How to cope with exam failure

exam failure

You’re numb. You’re crying. You’ve got a lump in your throat. Finding out you’ve failed an exam is often a truly dreadful feeling, especially if it has come as a shock. No matter how old you are, exam failure can be deeply upsetting, especially if you have a lot riding on your grades, such as a secondary school place or a spot at your dream university, or perhaps a shiny new driver’s license!

Your first reaction

By failing an exam, I mean really failing it. Not getting an A instead of an A*. You might be angry, you might want to seek out friends, or you might want to be completely alone. Everyone reacts differently. What you must do first, however, is try to calm down, and give yourself space to absorb what has happened.

  • You could take a walk.
  • Maybe you want to sweat it out, by hitting the gym or going on a long run with your favourite songs to accompany you.
  • Happy or sad, music often helps. You might want something sombre to cry along to, or something upbeat – after all, it’s impossible to feel sad when listening to disco.
  • Indulge in some escapism, and lose yourself in a book, or a film. Return to old favourites like Harry Potter or Finding Nemo, and enjoy that warm hug of nostalgia.
  • Cooking is always a promising response, especially baking. Release your anger by kneading dough, and then enjoy some homemade chocolate chip cookies.
  • Practice mindfulness or meditation to quieten your mind. You can find many more simple self-care practices here, and there is advice on how to make peace with failure here.
  • One of the best responses, however, is to talk to a family member or close friend. Share how you’re feeling. They can comfort you, and remind you that there’s more to life – and why they love you – than exam results.

Put it all in perspective

Of course, this is far easier said than done. Identifying positives in your life and about yourself whilst you’re sad can feel like climbing a mountain in the middle of winter. Remember what you like about yourself – things which aren’t linked to your exam grades. It might even help to write it down.

Are you a loyal friend? A good listener? Can you play an instrument, or write poetry, or think creatively about the world? Do you make amazing playlists, or the best cups of tea? Are you witty or kind or brave or determined? Can you run a mile in four minutes, or unfailingly see the best in people? There are millions of things to love about yourself – and most aren’t ranked by exam grades. None of these aspects of yourself have changed or vanished. You haven’t lost your friends, or family, or personality. Remember what makes you ‘you’ – and cherish it.

Similarly, if the exam you failed was in a subject you knew you disliked and you have no intention of studying at a higher level, now might be a good time to call it quits. Of course, you can’t study Astrophysics at university if you failed your Maths GCSE. On the other hand, if you failed Geography but you’re off to drama school, it’s probably not the end of the world.

Don’t compare yourself to others

Whether you’re Bella Hadid or Brenda Hale, there will always be someone smarter, prettier, funnier, or richer than you. You don’t live life as a superlative. And that’s okay. Don’t berate yourself for having received a lower exam mark than your peers. Each negative comparison will only make you miserable, whilst positive comparisons will only serve to inflate your ego. It doesn’t matter how anyone else has done – you are your own benchmark.

Take positive next steps

Luckily, like most things in life, a work ethic and revision techniques can be learnt. There are plenty of online guides advising students and professionals alike on how to work better and harder, such as this one. As a general rule of thumb, make sure to prioritise your work. This doesn’t mean giving up on your social life – far from it. If you learn how to manage your time well, and resist procrastinating, you’ll find you actually have time to complete your work to a high standard, and see your friends. In the Internet age, it can be tricky to minimise distractions, but luckily there’s an app for that.

Can the problem be solved easily? Was your failure due to running out of time, or misreading the question, or was it due to not understanding the main concepts? If you need help with key elements of the syllabus, our tutors are here to help. Always keep in mind that you can do better in future. Failure isn’t a permanent state of being. We know you’ll do better next time – and so should you!


Written by Lauren

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