How to Handle Criticism in College and Beyond


Everyone’s a critic. Whether it’s your latest essay or an upcoming performance review, constructive criticism is in your future, and you might not like what you hear. But if you’re smart, you’ll listen: research shows that your success may depend on it.

Receiving criticism can put anyone on edge. For many people, receiving feedback results in feelings of embarrassment and defensiveness. It’s a common response, but not a productive one.

A recent survey from PsychTests.com‘s Sensitivity to Criticism Test indicates that those who can handle receiving constructive criticism are more successful in school and their careers, and have higher self esteem. Among those who scored low on defensiveness, 66% had good grades, 70% were satisfied with their job, and 59% rated their self esteem as high.

But criticism can be especially difficult for students to accept. “Today’s students seemingly expect instant recognition and feedback, but perhaps handle it with greater sensitivity and thinner skin,” says author and career expert Brooks Harper. Despite that sensitivity, Harper says, it’s important for students to learn to take constructive criticism early on both graciously and gratefully. That way, they can make necessary adjustments, and also become more coachable, a quality that future employers will expect.

Constructive criticism is a gift

Constructive criticism offers a mix of positive and negative feedback, as well as support, encouragement, and strategies for improvement. It’s a full package delivered with intentions for growth, not hurt or embarrassment.

Although feeling defensive is a common response to criticism, a better one would be thankfulness. Yes, that’s right, you should actually thank others for criticizing you. Why? Constructive criticism, with positive feedback and support, is extremely beneficial. You can use it to grow, and even improve relationships with those who share feedback with you.

“[Constructive criticism] gives you an opportunity to understand the areas where you need to make improvements,” says Harper. “I mean, how can you improve if you don’t know? And it gives you an opportunity to make adjustments, and continue to sharpen your skill set and develop yourself.”

Constructive criticism in college and beyond

In college, constructive criticism may mean a boost for your GPA. In a study conducted by USC professor Darnell Cole, constructive criticism was found to help minority students “enhance academic success and educational satisfaction.” Rather than groaning at a less than stellar review of your latest term paper, you should view red inked notes as an opportunity for growth and success. Your professor has given you the gift of useful feedback, and you should respect their effort by taking what they’ve said to heart.

Even criticism that comes from your classmates is useful. You may roll your eyes when an English professor pairs you up with another student for a peer review session, but sharing feedback with your classmates is a good exercise for clarifying your ideas, as well as becoming more sensitive to your strengths and weaknesses. That’s why peer review has been used in serious scholarship for decades. A shared critical review among your classmates makes everyone’s work better.

Professor Marybeth Gasman has observed that often, students who push back against advice from faculty are the same ones who struggle with their job search, neglecting to follow advice from mentors. She urges students to listen closely to constructive criticism in order to reach their goals.

Taking a positive attitude toward criticism in college, whatever the source, can translate into success in your future career. It not only gives you the opportunity to improve upon your assignments and engage in deeper learning, it trains you to accept criticism for growth, which can be helpful in the professional world. A positive attitude toward criticism at work is linked to better job satisfaction, higher performance ratings, and even higher self-esteem. And showing a willingness to accept criticism may mean more job opportunities after graduation, according to Harper. “Companies are interested in employees who are coachable. So how you respond to constructive criticism is an indicator of your coachability.”

“In your career, you want to be seen as coachable,” agrees Sudy Bharadwaj, co-founder and CEO of Jackalope Jobs. “And in a perfect world, that’s what constructive criticism is: someone coaching you.” Accepting coaching, in school, in your career, can give you a different perspective and an opportunity to put good advice to work.

