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How To Cope With Disappointing Exam Results

How To Cope With Disappointing Exam Results

Failing an exam, or missing out on the grades you need to continue your academic journey, can be one of the toughest situations you'll ever find yourself in.

The waves of emotions you experience as you process the news can take over and make you feel powerless.

This article aims to give you some of that power back, by exploring ways to take back control of your journey, whilst looking after your mental health.

Grant Yourself the Space to Heal

Academic failure, akin to many of life's setbacks, tends to sting sharply. It's okay to be disappointed; it's a normal human reaction to failing. The important thing is to allow yourself a period to grieve. Dealing with failure is not about brushing it off and pushing forward immediately. It's about understanding and accepting your feelings, processing them and gradually working towards recovery.

Just like any other disappointment, a failed exam can feel devastating. However, remember that feelings of sadness or frustration are temporary. It's okay to cry, to rant, or to do whatever else you need to process your emotions. This emotional detox can help you come to terms with your situation and prepare you for your next steps.

Diversify Your Passions and Pursuits

Academic success is important, but it's far from the only measure of your worth. Developing interests outside of your academic sphere can help give you a sense of identity and self-worth that isn't solely tied to your schoolwork.

Explore a hobby, take up a sport, volunteer for a cause you care about, or even start a part-time job. These activities can help balance your life, teach you new skills, and open up potential career paths you may not have considered previously. They can also help you build resilience and a more balanced perspective towards academic success and failure.

Find ways to manage stress

Experiencing a failure, like not passing an exam, can significantly heighten stress. Managing that stress is crucial in maintaining mental health and ensuring resilience for future challenges. Here are some practical techniques to help you cope:

1. Physical Exercise:

Exercise isn't just good for your physical health, it's a potent stress reliever too. Regular physical activity increases the production of endorphins, your brain's feel-good neurotransmitters, resulting in what's often called a "runner's high." It doesn't have to be running, though. Any form of exercise that you enjoy—whether it's swimming, cycling, dancing, or even walking—can lead to stress relief.

2. Meditation and Mindfulness:

Meditation and mindfulness can help clear your mind, relax your body, and improve your focus. They allow you to stay present and not dwell on the past (like the exam you didn't pass) or worry about the future. Numerous apps offer guided meditation sessions suitable for beginners. Even dedicating just 5-10 minutes a day for mindfulness can significantly reduce stress levels.

Young girl practising yoga in her bedroom.

3. Deep Breathing:

When stressed, our breathing can become shallow and rapid. Practising deep, slow breathing helps counteract this response, reduces tension, and promotes relaxation. Try techniques such as box breathing (inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4, exhale for 4, hold for 4, repeat) whenever you're feeling overwhelmed.

4. Healthy Eating:

Stress can often lead us to reach for comfort food, but a well-balanced diet will serve your mental health better in the long run. Try to maintain a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. Certain foods like dark chocolate, citrus fruits, and nuts are known to help reduce stress.

5. Journaling:

Writing your thoughts and feelings down is a therapeutic way of venting emotions. Journaling can provide an opportunity to reflect on your feelings about the exam and your stressors, offering a new perspective and enabling you to understand them better.

6. Connect with Others:

Reach out to friends, family, or mentors when you're feeling stressed. A problem shared is a problem halved. They can provide a listening ear, a different viewpoint, or advice based on their own experiences. Social connections are powerful stress relievers.

7. Get Enough Sleep:

Sleep is often the first thing to suffer when we're stressed. But lack of sleep can increase feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. Try to keep a regular sleep schedule, create a calming bedtime routine, and make your sleep environment comfortable and conducive to rest.

8. Allow Yourself Time to Grieve:

Clinical social worker and experienced psychotherapist Alisha Bowker gave us some great tips on dealing with a failed exam:

“Unfortunately, one failure can often take over and feel as if it defines our whole character and colour every other part of our lives as well. Our brains easily fall into all or nothing thinking, so when the pendulum swings toward the negative- everything becomes negative. One way to help break this cycle is using a thinking strategy called shades of grey. We might have failed one exam, but we also are passing another class, got a part in the school play and have 2 good friends at school.

That exam is one piece of a much larger story that does not depict failure. By holding that larger perspective it begins to take away some of the power from the failed exam. You also can create some intentional time to feel disappointed, frustrated, worried, angry, ashamed, or sad about failing the test (whatever emotions are coming up!) by putting on a timer for 10-15minutes. When that timer goes off it is time to box up those feelings and put it back on the shelf. The goal is to not give the failure more room or power than it deserves. Because failing an exam does not mean you are not a failure!”

These strategies aren't a one-size-fits-all, so take some time to figure out what works best for you. Incorporate these practices into your daily routine to help manage stress and improve your mental health, turning your exam setback into a setup for a comeback.

When you’ve processed your emotions, you will need to get ready to take practical steps to get back on track. If you need help identifying your options after failing your GCSEs, we have an article that can help.

