There is considerable pressure on students to achieve high grades in academic examinations. The final marks can make the difference between acceptance or rejection from further studies in that subject or from a university of choice. Unfortunately the extreme pressure can result in feelings of anxiety in the face of exam failure.

Those students who don’t attain the required marks may feel that they’ve let themselves down and/or let others down, and experience a significant dip in self-esteem. However, there’s every chance of overcoming exam failure with the support of trusted friends and family members.

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

A time for honesty and humour

If you are a high-achieving friend of someone who has suffered exam failure you might be worried about being perceived as patronising 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.

Helpful academic guidance

There’s every chance you’ll be able to offer a positive outside perspective on exam failure. It might be that your friend 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. Now is not the time to give up!

Overcoming the setback

It’s worth emphasising that people across the world have used exam failure as a springboard to future success. In the United Kingdom we are privileged to have various educational routes and means of career advancement. Dr Terri Apter, Senior Tutor at Newnham College says: “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.”

The importance of simply ‘being there’

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. It may be best to avoid subjects of school and examinations altogether for a while and arrange an activity you can enjoy together. The recovery progress will be much quicker if your friend refocuses on the enjoyable aspects of life and doesn’t mull over the results.

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



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Joseph is a French and Spanish to English translator, language enthusiast, and blogger.