Responding to Criticism

Sure, criticism can be very useful, but that doesn’t mean your initial reaction will be a positive one. It’s normal to feel nervous or defensive at first: someone is telling you what you’ve done wrong. But it’s healthier and more productive to put your defensive feelings aside, accepting constructive criticism with tact and a positive attitude:

  • Be polite. Just listen. Don’t roll your eyes, start a debate, or interrupt. Just hear what the other person has to say. And remember, listening doesn’t mean you agree.
  • Consider the possibility that you might be wrong. To err is human; we all make mistakes. The person giving you feedback might also be wrong, but it’s worth the trouble to hear what they have to say and take their advice into consideration. You may feel that your professor is out of touch with today’s trends, but remember that they’re likely to have seen trends come and go, taking a longer view.
  • Be inquisitive. Bharadwaj cautions not to be defensive, but openly inquisitive instead. Ask for better, and respond with constructive criticism of your own: “Your advice has been very helpful, but I’d have an easier time understanding you if…” or, “How can I do ‘x’ better?” Asking these questions can turn hurtful or less-than-useful feedback into constructive advice.
  • Keep in mind that you can’t satisfy everyone. “Some of the best people who have achieved great things with their career are able to read through the noise and focus on the things they can really affect,” says Bharadwaj. You should aim to satisfy the expectations of your professors and anyone who signs your paycheck. Everyone else is negotiable.
  • Say thank you. Listening to or acknowledging feedback doesn’t mean you agree wholeheartedly, but it can help you build relationships. It also encourages others to give you more growth-fueling feedback. It’s your professor’s job to give you constructive criticism for deeper learning. Respect their point of view, and try to see it from their perspective.

“The best response is one of appreciation,” says Harper. “Be grateful to someone, be it your employer, professor, advisor, or parent, who cares enough to take the time and energy to offer feedback. So the proper response is, thank the person, then take time to process the feedback, and then make adjustments accordingly.”

Growing with Criticism

It’s not enough to politely listen to criticism without incident. Constructive criticism should be used as an opportunity for growth. You may discover opportunities to better yourself from your harshest critics.

  • Practice active listening for full understanding. Listen carefully, and avoid interrupting. Paraphrase, and repeat back what you’ve heard to make sure you’re hearing the message correctly.
  • Ask questions to get to the root of the issue. Get specific examples to understand what’s really going on, and ask for actionable information. Request solutions for addressing your issue with open-ended questions like, “How should I approach this type of math problem the next time around?”
  • Take ownership of constructive changes and solutions. Once you fully understand the feedback you’ve received, make your own decisions with consideration to what you’ve heard. You shouldn’t follow advice blindly, but rather, use it to spark your own brand of change.
  • Ask for more criticism. Remember, criticism, when delivered in a positive way, is a truly valuable gift, and you should seek it out whenever relevant. Follow up on previous issues, and ask your professor or boss about any tasks or problems you don’t feel confident about.

Handling Constructive Criticism Situations

In college, at work, in life, you’ll be faced with many constructive criticism situations. Here’s how to handle the most common ones:

  • Grading: College professors will typically offer not just a number or letter grade, but notes on where you may have gone wrong and where you need improvement. Obviously, it’s worthwhile to read this feedback carefully to better understand the material. If you’re still challenged or unsure of what your professor has said, don’t be afraid to ask for further feedback to get to the root of the problem.
  • Student-teacher conferences: Whether a formal conference or an informal visit during office hours, conferences with your professor are a great opportunity to solicit constructive criticism. Use this time to discuss any difficulties you may be facing in your course, and listen to constructive criticism your professor may offer. Discuss your goals for the course, and ask your professor to help you map out your progress.
  • Formal performance assessments at work: Most companies practice an annual performance review to discuss goals, progress, and an employee’s effectiveness at work. You can prepare for a performance assessment by being prepared with your own ideas. Chances are, you know how you’ve been doing, good or bad. Back it up with evidence, including specific examples of when you did a great job, and where you have room for improvement. During your review, listen carefully to feedback, share your view, and ask for actionable resources for improvement and growth.
  • Informal conversations: We expect to receive criticism in formal situations like grading, conferences, and reviews. Informal conversations are the most challenging because they may be a surprise and are usually unsolicited. They may also be from others who do not come from a position of authority, including friends or peers. But their advice can be just as valuable as that offered by professors or managers. Remember to be polite and take their criticism into consideration, but weigh the value of their feedback. You should also ask for clarification and concrete advice for growth if needed.

Constructive criticism is so much more than an uncomfortable conversation. It’s a gift that can give you the fuel you need to really find success in education and beyond. Learning how to accept and growth with constructive criticism can, as Harper says, “take you from where you are to where you want to be.”

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