Failing in your first year is not uncommon for university students in South Africa. If you’re one of them, you might be feeling as if success in your career has become unreachable. But, as Booker T. Washington once said: “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which [he/she/ze] has overcome while trying to succeed.”

The first step in rising above your failure is to understand why it happened. “I failed a major in the first semester of my second year, mainly because I did not understand the contents of the work and so I could not properly apply myself to it,” says Ukukhanya Khumalo, Quantitative Analyst at FNB. “I failed because I was too afraid to consult with my lecturers for fear of being labeled.”

In the next semester, Ukukhanya resolved to ask for help. “I consulted for each of my modules and ‘bothered’ my lecturers until I understood each topic, because I realised that not consulting with them would only be a disservice to myself.”

In addition to consulting with your lecturers, there are a few other ways you can improve your understanding of the course work you failed. Form a study group to get help from fellow students, look for a tutor or sign up for extra online courses during your holidays. Udemy, for example, offers many inexpensive courses for aspiring Quants – from data analytics, data visualisation and statistics through to programming languages you’ll likely need like Python and SQL.

If it’s your study or exam technique that’s letting you down online resources can help you with those, too. You can also visit your campus career or student services to find out if they offer study skills workshops. And chat to your lecturers about accessing practice papers so that you can mark your answers and see which elements of the work you need to improve on.

Another possible reason that you may have failed is that the course you are doing isn’t really right for you. Do you enjoy your courses, even though they may be challenging?  Are you interested in the study materials even if they are difficult to understand? If yes, then you should definitely give yourself a second chance. If no, you may need to seek advice on alternative course options.

It’s also important to remember that failing doesn’t have to be the end of your educational journey. “I was at UCT when I failed Mathematics 2 and Applied Mathematics 2,” says Sihle Poswayo from Standard Bank. “The goal was to combine Mathematics with Statistics as a degree then later do a Financial Mathematics or Actuarial Science degree so I could work in the financial sector. But, if I’m honest, I was less serious in my first year than I had been in high school and I ended up being academically excluded in 2010.”

Sihle didn’t give up after this failure, though. “I tried to appeal in 2011 and I wasn’t successful. I didn’t have money to apply to other Universities, so I volunteered to tutor Grade 12 mathematics and teach computer skills at an NGO, and was later paid R500 a month. I saved up as much as I could and applied to Nelson Mandela University for 2012, where I started my Mathematics and Statistics degree from scratch. In 2017 I completed my Masters in Mathematical Statistics (Cum Laude).”

Failure is easier to bear and overcome if you view it as a an opportunity to learn. “I never knew that I could still end up working in the financial sector without an Actuarial Science or Financial Analysis degree, but I did,” Sihle says. “I believe that my ‘failure’ prepared me to be where I am today because I made sure that I never failed at anything again. I work smart and hard today to avoid that failure. It felt like a setback at the time, but I don’t think I would be where I am today if that exclusion didn’t happen.”

Vukani Khumalo, another Quantitative Analyst at FNB, says: “My first ‘failure’ was not getting a distinction for English in Matric. It made me work hard at developing my communication skills overall instead. I believe that has been good for my career. I made it my mission to communicate with my friends at university in English, even when they were not Native English speakers. I started surrounding myself with people who did not understand my home language at all so that I could be forced to think in English. That strategy also helped with my nerves, so that today, I’m not scared to reiterate what I have said if I realise that the audience hasn’t understood my point. And, I’m still improving!”

Finally, if you find that you’re struggling to deal with your failure or motivate yourself, you should seek out emotional support. Talk to your friends and family about how you feel. Visit your campus student services to find out about counselling that is available for students. If you just need a little inspirational boost, why not sign up for some motivational podcasts? Here’s Oprah Daily’s list of top motivational podcasts to get you started: The Best Motivational Podcasts to Inspire You Right Now


“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” – Harriet Tubman