It happens to the best of us, but knowing how to cope when you flunk an exam isn’t something that comes naturally to all. From the most insignificant test to the most important exam, the knock in confidence resulting from a bad grade can take the wind out of our sails and leave us feeling embarrassed, angry and depressed.

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What Is Classed As A Failure?

For some, scraping through a GCSE exam with a 4, or 'standard pass', is a huge achievement but, for others, it can be a massive disappointment to not get that top grade. But who is it (other than the exam boards, of course) that defines what is a failure? Is it you putting pressure on yourself to get outstanding results because you know it can open up many doors and make others proud of you / envious of you? Or is it perhaps your parents or peers piling on the pressure to make you hungry for the best?

The good news is that, in most cases, all of this pressure is just an act of love. Those around you love you and just want to see you achieve the absolute best you can so that you don't look back and feel disappointed that you didn't do better. The same goes for you, sometimes we put a lot of pressure on ourselves because we have that much self-belief and respect. This can only be a positive thing.

When it comes down to it, some people are academic and others aren't, so as long as you can, hand on heart, honestly say that you worked as hard as you could in your given circumstances then no one will see your efforts as a failure. Even if an admissions officer or recruiter further down the line sees you have not met official requirements, there are ways around that including showing your drive and passion in other areas or by re-sitting an exam to prove you can meet the grades with a little extra push.

As you may know, exam boards set grade boundaries in order to provide a benchmark for people taking exams, however, these are sometimes adjusted and an A* is not a given for everyone (or else why would exams even exist if we all got As or more!).

Did you nerves get the better of you?
Being nervous can really affect how you perform in an exam. Photo credit: Irene Bonacchi on VisualHunt / CC BY-ND

What is the True Meaning of Fail and Pass?

Throughout our lives, we’re told that we’re worth far less if we don’t do well in school. We’re told that everything we amount to is based on a 1 hour paper in an exam hall. We’re never given the opportunity or the language to articulate otherwise, or to challenge this narrative. Your value is more than just an exam paper or an essay assignment: you’re the sum of all your experiences, all your relationships and friendships, all your talents, your laughter, your sadness, what you find joy in, what you consider important and unimportant — only you have the right to define who you are and what you’re worth.

However, intelligence is a spectrum that cannot be encapsulated by school examinations alone.

Your intelligence is in everything you do, in every skill you have that might not be quantified as ‘valuable’ intellect in school, and most importantly, in the ideas, thoughts and expressions that you know means something to you.

The most important thing to remember, when you feel like you won’t amount to anything, and that your failures will be your inevitable downfall, is to be kind to yourself.

It may sound silly, or a little over-simplistic, but you would be surprised how harsh people are on themselves when they fail. And it is in those times, when scathing thoughts are darting around your mind and slashing at your self-esteem, that you must remember to be kind to yourself – to the you who tried hard, but didn't succeed. To the you who, despite the circumstances, managed to get into that exam hall even though you felt like that was the last place you wanted to be. To the you who has felt that you are not enough. Be kind, and remember that you ARE enough, and that you can jump these hurdles.

You are worthy. You are intelligent. You are valuable.

And how do you obtain that level of confidence, positivity and optimism? Let us explain.

How to Remain Optimistic After Failing an Exam

It might help you to know that some of the greatest minds ever to grace this green earth have suffered setbacks in their time, it’s a perfectly natural part of life and learning, so here’s my top tips for coping with exam failure, laced with historical fails designed to prove we all have our bad days…

The Talking Cure

The worst things you can do when you’ve suffered a setback are regress into your shell and bottle it all up. Hard as it may be, chat it out with your nearest and dearest. The support of family and friends will see you through the tough times, while teachers are always there to offer a helping hand, show you were you went wrong and build you up for your next effort. Alternatively, it’s worth a look online, there are forums and webspaces where students in the same situation share their worries. Try chatting to kindred spirits at thestudentroom.

From history: Failing an exam doesn’t mean you’re going to drop out – unlike one Bill Gates who dropped out of Harvard in 1975, only to become possibly the richest man in the world.

Weigh It Up

After any failure it always helps to take a step back and weigh up your options. Can you retake the exam? Can you improve in other areas to bring your grades up to scratch? Explore all the options open to you before doing anything rash.

From history: Henry Ford’s first foray into business,  the Detroit Automobile Co., dissolved in 1901 when customers complained of high prices and low quality. A year later, his second company, the Henry Ford Co., was dissolved due to a dispute with a consultant. Don’t let failure break you – when was the last time you saw a Ford? Today, right?

It may not be what you wated, but your comeback can be immense.
Sometimes the harder you fall the better you come back fighting. Photo credit: aberrocreative on VisualHunt / CC BY

Pack Up Your Troubles

Having reconciled with yourself the fact that you got it wrong this time round and weighed up your next move, steel yourself and get ready to bounce back. Put the past to bed and focus on getting right next time, either in the retake or the next exam on the horizon – focus on the future and don’t look back.

From history: Did you know that despite being a Maths whizz, Albert Einstein was very poor at language? Initially the Federal Polytechnic Academy rejected his application due to poor marks in non-science related subjects. Everyone has strengths – everyone has weaknesses.

Focus On Yourself

Pressure to pass tests and exams bombards you from all angles when you’re in education. It’s not just the expectations of the school, often the pressure to perform to the standards expected by your parents can be overbearing and cause unnecessary stress – never good preparation. Be true to yourself, be realistic; of course you want to do well but don’t let the hopes and aspirations of others bear down on you too hard. It’s you who has to sit the paper and you with the most to lose – moreover it’s you with the most to gain. Set the bar as high or low as you know you’re capable of.

From history: Despite twisting his melon around one of the greatest theories in world history, Charles Darwin had a somewhat inauspicious start in life. Lambasted by his father and his teachers, failing medical school – it’s no wonder no-one knows his name…

Historic Figures Who Failed Exams Yet Went On to Succeed

Finally, let us just give you some examples of huge names in the limelight who actually weren't very successful at school at all but still went on to find grandeur doing something they love!

Passing your exams, although it can help you, isn't the be all and end all of life.
The great Harrison Ford was a dropout but still went on to find fortune and fame! Photo credit: Gage Skidmore on Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

Steve Jobs, Founder of Apple

Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College after just six months because of the financial strain it placed on his parents.

Fred Astaire, Actor

Evaluation of Astaire’s first screen test: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.” Oof!

Harrison Ford, Actor

The Star Wars and Indiana Jones star majored in philosophy at Ripon College (honest!) but dropped out just before graduating. The force is weak with this one...

Dick Cheney, Politician

Once the second-most powerful person on Earth, Cheney flunked out of America’s prestigious Yale. Twice. And George Bush passed!

There you have it, you don't have to have sky-high grades to reach for the sky!

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Emma