Honour the Effort You've Invested

Failing doesn't mean that you've wasted your time or that your hard work was for nothing. You've put in effort, and that alone deserves recognition. It's easy to overlook the value of hard work in a culture that often places excessive focus on results. However, effort is an integral part of the learning process, even if the desired results don't immediately follow.

Young female student sitting at laptop and smiling

Rahmah Albugami, Director of Clinical Services at Makin Wellness, got in touch to give us his thoughts on dealing with failure whilst valuing the effort you put in:

Remain calm: The exam is just one of many you will face throughout your education, and there will be many opportunities for success in the future. Try not to fixate over what you could have done, as it will just further contribute to stress. Instead, recognize the mistakes you made and create a plan to avoid them in the future.

Do something for yourself: The best way to counteract the negative feelings that come from failure is to introduce positive feelings. Doing something you love can ground you if you are feeling overwhelmed and put you in the right mindset to move forward.

Value your effort: Your grade may not reflect the effort you put into learning and mastering the material. In many cases, having an understanding of the material is more important than the grade you received for it. Even if it was not reflected in a grade, be proud of yourself for working to understand difficult topics. Failing a test does not make you a failure, and recognizing can help put you at peace with the situation.

Reflect on your journey, acknowledge the knowledge you've gained and the skills you've honed. Remember that success is not just about the destination; it's about the journey too. In every academic endeavour, whether or not it ends in success, there is value and growth.

If you're grappling with A-Level failure, read our blog which offers practical advice to encourage learners to remember the value of their efforts and to stay motivated for the next steps.

Seek Solace in Loved Ones, But Trust Your Own Wisdom

Family and friends are invaluable sources of comfort and support during challenging times. Their reassuring words can help ease your burdens, and their shared experiences can offer valuable insights. However, it's equally important to remember that you know yourself best.

While well-meaning advice from loved ones is often helpful, only you can truly gauge your strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, and the unique circumstances you're facing. Listen to your own intuition alongside the advice of others. This balance of external guidance and self-awareness will help you make the best decisions for your future.

Embrace Failure as a Profound Teacher

Perhaps one of the most potent life lessons is that failure, as daunting as it might seem, is one of our greatest teachers. Failing can help you identify your weak points, develop resilience, and foster a better understanding of what works and what doesn't.

Karyn Morra, a licensed psychotherapist, gave us some great tips on how to see failure as a lesson learned:

“When it comes to taking exams, the stakes can feel incredibly high, to the point where one bad grade can feel like the end of the world. When test-takers who are experiencing immense pressure to achieve get a bad grade, they might feel like a failure; they might beat themselves up and feel ashamed. Here's what test-takers need to remember: one bad grade, even five bad grades, is never worth beating yourself up, and it’s certainly not a reason to feel ashamed or treat yourself badly. Instead, it’s an opportunity to learn more about yourself and develop resilience. Life will always throw stressful circumstances at you, and you will experience mistakes, missteps and misfires again. Learning how to bounce back when you face challenges now will help you tobe able to bounce back in the future as you enter your career and your adult life.

The best tip that I can offer test-takers who are dealing with bouncing back from a bad grade is to learn from the experience, don’t live in it. What I mean by that is, allow yourself to understand what led to the bad grade. Did you study enough? Did you ask clarifying questions when you didn’t understand something? Were you practising good organisation skills? Make a note of areas to improve, and allow yourself to learn whatever lesson the experience possesses. Learn the lesson, but do not dwell or ruminate on the bad grade. It’sin the past, you can’t go back in time, and dwelling is only going to make you feel worse and ultimately make it more difficult for you to focus on your goals. Accept the bad grade for what it was and refocus your attention onto moving forward with your new life lesson. That’s it! Reflect, learn, accept, don’t dwell, and move on!”

Asian teen boy doing homework at his laptop

Get practical help and advice

Once you have allowed yourself time to process what has happened, you will need to start thinking about your next steps. This could include seeking help from the national careers service, or reaching out to a charity such as Mind if you are struggling to get your mental health on track.

Step one should always be to prioritise your mental health. YoungMinds, a mental health charity for children, has an article on coping with exam stress and dealing with disappointing exam results. You can also reach out to Student Minds for support if you are a university student. They offer support for all aspects of mental health whilst studying.

We actually got in touch with Mind to see if they could provide us with some specific links to resources which can help students who have failed an exam.

They pointed us to their Student Life and Mental Health Hub and their advice for exam stress and seeking support.

Screenshot of a tweet from the charity Mind that includes the links in the previous paragraph signposting students to mental health resources.

You can also get in touch with a teacher, tutor, or advisor from your place of study.

Once you are confident that you have processed your disappointment and are ready to get into gear, it is time to figure out your next move. We have a whole host of articles that can help by laying out your options. Whether you have failed your GCSEs, missed out on your place at university, or are on track to fail a year of university, we have put together resources to help.

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Kirstan N

Kirstan N

27th Jul 2023