, on the other hand, generally think of negative events as temporary, specific, and external: Changeable: “I didn’t spend much time studying; next time I’ll start earlier.” Specific: “That unit was pretty hard; ” External: “She seems annoyed; she’s probably having a hard day.”

Because they view bad events as temporary, specific incidents, rather than permanent personal failings, optimists tend to be more persistent, more willing to take risks, and better at recovering from setbacks.

As a result, optimists generally… • Experience less stress than pessimists, and are less likely to get depressed • Earn better grades • Perform better in individual and team sports • Have stronger immune systems, and are less likely to get sick

The good news is that optimism is a learned skill that can be improved with practice! By choosing to focus on explanations for negative events that are more temporary, specific, you can increase your level of optimism and have an easier time recovering from setbacks.

For example, here are some examples of how you could turn pessimistic into optimistic explanations:

After getting a low SAT score… Pessimistic: I can’t believe my score was so low! I guess I’m just not a good test taker. (Permanent, pervasive) Optimistic: I can’t believe my score was so low! I guess going out with friends the night before the test wasn’t such a great idea. (Temporary, specific)

After getting a failing grade on a math test… Pessimistic: Wow, I’m such a failure! (Personal, permanent, pervasive) Optimistic: Wow, that test was really hard! (External, specific)

After receiving a rejection letter from a college… Pessimistic: “I thought my application was pretty good, but they rejected me anyway. I’m never going to get in anywhere!” (Personal, permanent) Optimistic: “I thought my application was pretty good, but they rejected me anyway. They must have had a lot of great applicants this year!” (External, temporary)

How do you think YOU would feel about these events if you chose to focus on the optimistic, rather than the pessimistic explanations?

2) What can I do about this?

In addition to adopting more optimistic explanations for WHY bad events happened in the first place, it’s also very helpful to adopt the habit of asking yourself:

“What can I do about this?”

This is a great question, because it shifts your focus away from the past – which you can’t change, anyway – and towards the actions you can take to improve the situation.

Depending on the nature of the problem, the answers to this question will tend to fall into 3 categories: 1. Actions you can take to repair this specific problem 2. What you can do differently next time you encounter the same problem 3. Lessons you can learn from this experience that will help you in other areas of your life.

For instance, imagine you forgot about your history project until the night before it was due, and weren’t able to finish it in time for class the next morning.

You could try to repair the problem directly, by apologizing to your history teacher and asking for an extension on the project, or finishing it tonight and turning it in tomorrow for partial credit.

You could resolve to do things differently next time, and write down a note in your planner – or set a reminder on your phone – to start the next history project a week before the due date listed in your syllabus.

Or, if you don’t have any more history projects this semester, you could ask yourself what broader lessons you could learn from this experience. Maybe it’s a sign that you need to be more aware of upcoming assignments and due dates, so you start setting aside time on Saturday mornings to review the syllabus & course website for each of your classes and plan what you need to work on that week.

When bad things happen, asking the question “What can I do about this”? and identifying specific actions you will take to resolve the situation can help you feel much more hopeful, motivated, and empowered.

In addition to feeling better, taking action to improve or learn from the situation will help you to minimize the negative consequences, and reduce the number of similar situations you experience in the future!

Action steps:

The next time something goes wrong, practice… (1) Adopting more temporary, specific, and external explanations for the event, and (2) Asking: “What can I do about this?” and taking action to improve – or learn something from – the situation.

…and see how it affects your motivation!

If you do give this a try, I would love to hear how it goes, so please feel free to contact me with your questions and observations! You can reach me at, or 678-459-4669.

Dr. Maggie Wray is an academic life coach who helps students develop the mindset, organization, time management, and study skills they need to succeed in high school, college, and beyond. With a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from Cornell University and a Bachelor’s degree in astrophysics from Princeton, Maggie is also an ICF-certified life coach with specialized training in Academic Life Coaching and ADHD coaching for teens and college students.

To learn more about Dr. Maggie, please visit her website at, or contact her at or 678-459-4669.

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