How to cope with exam failure

Jun 13, 2019

Even those who couldn’t have studied harder or more thoroughly get nervous when exam results are published. But if you don’t get the result you were expecting or hoping for, it can really knock you for six. Failing even the most minor test – let alone an important exam – can leave you feeling frustrated, dejected and devastated, not to mention embarrassed.

Knowing how to manage your behaviour and emotions if you fail an exam isn’t usually something you’ll find instinctive. Indeed, most people struggle with the aftermath of a result that doesn’t go their way.

But it’s certainly not the end of the world (even though you may feel it is). Many successful people had serious setbacks when they were starting out – and kept having more setbacks throughout their careers. In fact many experts believe failure is essential for success, as failing always offers invaluable opportunities for learning. So the first step to getting back on your feet is not to be too hard on yourself and realise you’re in good company.

Here are some other strategies that may be helpful:

Make a new plan

So you’ve had an exam result that didn’t go your way. What’s next? It’s important to remember you have options. But it’s even more important to weigh those options up before deciding which course of action would be best for you. Try making a list of all the pros and cons of each available option if you’re struggling to come to a decision.

Can you resit?

Find out whether you can take the exam again, if that’s what you’ve decided to do. For instance, if the exam in question is a CAP1 or CAP2 exam you're allowed a maximum of 6 attempts. For the FAE exams, you're allowed a maximum of 3 attempts. Also check with your employer about the number of resits they will allow if you’re in a training agreement.

Learn from the experience

If you’ve decided to resit the exam but you don’t have much of a clue about why you failed it, it’s a good idea to find out. Try to identify your weaknesses – if you have a clear idea of an area or areas you’re lacking in, you can tailor your study to help ensure you’re much better prepared overall during your next attempt.

Besides any weaknesses or gaps in your knowledge, you may have made other mistakes previously too. You may have stayed up too late revising the night before the exam, or you may have let your nerves get the better of you – either way, these things could have affected your performance. You may not have had an effective study plan or you may not have stuck to it. Or perhaps you simply didn’t have enough confidence in your abilities.

So try and identify what you could do differently next time. Aim to get a good night’s sleep the night before the resit, and look at things that may help you feel more calm as the exam approaches. Also remember that you don’t have to be the best or the brightest to pass exams – you just have to work and study hard, and practice.

Be more resilient

Your future attempts at passing exams – or navigating any other challenging situations – may be more successful if you learn to bounce back more effectively. Being more resilient will help stop you going into panic mode and allow you to cope better whenever you feel under pressure. But unless you’re a naturally resilient person, developing resilience takes practice.

Article reproduced with the kind permission of CABA, the organisation providing lifelong support to ICAEW members, ACA students and their close family around the world.