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What to do if your exams don't go well

What to do if your exams don't go well

Posted on: February 10, 2020

You walked in confident but nervous, sure that after all the work you’ve done to prepare for the exam it would go well. But it hasn’t. It feels like it was an absolute disaster. Your mind froze, went blank, everything you had learned over the past few weeks and months left your head as you walked in through the door to the exam hall. Nothing remained in your brain but panic. What was there had nothing to do with the questions asked. It’s over, it was terrible, you’re going to fail.

It’s a place we’ve all been, that familiar horror of the exam that went wrong. Or, at least, that we thought had gone wrong. Often, we find that things didn’t go as badly as expected. But in the aftermath of the exam, as we hear others talk about how easy it was, as we wait weeks for the results, it can be difficult to shake the feeling of doom that sits on our shoulder. Here is our advice on how to get through it.

a woman writes in a notebook while surrounded by laptop and books

Don’t panic!

It can be tempting to allow your worries to overwhelm and send you into panic mode. That’s the worst thing you can do. After all, it doesn’t change what has happened and you don’t have the results yet, so you have no idea if how you feel you have done is the truth. For all you know you aced it.

Have a quick chat with friends who have done the exam with you. How did they find it? Did they think it was difficult too? Were their answers similar to yours? Simply talking about the exam and the way you’re feeling about it will help to alleviate some of your worries.

Have a good moan

Don’t be afraid to scream and cry, to let yourself be frustrated. There’s nothing wrong in feeling like that. It’s what you do with those feelings and how you react to them that counts. Have a coffee with a friend and let loose, talk about how you’re feeling after the exam, about your fears for your results. Then let it go.

Find somewhere quiet, be that your room, a walk in the park or a quiet spot on campus. Give yourself room to clear your head, to think and to find some calm. Don’t hold on to the negatives. What’s done is done and you have to find a way to still yourself, to focus on what comes next. Chances are you have another exam in a day or two and the last thing you want to do it to let the negatives of this one effect the rest of your exams.

It’s not easy to do that. Check out our other article on coping with exam stress for tips on breathing exercises that can help you calm down.

Did you do your best?

It’s a question well worth asking in situations like this. Did you prepare properly? Did you spend time revising, studying those areas you knew you needed to improve in, getting plenty of rest beforehand, and did you do your best to focus throughout the exam, avoiding getting distracted by others around you? Did you do your best?

A woman sits on the pavement looking worried

If the answer is yes, then well done! Whatever the outcome you can be confident that you have achieved the best you can. That may not be a first or an A grade. It doesn’t matter. Your best is what you have achieved and that is always the most you can expect of yourself. You can push yourself to learn more, to gain more knowledge, to do better next time, of course, but if what you did today was the best you could with the knowledge and the time you had then you should be proud of yourself whatever the end result.

You may be wrong

Whatever you feel like today, it doesn’t matter. Until you have your results in front of you, you have no idea how it really went. Can you be certain (and without clear evidence otherwise) that you have definitely done badly?

It’s easy to say stop worrying about it until you get your results, but with probably a few weeks to wait, you don’t want to spend that time consumed with worry. Especially if you still have more exams or coursework to come. But finding a way to do it is important for your mental health.

You’ll find some great tips to help defeat worry here. 

If you can’t shake the worry about your exam talk to your tutor. It won’t be the first time they’ve had a student come to them convinced that one exam has sent their academic career down the drain. They’ll be able to reassure you and to help you know what your options are if you have done badly.

Do something to relax.

Whether you find a friend or go it alone, do something to relax. Go to the gym, take a long walk, curl up with a novel, dance the night away. It doesn’t matter what you do, just find something you enjoy and that helps you relax. It will do wonders for your perspective and will help you to look forward instead of focussing on what has already gone past.

a woman in a backpack faces away from the camera

Results aren’t everything.

What if your results really aren’t what you had hoped for? It may feel untrue but results aren’t everything. A bad result in an exam doesn’t define you. We all have bad days and times when things don’t go our way. There is always a way to move forward, even if that path isn’t one that we particularly want to take.

It probably doesn’t feel like it, but one bad result isn’t the end of the world. It doesn’t make you a failure. It simply means something went wrong this time. Next time things will go better. Take the bad result and learn from it. A lifetime of nothing but success isn’t good for anyone, it makes us arrogant and careless when we assume things will always go our way.

Learn from what happened this time. Think about what you could do differently next time. Maybe try some different study methods to help cement your knowledge. Try revising at a different time of day. If you tend to revise in the evening then next time try studying in the morning. Find the time of day where you learn best. Think about how you felt in the exam room. Did you feel scared and intimidated in that big space with everyone scribbling away? If so, spend some time in that room just to get used to the space. Learn some focussing techniques so that you can tune out everyone else in the room and to keep yourself calm. 

Talk to your tutor. Find out where they think you could do things differently next time. Ask if you can do re-sits or if you can make up your shortfall in marks in some other way. For example, could you take on an extra module and get the credits you’re missing that way? There will be options available to you. Be proactive and find out what they are.

Finally, remember why you’re doing this. When things go wrong it can be tempting to throw in the towel and give in. It can be worth sitting down and making a list of all the reasons you chose to study this topic. Every reason, big, small, serious, or silly. Envision your goal and remember that you can get there, this was just one stone in the road.