General Education

Jonathan Plucker’s Tips on How to Succeed in College #5: Accept Responsibility

Jonathan Plucker’s Tips on How to Succeed in College #5: Accept Responsibility
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Jonathan Plucker January 7, 2016

College is a period when you’ll have many new experiences, and some of these may include mistakes you make. Learn why Jonathan Plucker argues you’ll fare better if you accept responsibility for your actions.

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A gem from “Haiku for New College Students":

Whoops, that was stupid

Maybe my prof is dumber

than me and won’t notice

The Mistakes You Will Make

You will make at least one tremendous mistake during college. It may be silly and deeply embarrassing (several of my friends, despite military-level planning, were arrested trying to steal pumpkins one cold, October night). Or it may be serious, something you can never “fix" or make disappear.

That can be a hard life lesson, and the normal human reaction is to scramble to get out of trouble. But the lies, obfuscation, and double-dealing usually make matters worse. As the saying goes, it’s not the crime but the cover-up that gets you in trouble (see Nixon, Richard; Stewart, Martha; Brady, Tom).

The Stories Students Tell

Professors have heard just about every excuse under the sun, and we’re pretty good at separating fact from fiction. So many students have had grandmothers die during their first year of college that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the surgeon general declare that having a grandchild begin college is the leading cause of mortality among grandmothers (“Grammie, I’m heading off to college next month." “Well, I’ve lived a good life. Here’s some spending money.")

I’m being lighthearted about this (especially since I had two grandparents pass away during college), but failing to take responsibility for your actions can be a life-altering experience — and not in a good way. This is especially true when it comes to cheating and plagiarism.

# Don’t cheat.

Years ago, I taught a large-lecture course, and during the final exam I had a few of my graduate students monitor the room while I went back to my office to catch up on some grading. About 15 minutes after I left, one of them ran into my office and said, “You’ve got to come see this!" He then took off without another word, and I followed him back to the classroom. As I walked in, one of the other grad monitors was taking a picture of something in the room — which struck me as odd. That is, until I turned the corner and saw the most egregious cheating I’ve ever experienced.

A very tall student was sitting next to a very short student, and this tall, young man was leaning so far over his classmate’s paper that he was literally hanging over her head. To make matters worse, he had pulled his baseball cap down low and had his hand on his visor — clearly he had had some advanced espionage training to think of that brilliant strategy (“If they can’t see my eyes, they’ll never know I’m copying her answers!").

# Lying makes it worse.

We pulled him out of class, called his advisor over, and sat down with him to ask what the heck he was thinking. To my utter surprise, he denied everything. EVERYTHING.

The photos of him cheating? He likes leaning in that direction when he thinks (ironic, since he wasn’t thinking).

The fact that his answers were the same as the young woman’s? They’d studied together (they hadn’t).

On and on it went, for over an hour. As he dug himself deeper and deeper into a hole, everyone in the room got angrier and angrier. Rest assured that things did not end well for him, though many of my colleagues and my bosses thought I was far too easy on the student, believing he should have been kicked out (and they weren’t necessarily wrong).

# Accept responsibility.

I routinely have students who make mistakes, contact me to confess that they did something less-than-smart, and sincerely apologize. Many go out of their way to say that they accept whatever repercussions are coming their way. These students are almost always handled compassionately, and they end up better off than if they’d tried to weasel out of the problem.

College is not the real world; it’s more of a halfway house to the real world. That makes it — usually, but not always — a relatively safe place to make mistakes. You can own up to them and often have them go away, and professors and staff members generally want to help you through the tough patches.


  • You’ll find that owning up to your mistakes and accepting full responsibility for them — even those that aren’t truly 100 percent your fault — is a habit. Once you start doing it, it can be an empowering experience, and people generally respect you for it.

  • College instructors and staff want to help you out, and we’ve been around students enough to know that you make mistakes, sometimes huge ones. We’ll go out of our way to help if you appear to genuinely accept responsibility for whatever you did.

Read Jonathan Plucker's introductory article on How to Succeed in College, as well as his two most recent posts, Education = Personal Improvement and Go to Class. You can also check out new installments each weekday through January 15, 2016.

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