We all know it, it’s an undeniable truth - there’s a considerable amount of pressure on students to perform well in academic examinations and get top marks every time.

The pressure to achieve the best marks comes mainly from concerns surrounding university admission requirements, and the difference between getting to the uni of your dreams or not.

Unfortunately, this kind of pressure can take a huge toll on the student, and often results in feelings of anxiety in the face of exam failure.

The mounting anxiety leading up to an exam can affect everything from how motivated the student is to study, to their personal life and ability to enjoy their free time.

The students who don’t attain the marks that they feel they need, or that others like parents want them to achieve, can feel dejected and take a huge hit to self-esteem. They can feel as if they have let themselves and/or others down, even if assured that this isn’t the case.

However, it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s every chance of overcoming exam failure, especially with the support of trusted friends and family members.

Any student can bounce back from exam failure, and realize that it’s a necessary part of life for the majority of people.

As Winston Churchill once famously said: “success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

It could even be useful to have a quote like this printed out and stuck up on a wall in the student’s room, since it tells a different story about what success really is, as opposed to the glamorized vision of it being a result of win after win without any perceived failures along the way.

A little realism can certainly go a long way, especially if you can allow yourself to be vulnerable with the person struggling, and tell them how you’ve overcome failures in the past and weren’t defined by them.

Honesty and Humour

friends laughing
Laughter is a great cure for post-exam slumps.

Coping with exam failure doesn’t have to eat away at the student, it should be seen more as a learning point and something they can use to fuel future success.

If you are a high-achieving friend of someone who has suffered exam failure you might be worried about coming across as patronizing and condescending.

However, you can overcome these initial perceptions by reflecting upon your own setbacks and weaknesses.

Tell your friend about the time you were rejected by the girl/boy of your dreams or failed your driving test after performing a completely unexpected emergency stop. Explain how you found the strength and determination to refocus on future success.

Your sense of positivity and humour is bound to be appreciated. Failure, after all, is a perfectly natural part of human progression.

There’s no such thing as an overnight success, but rather a series of failures that lead to a breakthrough in the end.

It’s all about perception.

While the student can choose to see not passing an exam as a failure, and something which will haunt them for years to come, it doesn’t need to be that way.

Maybe they just had an off day. Maybe the exam was especially difficult this year. Maybe failing this exam is the catalyst for them to take their studies more seriously and put the effort in that’s required to excel academically.

Academic Advice

book shelf
Sometimes academic advice an go a long way to reassuring a friend following a dissapointing exam result.

There’s every chance you’ll be able to offer a positive outside perspective on exam failure.

It might be that your friend or family member hasn’t achieved the expected grade in one or more subjects but they may have done significantly better in others.

Now could be the time for them to consider a change in direction or to create a new revision timetable in preparation for a retake. You might be able to suggest some helpful study resources or provide the details of a tutor who played a significant part in your exam success.

Whatever it is they decide to do next to overcome the exam failure, you can be there to help them out.

If their problem is they don’t know where to start, then perhaps you could point them in the right direction whether it’s finding interesting revision resources, helping them book a retake, or consider other career options.

Suggest what their next moves could be without trying to influence them one way or another. If they have the options laid out for them, it might be easier for them to reach a decision.

As soon as they embark on a different course of action, there’s a good chance they can immerse themselves in it and before long they’ll have forgotten about their bad exam result, or even better, be using it as fuel in this new course of action!

Springboard to Success

It’s worth emphasising the fact that people all around the world have used exam failure as a springboard to future success.

There are countless examples of success stories that include rich and famous figures struggling with school exams or even dropping out of school.

A failed exam isn’t life-defining or even career-defining in most cases, it should simply be seen as a wake-up call or call to action, once the student is ready to hear it.

In the United Kingdom, we are privileged enough to have various educational routes and means of career advancement.

Dr Terri Apter, Senior Tutor at Newnham College has been quoted as saying:

“The most important thing is not to see your A-Level grades as an indication of your innate intelligence or innate ability. It’s just one step in a whole process. I have colleagues who failed the 11 plus and went on to be fantastic scientists. Some of them weren’t offered a place at Cambridge as undergraduates – but have gone on to achieve such a standard that they have been employed by the university as scholars and researchers.”

You can choose to see a door closed or an opportunity lost with every exam failure, or you can look at it as a door opened or an opportunity gained.

It all depends on how you choose to look at it.

Maybe the student in question thought they always wanted to be a scientist, but when it came to the physics exam, they didn’t get the mark they needed to study science at a prestigious university.

While this could be viewed as a devastating turn of events, and that now the student’s life has been completely derailed, it can also be viewed as an opportunity to explore alternative routes and other career paths.

The student could explore other universities to apply to for science, or simply retake the exam if they have their heart set on a particular institution.

Alternatively, they could use this information to ask themselves important questions about whether this is the career path they truly want to embark on, or whether there’s something else they’re curious about.

One of the biggest failures of the education system is that at times students are rushed into university without giving much thought as to what they want to study or what career they hope to end up in.

So any event that forces a student to really stop and think about what subject they would like to pursue in further education or what careers interest them can be seen as a positive one.

Emotional Support

wooden dummy hug
Simply providing a shoulder to cry on can be the best thing you can do for your friend in the moment.

It might be that your friend is so angry and upset that they reject your well-intentioned advice and encouragement.

You should be prepared to take a step back and allow some time for the negative feelings to subside. Make it clear you’ll be available for a chat whenever your friend wants.

Sometimes they will need time to process, and each person has their own coping strategy, whether it seems productive to you or not.

It’s important to respect this process, otherwise, when you try to give unsolicited advice it might not go down as well as expected.

It may be best to avoid subjects of school and examinations altogether for a while and arrange an activity you can enjoy together. The faster they can get back to normal life in their minds, the better. It’s easy for an exam failure to occupy the majority of one’s thoughts, so anything that can force them outside of their mind is a good thing.

Some great activities would be things that require movement since it’s hard to ruminate too much when you’re involved in some form of physical activity or sport. Before long, they might even forget about the exam failure for an instant, and this temporary relief can mean a lot. Especially if all they’ve been thinking about since receiving the results is how they could have done better, and what the exam results say about them.

The recovery progress will be much quicker if your friend can get back to the enjoyable aspects of life and stop giving life to negative thoughts which can spiral quickly.

If you have any helpful tips for Superprof readers on how to help a disappointed friend, please leave a comment below.

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Sam is an English teaching assistant and freelance writer based in southern Spain. He enjoys exploring new places and cultures, and picking up languages along the way.