If your exam results aren’t good, it can feel like the end of the world. We’re here to reassure you there are ways to move forward and take control, making the best of your future without branding yourself a failure. At Christine Tizzard Psychology, we often use the CALM approach to success, which can make a real difference at such a difficult time for a young person.
Symptoms of stress emerge when we feel out of control – when our plan or road map suddenly does not work as expected. Getting a lower than expected exam grade is the perfect example, as it can change the plans we had in place for further study or perhaps a job offer based on achieving certain results.
When we do not have a Plan B, most of us feel lost. To get back in control and kick the stress, we need a good strategy that won’t fail.
It may feel like your future has just been flushed down the pan, but we promise you this is complete rubbish. It is an unpleasant feeling that you are registering, not a fact, but this can be hard to see at the time.
Your brain may try to tell you the emotions you feel (of sadness, anger and distress) prove that you are a failure or a bad student, even if there is evidence to suggest this is wrong, such as good previous grades, staffing problems at school, or an illness or personal problem affecting your ability to concentrate. In psychology, we call this process emotional reasoning: you ignore the facts that go against your emotions, and you take those emotions as though they were facts.
We are all liable to go into emotional reasoning rather than cognitive thinking at times, but emotional reasoning can sometimes be really painful and lead to depression.
Right now, you need a cognitive strategy to feel in control again. I use the acronym of CALM with my clients; it’s not rocket science, but it works. Try this simple four-point plan to get back in control and feel better fast:
Look at ALL options
Move forward from a power position
Using the CALM Method for Exam Results Stress
When you find out that your grades were not what you wanted, try to stay calm. Emotions usually become far too heated. There is anger and then tears: yours and your parents’. Remember, you are NOT your exam grades, and those grades are a reflection of one particular moment or a piece of coursework.
Try to chill out – do some gentle exercise such as swimming, rest, or take a trip locally. Do something nice that has nothing to do with your exams. Don’t binge on alcohol or other substances; they only cloud your thinking and invite depression.
Remember you may be upset, but how much of this is your own pain, and how much belongs to other people? The chances are that you have picked up on other people’s expectations of you: teachers, friends and parents, who all have an interest in your results. Part of that interest is altruistic, but some may really be more about them. If you get good grades, then they feel a great teacher, a good study partner or a proud parent with brilliant genes. They may have pushed you to take a certain subject that just wasn’t your thing. The truth is, what happens now is about YOU and YOU alone. Look after you, not other people’s egos.
Acting on impulse while stressed is a pretty sure-fire recipe that any decisions made will be all wrong. Sit with it. You can endure the distress; it will be temporary. It will pass.
In the meantime, it may help to put things in context: the new numerical GCSE system introduced in 2018 is said to be tougher than the previous system, because exam papers contain questions for the new top tier grade 9 students who perform better than at the old A* level. This means most students will have been baffled by some exam questions altogether, because only a tiny percentage of students would get them right. Course content also changed a lot, so teachers didn’t have long to prepare you for new modules.
You may have had to take 20-30 different exams, which is a lot for any young person: some subjects even dropped their coursework elements in favour of yet more tests, which meant more revision for you. If you tend to perform better at coursework than in an exam environment where your memory is tested, it’s only natural that your grades will shift as a result.
Look at All the Options
After you have had a period of calm, possible courses of action will come to mind. This happens far more easily than if you’ve tried to force the issue and made a split-second decision about your future. Your brain will be in a much better position to build a solution-focused plan after a rest.
Write down your options:
a) Is it a retake or a resit? Do you want the paper remarked? How do you find out if this may be possible?
b) Is it a change of course? If so, what might be possible? Who do you need to speak to, email, telephone? Construct a simple flowchart and reach out to the people that can help.
c) Take positive action. This is not the time to be destructive or lash out at those trying to help.
Now move confidently forward, knowing that the plan is sustainable and achievable. Remember the saying: ‘Good sailors don’t try to change the weather, they simply adjust their sails’.
It may sound strange, but there are benefits to failing at something. Being able to adjust to situations that were not planned can be a powerful lesson in developing coping strategies.
Life rarely goes to plan. We need to be able to adapt and develop the ability to change direction when needed. In years to come, you will look back on this experience and see how much you’ve grown because of it.
Media Perception of Exam Results Stress
It is important to note that the media have a vested interested in reporting sad stories, because they sell papers and get click-through rates online. Most people who do not achieve expected grades do not self-harm or commit suicide, contrary to what is reported by the press. Those that do harm themselves usually already have a serious depression or other mental health disorder. However, traditional media and social media focus on these stories without understanding those underlying issues.
It is stressful to fail your exams, but it is not traumatic; there is a huge difference. When trauma strikes nothing will ever be the same. Trauma does not offer a second chance. In contrast, this is just a setback – think of it as a bump in the road, not a sink-hole. Life can and will go on; dreams can still be achieved.
Need More Help?
Most people will get rid of these negative feelings over time, and once a new plan is in place. But if you can’t shake the upset and you feel very low, you should:
- Talk to someone whose judgement you trust: they will give your perspective on the issue. If there is nobody you feel able to speak to, try speaking to a counsellor (Childline offers this online) or Young Minds.
- The important thing is to talk about your fears. Don’t bottle them up. You will find many people have gone through similar situations and they can reassure you it is normal.
- If you feel suicidal or have thoughts about self-harm, you must speak to your GP (or out of hours service), call NHS 111 or talk to the Samaritans by calling 116 123. If the situation becomes critical and you cannot reach your GP, visit your local A&E department or call 999.
This is not the end of your future but the start of your next chapter – embrace it.
Written by Dr Chrissie Tizzard, Chartered Consultant Psychologist, PsychD, BSc, MSc, C.Psychol, C.Sci, AFBPS. Dr Tizzard is the Clinical Director of Christine Tizzard Psychology (ctpsy.co.uk).